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Five Essential Collections of Classic Myths, Legends, and Fairytales

When it comes to myths, legends, and fairytales, we tend to think of the versions of those stories that we first heard as children. As a result, we think back to cleaned-up and child-friendly version of stories that, once upon a time, had more teeth. It's only when we go looking for more grown-up versions of those stories that we find that there's usually something more complex going on, and a darker logic at work. Many of the stories we know from when we were children tend to offer something very different when we read them as adults.

In any case, these are stories that often have no fixed author or origin. To steal a quote from Philip Pullman’s excellent collection of the Grimm brothers’ folk tales, James Merrill once described fairytales as having “a tone licked clean [...] Over the centuries by mild old tongues.”

This endless cycle of repetition has honed many of these folk and fairytales down to their most essential forms. As a result, these more modern iterations retain the flavour of the original texts, but with a style and pace to suit readers who are ready to revisit the stories they first heard as children. 

With that in mind, we’ve collected this list of some of our favourite retellings of different myths, legends, and fairytales. Some of these we were familiar with from when we were children, others are simply fascinating in their own right. For the most part, these are not dramatic shifts away from the original themes or reinterpretations of the characters. Instead, they’re charming retellings of the old stories, lent a new voice by some excellent authors whose names you’ll probably already know.

Grimm Tales

Philip Pullman is best known for the His Dark Materials series of fantasy novels, which often have a faint fairytale edge to them. Given that the series that won him such acclaim is set in a world populated with strange and magical creatures, it may come as no surprise that Pullman has also dabbled in retellings of fairy tales. He’s also known for The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a retelling of the story of Christ which supposes that Mary actually gave birth to twins, one Jesus and the other Christ.

With that in mind, it’s not too surprising to find that Pullman also has an excellent collection of stories drawing on those originally gathered by the Brothers Grimm. This collection includes some of the all-time-greats that readers will already know, though they’re presented in terms that are at least a little less sanitised than the children’s editions we tend to be familiar with now.

Those well-known stories aside, the collection boasts tales that readers will likely not know nearly so well. Alongside stories like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rapunzel” are stories like “The Frog King or Iron Heinrich.” The familiar and the strange mix, in both the stories included and in their contents, as well-known fairytales are retold with a sometimes sinister edge.

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The Greek Myths

Robert Graves is better known for his historical fiction than for his writing on myth and legend. While most will be aware of his work from I, Claudius and Claudius the God, he also wrote remarkably well outside of the historical fiction mould, not least of which for Goodbye to All That (his 1929 autobiography, in which he conveyed the horrors of the First World War) and his somewhat more upbeat Greek Myths.

Graves’ take on the Greek myths benefits from some the same stylish writing as makes I, Claudius and Goodbye to All That such enduring classics. His Greek myths are, above all, an eminently readable and relatable. That last is particularly important given the historical distance, which can otherwise make for difficult reading for modern readers. More than that, he lends the characters in these myths a sense of humanity that sometimes goes missing. This helps keep things as grounded as possible (as grounded as stories that involve mythical beasts and angry gods can be).

One unexpected bonus is the extent to which Graves delves into different versions and flavours of the same myths. Perhaps the best example of this is the case of the origin myths, where Graves lists “The Pelasgian Creation Myth,” “The Homeric and Orphic Creation Myths,” “The Olympian Creation Myth,” and “Two Philosophical Creation Myths.” This is a comprehensive text, filled with notes that explore different aspects of the myths. 

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Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman is an author who requires no introduction. He's made his name with his combinations of fantasy, urban fantasy, and mythology, but if there’s one thing that readers will have learned from his epic American Gods it’s that Gaiman is particularly fond of Norse mythology. Long term Gaiman fans will also remember the extent to which myths and legends influence and appear in his earlier works, not least of which The Sandman.

Having already put his spin on existing myths for books like Anansi Boys, Gaiman’s take on the Norse myths is an awful lot closer to the stories you’ve probably already heard about Thor, Loki, Odin, and the rest of the Aesir. These stories have all the things that you’d expect from a collection of Norse myths, including violence, honour, comedy, underhanded trickery, and sorcery.

Where it differs significantly from the overwhelming majority of similar collections, is in Gaiman’s presentation of the Norse myths as a relatively coherent narrative. For the most part, collections of myths and legends tend to read as a series of disconnected stories, but Gaiman's rendering reads more like a novel. It might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s one that goes a long way toward making Norse Mythology as familiar a format as possible for modern readers. 

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African Myths of Origin

While the other books on this list tend to focus more on whole myth cycles (or selections of individual stories drawn from larger bodies), Stephen Belcher’s African Myths of Origin instead presents a series of mythic stories that deal with a single unifying theme. Given the general focus on European myths and legends, the opportunity to learn more about a number of different African origin myths is welcome.

In his introduction, Belcher describes the range of different cultures Africa supports, giving some insight into the breadth of their creation myths. Here, he pays particular attention to the role of the hunter among increasingly agricultural populations, noting that they are known for their skilful exploitation of natural resources and the impressive depth of their knowledge. This is relevant given the role that hunters play in many of the myths that follow. From there, the stories are arranged according to their origins, and often include notes as to the regions or peoples from which they’ve come.

As you might expect of a book that draws on so many disparate sources, there’s some repetition of elements across some of the stories, but the recurring motifs are more often interesting than dull. Overall, African Myths of Origin offers a tantalising glimpse into an array of different myths from across the continent. 

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Gods and Fighting Men

Lady Augusta Gregory is known for her association with W. B. Yeats, as well as for her work in theatre. For all that though, she remains one of the best sources for those looking to read Irish myths and legends. Her work on Irish folklore is broadly divided between those more commonly associated with the Ulster cycle and those of the Fenian cycle, in Cuchullain of Muirthuimne and Gods and Fighting Men respectively.

Gods and Fighting Men begins with the arrival of the Tuatha de Dannan to Ireland and their interaction with the native firbolgs they encounter when they first make landfall. It’s filled with larger-than-life characters, as well as fantastic feats of strength and skill. The stories here are classics of Irish myth and legend, communicated beautifully by Gregory’s prose. The language used often has the vague poetic feel of Irish translated directly into English.

The combination of its turn-of-phrase and the strange savour of Irish myth goes a long way toward making Gods and Fighting Men the charming collection that it is, and the best way to show that, is with a short quotation. Having lost an arm in combat, we're told that,

“But if Nuada won the battle, he lost his own arm in it, that was struck off by Sreng; and by that loss there came troubles and vexation on his people. For it was a law with the Tuatha de Danaan that no man that was not perfect in shape should be king. And after Nuada had lost the battle he was put out of the kingship on that account.”

What follows is a series of misadventures under an unfit king while Nuada has his missing arm replaced with a silver one. 

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I am a man who enjoys hiking and woodland walks. I love the smell of freshly cut grass and of wild onions in early spring.

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