Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths Summary

Bernard Evslin

Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths

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Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths Summary

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Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths (1966) is the best-known work by prolific writer Bernard Evslin (1922-1993), whom The New York Times has described as “one of the most widely published authors of classical mythology in the world”. This anthology comprises retellings of numerous Classical Greek mythological tales, and is one of a number of survey texts Evslin put out on the subject. Of the more than 70 books he published, over 30, including Heroes, Gods and Monsters, were aimed at a young adult audience, and many received wide acclaim. The impact of Evslin’s work on students learning about ancient myths is enormous. He was presented the 1961 National Education Association Award and the 1986 Washington Irving Children’s Book Choice Award (for Hercules).

In his introduction to the book, Evslin recounts how as a child, he absorbed the myths in Greek, and when he later revisited them in English translations, the latter struck him as having failed to achieve the powerful thrust of the imagination conveyed by the narrative rhythm and flow of the original tales. His use of simple, direct language cast in short, comprehensive sentences goes a long way in recapturing those qualities, and in making the stories both accessible to a younger readership and thoroughly entertaining to all. Evslin’s remarkable aptitude for dramatization can at least partially be ascribed to the career he had as a playwright and screenwriter before turning his focus to more traditional prose.

The author’s crisp, lively, cinematic writing style makes the myths come alive off the page, with occasional minor foreshortening of certain story lines and concise takes on specific characters. (In his Monsters of Mythology series, published from 1987 to 1991, Evslin changed plots to distill the tales of selected mythical creatures in a pointed way, like a screenwriter would adapt his source material.) He takes occasional poetic license and cuts corners in his treatment of particular myths, but such lack of exhaustive detail and hardcore fidelity enhances rather than detracts from their larger-than-life essence.

The myths’ lack of novelistic psychological depth and adherence to an externalized, surface-level plot and character development are very effectively conveyed through Evslin’s matter-of-fact discourse, which corresponds to the laconic, Fate-driven and prophecy-governed Ancient Greek worldview. In turns of phrase like “Zeus married his sister Hera – a family habit” and “Chronos vomited up … Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon – who being gods, were still undigested,” he normalizes the rules by which these primal beings play out their desire-, whim- and intrigue-based battles of will.

The scale is epic, but the drive that motivates action all-too-human, and he excels at integrating the two planes in aptly understated fashion. For example, romance and cannibalism comfortably dovetail in Evslin’s description of the encounter that sets up the birth of Athena from Zeus’ brow with his consumption of her mother: “The next day Zeus walked in his garden again and found Metis there. This time she did not flee. He spoke softly to her and smiled. She came to him. Suddenly he opened his mouth and swallowed her.” When Hephaestus is summoned soon thereafter to split Zeus’ skull open with a hammer and wedge to release Athena, Evslin lets the scene unfold like a regular delivery.

The book features all the major gods, focusing on their origins and detailing the key role they play in myths that are formative or representative of their trademark powers and character traits: Zeus’ relentless philandering, Hera’s retaliatory scheming, Athena’s compassionate wisdom… From Chronos onward, Heroes, Gods and Monsters starts out along a trajectory of divine lineage, which constitutes the nexus from which the many myths that follow issue forth, including those of Perseus, Theseus, Atalanta, Daedalus, King Midas, Pygmalion, Echo and Psyche, Phaethon… There are some omissions, like the myth of Hercules, which Evslin would go on to write an acclaimed separate book about, but the work makes no claims of being exhaustive, and is clearly intended as an introductory volume with a strong pedagogical impetus. (To wit, Evslin explains how certain English words are derived from the names of figures in Greek myth, such as panic from Pan and arachnids from Arachne, who was transformed into a spider by Athena.)

Over the years, an estimated 30 million students have familiarized themselves with Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths, which has become a staple text of high-school and college curriculums around the world. Half a century after its original publication, Evslin’s seminal book has sold over ten million copies and has been translated into at least ten languages, making it one of the most popular resources for anyone interested in the perennially fascinating fantasy world of Greek mythology.