No new edition of Bulfinch’s classic work can be considered complete without some notice of the American scholar to whose wide erudition and painstaking care it stands as a perpetual monument. “The Age of Fable” has come to be ranked with older books like “Pilgrim’s Progress,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Arabian Nights,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and five or six other productions of world-wide renown as a work with which every one must claim some acquaintance before his education can be called really complete. Many readers of the present edition will probably recall coming in contact with the work as children, and, it may be added, will no doubt discover from a fresh perusal the source of numerous bits of knowledge that have remained stored in their minds since those early years. Yet to the majority of this great circle of readers and students the name Bulfinch in itself has no significance.
Thomas Bulfinch was a native of Boston, Mass., where he was born in 1796. His boyhood was spent in that city, and he prepared for college in the Boston schools. He finished his scholastic training at Harvard College, and after taking his degree was for a period a teacher in his home city. For a long time later in life he was employed as an accountant in the Boston Merchants’ Bank. His leisure time he used for further pursuit of the classical studies which he had begun at Harvard, and his chief pleasure in life lay in writing out the results of his reading, in simple, condensed form for young or busy readers. The plan he followed in this work, to give it the greatest possible usefulness, is set forth in the Author’s Preface.
Bulfinch died in 1867, with the following list of books to his credit: “Hebrew Lyrical History,” 1853; “The Age of Fable,” First Edition, 1855; “The Age of Chivalry,” 1858; “The Boy Inventor,” 1860; “Legends of Charlemagne, or Romance of the Middle Ages,” 1863; “Poetry of the Age of Fable,” 1863; “Oregon and Eldorado, or Romance of the Rivers,” 1860.
In this complete edition of his mythological and legendary lore “The Age of Fable,” “The Age of Chivalry,” and “Legends of Charlemagne” are included. Scrupulous care has been taken to follow the original text of Bulfinch, but attention should be called to some additional sections which have been inserted to add to the rounded completeness of the work, and which the publishers believe would meet with the sanction of the author himself, as in no way intruding upon his original plan but simply carrying it out in more complete detail. The section on Northern Mythology has been enlarged by a retelling of the epic of the “Nibelungen Lied,” together with a summary of Wagner’s version of the legend in his series of music-dramas. Under the head of “Hero Myths of the British Race” have been included outlines of the stories of Beowulf, Cuchulain, Hereward the Wake, and Robin Hood. Of the verse extracts which occur throughout the text, thirty or more have been added from literature which has appeared since Bulfinch’s time, extracts that he would have been likely to quote had he personally supervised the new edition.
Finally, the index has been thoroughly overhauled and, indeed, remade. All the proper names in the work have been entered, with references to the pages where they occur, and a concise explanation or definition of each has been given. Thus what was a mere list of names in the original has been enlarged into a small classical and mythological dictionary, which it is hoped will prove valuable for reference purposes not necessarily connected with “The Age of Fable.”
Acknowledgments are due the writings of Dr. Oliver Huckel for information on the point of Wagner’s rendering of the Nibelungen legend, and M. I. Ebbutt’s authoritative volume on “Hero Myths and Legends of the British Race,” from which much of the information concerning the British heroes has been obtained.
If no other knowledge deserves to be called useful but that which helps to enlarge our possessions or to raise our station in society, then Mythology has no claim to the appellation. But if that which tends to make us happier and better can be called useful, then we claim that epithet for our subject. For Mythology is the handmaid of literature; and literature is one of the best allies of virtue and promoters of happiness.
Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood and appreciated. When Byron calls Rome “the Niobe of nations,” or says of Venice, “She looks a Sea-Cybele fresh from ocean,” he calls up to the mind of one familiar with our subject, illustrations more vivid and striking than the pencil could furnish, but which are lost to the reader ignorant of mythology. Milton abounds in similar allusions. The short poem “Comus” contains more than thirty such, and the ode “On the Morning of the Nativity” half as many. Through “Paradise Lost” they are scattered profusely. This is one reason why we often hear persons by no means illiterate say that they cannot enjoy Milton. But were these persons to add to their more solid acquirements the easy learning of this little volume, much of the poetry of Milton which has appeared to them “harsh and crabbed” would be found “musical as is Apollo’s lute.” Our citations, taken from more than twenty-five poets, from Spenser to Longfellow, will show how general has been the practice of borrowing illustrations from mythology.
The prose writers also avail themselves of the same source of elegant and suggestive illustration. One can hardly take up a number of the “Edinburgh” or “Quarterly Review” without meeting with instances. In Macaulay’s article on Milton there are twenty such.
But how is mythology to be taught to one who does not learn it through the medium of the languages of Greece and Rome? To devote study to a species of learning which relates wholly to false marvels and obsolete faiths is not to be expected of the general reader in a practical age like this. The time even of the young is claimed by so many sciences of facts and things that little can be spared for set treatises on a science of mere fancy.
But may not the requisite knowledge of the subject be acquired by reading the ancient poets in translations? We reply, the field is too extensive for a preparatory course; and these very translations require some previous knowledge of the subject to make them intelligible. Let any one who doubts it read the first page of the “Æneid,” and see what he can make of “the hatred of Juno,” the “decree of the Parcæ,” the “judgment of Paris,” and the “honors of Ganymede,” without this knowledge.
Shall we be told that answers to such queries may be found in notes, or by a reference to the Classical Dictionary? We reply, the interruption of one’s reading by either process is so annoying that most readers prefer to let an allusion pass unapprehended rather than submit to it. Moreover, such sources give us only the dry facts without any of the charm of the original narrative; and what is a poetical myth when stripped of its poetry? The story of Ceyx and Halcyone, which fills a chapter in our book, occupies but eight lines in the best (Smith’s) Classical Dictionary; and so of others.
Our work is an attempt to solve this problem, by telling the stories of mythology in such a manner as to make them a source of amusement. We have endeavored to tell them correctly, according to the ancient authorities, so that when the reader finds them referred to he may not be at a loss to recognize the reference. Thus we hope to teach mythology not as a study, but as a relaxation from study; to give our work the charm of a story-book, yet by means of it to impart a knowledge of an important branch of education. The index at the end will adapt it to the purposes of reference, and make it a Classical Dictionary for the parlor.