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In the Modern Library: Bulfinch’s Mythology!

By (March 10, 2015) No Comment

modern-libraryOur book today is a truly perennial classic, Bulfinch’s Mythology, a book that’s been consistently in print since it first appeared – and one of those curious items whose own author wouldn’t have recognized it. It’s a one-volume collection of three books by Thomas Bulfinch: The Age of Fable (1855), The Age of Chivalry (1858), and Legends of Charlemagne (1863), but it was only made into its signature Bulfinch’s Mythology by some stuffy old Bostonian after Bulfinch’s death.

The Age of Fable he’d definitely recognize, though, as would virtually everybody else in the English-speaking world back in 1855. Bulfinch was the son of the young America’s greatest architect, Charles Bulfinch, who designed, among other things, the State House perched atop Boston’s modern library bulfinchBeacon Hill (and who, in his youth running around in the city’s winding streets, was quite beautiful). Thomas was well-educated and sharp as a tack, but he was feckless too, and he eventually took a position at a bank more out of haplessness than any fiduciary passion. His passion was in fact literature, and comparatively late in life (our author was born in 1796) he decided to write a book retelling the stories of the world’s mythologies and how those stories are echoed in the great poetry that followed down the centuries. As Bulfinch puts it:

We propose to tell the stories relating to them which have come down to us from the ancients, and which are alluded to by modern poets, essayists, and orators. Our readers may thus at the same time entertained by the most charming fictions which fancy has ever created, and put in possession of information indispensable to every one who would read with intelligence the elegant literature of his own day.

Bulfinch quotes from dozens of poets in the course of The Age of Fable and the two later books he wrote imaginary life coverwhen The Age of Fable became a huge bestseller. He brings out great passages from Milton, Shelley, Keats, Longfellow (of course), Shakespeare, Byron, Pope, and a gallery of others. But reading the book over again just recently (in the Modern Library paperback, which has the same cover illustration as the US paperback of David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life – unintentional though fitting, since Bulfinch retells quite a few stories from Ovid, minus the naughty bits), I smiled extra-big not at the Miltons and the Popes and the Shakespeares, but at all the lesser poets Bulfinch quotes with such naive enthusiasm, now-forgotten figures like Edward Dyer, or Bulfinch’s fellow Bostonian James Russell Lowell:


One after one the stars have risen and set,

Sparkling upon the hoar frost of my chain,

The Bear that prowled all night about the fold

Of the North-star, hath shrunk into his den,

Scared by the blithesome footsteps of the Dawn.


Or syrupy old T. K. Harvey, writing about Cupid and Psyche:


They wove bright fables in the days of old,

When reason borrowed fancy’s painted wings;

When truth’s clear river flowed o’er sands of gold,

And told in son its high and mystic things!

And such the sweet and solemn tale of her

The pilgrim heart, to whom a dream was given,

That led her through the world, – Love’s worshipper, –

To seek on earth for him whose home was heaven!


Bulfinch’s Mythology was the sole feature in the landscape for a century when it came to a popular, readable retelling of myth and folklore; it wasn’t supplanted until Edith Hamilton’s Mythology came along in 1942. But it was resoundingly supplanted; students don’t read Bulfinch anymore, lucy reads bulfinchand all of them read Hamilton. There’s a natural progression in that, something almost all super-popular tomes like The Age of Fable must suffer, but it’s a shame; Bulfinch still makes mighty energetic reading, although most of that reading bears little resemblance to the rather elemental forces Alberto Manguel writes about so well in his Foreward to this Modern Library edition:

Just outside the walls we as a society have erected to guard ourselves against complexity and ambiguity, the old stories of revenge an love, of marvelous births and terrible deaths, of metamorphoses and foundations, of curses and quests, continue to haunt us, and seep through the cracks of our stubborn pragmatism.

Probably the discrepancy arises from Manguel not familiarizing himself with the book in question – but you should familiarize yourself with it. Or, as stumped inquirers in Boston parlors a hundred years ago would ask without a moment’s hesitation: Where’s your Bulfinch’s?