Review: Ancient and Epic Tales from Around the World ~The Odyssey

Now that it is the beginning of October and I have to concede that fall is finally here, I really wanted to talk about a book that was seasonal or just a little bit spooky. However, given that none of the number of books at my desk begging to be read really fit that bill (and it felt a bit excessive to go hunting for one) I’m going to sort of do a spin on a classic.

When I think fall, I think crunching leaves, apple cider, and short stories–or at least shorter stories, to go with the shortening days. I know I said I wanted to talk about at book that was a little spooky, I probably meant something more akin to suspenseful. After listening to a reading of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz at a second grade Halloween party, the horror genre has never had a strong pull for me.

So for short stories at my desk, I have Heather Forest’s Ancient and Epic Tales from Around the World. I have always enjoyed mythologies and stories that cultures have that explain why things are the way they are. A broad overview of the book would say that Forest tells a rendition of  25 to 30 tales from around the world–a good number of them coming from the poetic tradition and now put into a narrative format. On the whole, I would say that this change in format will add ease and clarity to these tales for student readers.

While I love Greek mythology, and it is a story format that many of us are familiar with, I’m overjoyed to see a much wider variety of options and cultures represented in this book! They range from “classics”, like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and Beowulf,  to Norse Mythology (which has gained a place of higher interest in the last couple of years–thank you Marvel) with the stories of The Theft of Thor’s Hammer and The Tragedy of Sigurd and Brynhild, to reaching out to the Middle East and Asia, touching on Persia’s One Thousand and One Nights, China’s character of Mulan in the Yueh-fu Poems, and India’s Ramayana. The list goes on. Every continent is represented by at least one story, save Antarctica; but I bet if penguins could tell stories, I’m sure one would have made it in here.

The list goes even further to stories (and cultural groups) I have never heard of–The Mwindo Epic from Central Africa; The Tree of Life  coming from the Acawai; and The Dausi from the Soninke. I won’t talk about all the stories, first because to condense them down would not do them justice. Second, I lack a familiarity with many of these stories. As I have no frame of reference, I am unable to say if it is a good retelling or what it does to improve upon the original. But there might be a follow-up posting as I do go and find the source material for many of these tales. I’ve been looking for an excuse to read The Poetic Edda–I see no better reason. Forest includes notes and a bibliography in the back of the collection to set readers up for success as they strike out on their own to find where these stories come from.

As I said earlier, I’m fairly familiar with Greek Mythology and have worked with some of the sources Forest mentions and I feel like I have enough background to look a little closer at her retelling of “The Cyclops” from The Odyssey. In five pages, Forest lays out the episode of Odysseus and his men coming upon the island of the Cyclops. After discovering the cave, waiting to see who lives there, and finding an ungracious host in the Cyclops, our intrepid warriors are trapped in the cave and have to figure out a means of escape.

Forest builds on the craftiness Odysseus is known for throughout Greek epics showing him thinking of plan to get as many of his men out of the cave before everyone is eaten. She stays true to the story as Odysseus tricks the Cyclops into drinking too much wine, and telling him his name is “nobody”, before blinding the Cyclops with a hot poker. Readers will enjoy the images of Odysseus and his men clinging to the underside of the rams and sheep the Cyclops tends, riding them out of the cave in the morning. On the whole, it is an accurate portrayal of the story with fun and unique insights into both Odysseus and the Cyclops that are not as prevalent in the poem.

The key scene with Odysseus taunting the Cyclops from his ship as they sail away shows Odyssey reflecting on the loss of  more of his men over that last couple of days. While this taunting still leads to Odysseus wandering the seas for ten years and losing his whole crew in the process, it puts the reader in his shoes (or rather, sandals) as to why he lets his emotions get the better of him in the moment (and let that be a lesson to the rest of us!). Bearing in mind that this book is geared for Middle School readers, allow grace for the final paragraph that sums up Poseidon’s rage and the rest of the journey home in two sentences. This succinct wrap up also sets the stage for the Forest’s examination of “Penelope’s Test” in the next chapter.

While this anthology is geared for a middle school audience–I see this book being used into high school English classrooms. I also would love to use this in a creative writing class as examples of retelling or reworking a well-know work. It can be a form of homage to do a retelling and a fun twist on the classic to tell it from a completely new perspective. Overall, I love what Forest has done to give new life to these stories and introduce new ones to new (and old) generations of readers alike.


Title Reviewed:

Ancient and Epic Tales from Around the World by Heather Forest. 2016. 9781939160874. Gr 7-10.

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