The best books to help you appreciate the impact and value of myths and stories

Matthew Laurence Author Of Freya
By Matthew Laurence

The Books I Picked & Why

Norse Mythology

By Neil Gaiman

Book cover of Norse Mythology

Why this book?

Haters will say I’m recommending this because I’m a sucker for Norse mythology (not that they’re wrong – just look at the books I’ve written) and Neil Gaiman, so of course I’m going to recommend this. Well, they’re right, but to them I say, how can you not be a sucker for those wonderful things?

The gods and tales of Norse mythology are, I feel, so much more interesting and approachable than those of their more popular Grecian kin, and this book perfectly illustrates why. Its desire is to educate and entertain, to make the motivations of its fascinating cast of gods understandable and delightful while at the same time opening a window onto a distant people and culture. In this, it is not only successful, but also lovely.

There are very few sure bets in book recommendations, but come on – this is a book of stories so strong and evocative they still influence our media centuries after they were first crafted, told anew by a monstrously talented author. Give it a shot.

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The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Book cover of The Lord of the Rings

Why this book?

What does this have to do with myths? Well, perhaps you don’t need another excuse to appreciate these books, but even if you already think they’re a remarkable achievement in fiction and worldbuilding, it doesn’t hurt to find new angles to view a masterpiece.

So set aside the films, the endless influence this series has had on our culture, and the epic story itself, and look at Lord of the Rings from the perspective of myths, because it is meticulously crafted from the well-chosen bits and pieces of hundreds. Tolkien may have been heavily influenced by his experiences in the First World War and his own Christian faith, but the myths, fables, and folklore of dozens of cultures were also woven together to bring Middle Earth and its inhabitants to life.

This is something wonderful to think about and see, because it’s perhaps one of the greatest expressions of both creativity and fealty to stories in our culture, and a shining example of how even ancient tales can be rebuilt and repurposed into something new.

…plus, it’s another chance for me to plug Norse mythology, considering how often its elements are echoed here, and I’ll never miss an opportunity for that.

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The Song of Achilles

By Madeline Miller

Book cover of The Song of Achilles

Why this book?

Why, you ask, are these mythology-themed recommendations not swimming in the likes of The Illiad or The Odyssey? What of Bulfinch’s Mythology, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales? Well, you are correct to be aghast at their absence – these are marvelous works, chronicling some of the most famous stories humanity has ever produced.

But this is not meant to be an exhaustive best-of list of folklore; it is designed instead in the spirit of accessibility, of mixing the mythological and the modern into something that will resonate with you. It assumes in its reader a desire to be entertained by something that connects them with that great well of history, and in this regard, you need look no further than The Song of Achilles.

If you’d never read a word about the Trojan War or its principals, you would find here a deftly-written work of haunting clarity and heartbreak. To know the history is to have another means by which to appreciate it, a platform on which greater impact can be built and used to experience an epic tale anew, and that, my friends, is the gift of myths to us as a civilization, illustrated sharply by this marvelous work.

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By Stephen Fry

Book cover of Mythos

Why this book?

Because I like to cheat and this is a nice way of recommending more than five books, obviously. But seriously, if you want to be precise, you can always start with Mythos, the first of Fry’s trilogy, and assure yourself you’re in for as droll a time as a master of British wit can manage.

The common thread you may be picking up on in these recommendations is the desire to celebrate how myths are constantly being remade over time as their audiences change. Fry’s work is a brilliant example of this, a collection of Greek myths presented in a manner that feels both scholarly and conversational. There may be more accurate ways to experience these stories, true, but that is not, I feel, the point of myths.

These tales were made to be told, to be shared and enjoyed, and anything that furthers that aim should be celebrated – as I now encourage you to do with these books.

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By Bill Willingham

Book cover of Fables

Why this book?

Because it’s beautiful and brilliant. Unlike most stories that deal with myths in a meta way, Fables isn’t about the grooves a well-trod narrative can burn into fictional realities, but rather what happens when you take the protagonists of those stories out of their fantastic settings and pull them into our mundane one.

This is a story about legends in exile, about a hidden neighborhood in New York populated by the refugees of dozens of fictional worlds, driven out decades ago by a mysterious Adversary and forced to come to terms with life beyond their stories. Snow White rubs shoulders with the Big Bad Wolf, Pinocchio pals around with Little Boy Blue, and so on.

This series is for anyone that loves thinking about stories, about how the nature of a narrative ticks and how different tales from different places can have common threads that come together in fascinating ways when bound with the right spark of creativity. It’s not perfect, of course - I’d say the first volume or two aren’t the greatest introduction, and though things pick up marvelously from there, they get a bit long in the tooth after the twelfth. Few things are flawless, however, and when this series hits its stride, the magic is undeniable.

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