Book Review – ‘Myths of the Middle Ages’ by Sabine Baring-Gould

Rating: 2/5 stars

Synopsis:
Have you ever heard of Sabine Baring-Gould? Besides being the author of the famous hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”, as well as scores of folk songs, essays, articles, and over 200 books, Gould was at one time the most prolific English author alive! Selected from his well-received collection of essays Curious Myths, here are the best of the best, edited with a very light touch in order to preserve the sometimes outlandish opinions and occasionally odd punctuation. An avid collector of rare and unusual information, and known for his linguistic ability and strange habit of insisting upon writing everything in longhand while standing at a lectern, he loved to delve deep into the odd comers of the world. This collection of myths will have you delving deeper too.

Review:

On the day I received my exam results I visited Bath with the aim of buying myself a piece of jewellery, something I do on every significant day. This didn’t work out so well with the woman in the jewellery shop being rather rude and me walking out empty handed. However, this did mean I had some extra time, and money, which was put to good use in the local Oxfam second hand bookshop.
I will admit that I bought this book because of the pictures. Call me fickle if you like but since I received an illustrated Odyssey and Iliad for Christmas when I was about eight I have been a sucker for illustrated mythologies. The illustrations, which I believe are by Peter Komarnyckyj who certainly drew the cover image, are really lovely and remain my favourite part of this book. In fact, they are what lift the rating.
‘Myths of the Middle Ages’ seems to jump from being a story book, telling the reader about the myths, to an interpretation of the myths and an academic account, to a biography of Sabine Baring-Gould, his life, and works. All of these aspects were very interesting but I didn’t feel that they went together all that well. It made for rather a jerking, jittering read. If I’m completely honest, I enjoyed the introduction section to each myth the most out of all of the writing. I found myself reminded of Herodotus, in style, when reading Gould’s writing on the myths and that is not a compliment!
The stories themselves, are usually told in brief. Gould then ties in pieces of ‘evidence’ to give a fuller picture of stories around the myths in question. Although this means that you get ‘all’ the story, although I’ve no doubt that the tales included were chosen as relevant by Gould, leading to omissions, it means that it’s not really a story at all but rather a list of happenings. The tales wouldn’t be interesting to someone who hadn’t already got an interest in Medieval myths.
Then you get onto interpretation and ideas about where the stories and myths might have come from. The biggest complaint I have read about this book regards the somewhat tunnel visioned interpretation that Gould offers of the myths detailed, he being both Victorian, and a Christian Reverend. I would agree that there is a Christian emphasis to the myths, both in the choosing, and in the telling. That said, writing often tells us more about the people who wrote it and the times in which they lived than the times about which they are writing and I think that, if we can keep that in mind, it’s not a bad thing at all. It’s impossible to be objective. However, I do think Gould was trying to be objective, stating, “Like many another ancient myth, it was laid hold of  by Christian hands and baptised”. All the same, it’s probably not the most objective academic study of mythology available.
And that’s the problem really. ‘Myths of the Middle Ages’ doesn’t tell you the stories well. It doesn’t give a seemingly full interpretation. It sets out to do too much and in trying to do that doesn’t really do any of it. Overall, the book was a disappointment, I’m sorry to say.
To buy a physical copy of this novel on amazon click here. Although I don’t think there’s a kindle version available, Gould’s work ‘Curious Myths of the Middle Ages’ is available from Project Gutenberg for free.
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