Books, Reviews, Writing

The Canongate Myths series

~~Blog Pact default! Thanks to Anne, Mike, & Brendan, we all get to write punishment posts this week, which means BONUS FRIDAY POST. Thanks, guys! Go team!~~

I recommend a lot of books on this blog, but I don’t recommend a lot of series. This is because I don’t typically read books that come in series. As a bit of slow reader, a whole series has to be really good before I will commit myself to the time necessary for me to get through it, and those just don’t come along that often (with many notable exceptions, of course). For this series, however, I will happily deviate from previous pattern, because it is a series I can get behind. You see, the Canongate Myths aren’t really a series so much as…hmm…an incredibly pretentious and scattered anthology? Look:

Canongate myth books

These are the six books in this series that I own–Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman, Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers, Weight by Jeanette Winterson, Orphans of El Dorado by Milton Hatoum, and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (I use to own two more–The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin,which I got rid of on account of hating it, and Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith, which appears to have scarpered of its own accord, as books sometimes do). You will notice immediately that these books are all written by different people, most if not all of whom you have probably heard of before. And that’s what I love about this series: it’s a master stroke in perspectives, and I’m all about trying to find new perspectives.

The basic premise of the series, if you haven’t guessed already, is to commission various well-known contemporary authors to rewrite their favorite myths, drawing from any culture or religion they see fit. Seventeen of them have been published so far (one of which is an introduction to the project, and another of which has not been translated into English from its native Polish), with many focusing on Greek myths like Oedipus, Heracles, Theseus, and Penelope of The Odyssey fame, but also delving into Christian stories, and tales from Russia, China, Japan, Scandinavia–basically everywhere. The original (quite lofty) goal was to publish 100 such stories, but a new one hasn’t come out since 2011.

What I like about this series, apart from the fact that it feeds my mythology/fairytale retelling addiction, is that it goes out of its way to include writers from all walks of life. For starters, of the seventeen authors published in it, nine are women, five originally wrote in languages other than English (Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Arabic, and Russian), and together they represent nine different nationalities. And that’s before you take into consideration the wide variety of myths they chose. That diversity is not an accident. It is intentional, and it is wonderful.

This is important when you consider how this series concerns itself with the idea of stories as a form of collective history. No, the books aren’t directly related to one another, but they do relate thematically. Every one of these authors is speaking to a tradition of stories that came long before them, explicitly choosing what to draw out of them and push to the forefront. They are all interested in different aspects of those myths, and they all have different techniques for highlighting their personal perspectives, but they are all united in their efforts to illustrate how ancient stories are still very much relevant today. Their differences in personal experiences and writing styles create a kaleidoscopic view of how humans use stories to understand the world around them; somehow they all seem to come together, complimenting rather than clashing with one another.

If you like myths and fairytales, I highly recommend this series, in its entirety, though I haven’t read them all and downright hated some of them. You could read just one and be perfectly content with it on its own, but the more of these you read, the more interesting the rest of them get with that context. Happy mything.

Anciently yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives — they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.” -Canongate Myths website

P.S. Other books that are not in this series, but would feel right at home with it: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

P.P.S. In case anybody is curious: my personal favorite out of the books listed here is The Penelopiad, closely followed by The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The first one I picked up was Weight, so you can thank Jeanette Winterson for leading me to this series and thus inspiring me to shove it in your faces.

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