Ancient & Epic Tales From Around the World
by Heather Forest (August House 2016)
Reviewed by Geri Lipschultz
Geri Lipschultz has published in the New York Times, College English, Black Warrior Review, and such anthologies as Pearson’s college literature anthology and Spuyten Duyvil’s The Wreckage of Reason II. She received a CAPS grant and a fiction award from So to Speak. Her one-woman show was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr. She is a regular contributor to this blog.
Marketed for children, this beautiful assemblage will delight adult readers as well. Here is a sampling of the story world’s most important and best tales. Here is a book for the desert island—a collection of world tales that are delicately spiced with wisdom that is universal, wisdom that reflects the cultures of the ancient civilized world, that can yet be applied to contemporary matters. Here we have tests of the lovers, such as those of the Norse legends, who are embroiled in the curse of a dragon’s ring; faring a little better in a similar test—with jealousy the catalyst, rather than a curse—is Isis also, the North African/ Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris, where the tenacious and extraordinarily courageous goddess goes to all ends of the earth and even the underworld to restore her beloved.
Some of these stories examine the journey of a hero, and the reader is left pondering the demands, the insights, the defining attributes of a hero. There are tests of honor, including the story of Gawain and the Green Knight. There is the example of hubris—even among those who are noble, like the aging Beowulf, as well as those who are not, like a foolish bullfrog. We could call it narcissism, or just ignorance.
There are stories that display a practice of critical thinking in the case of a few jugs.
Here is a sprinkling of selections from gilded tomes that date back thousands of years before the Common (or Current) Era, along with stories from the Iliad and the Odyssey, and an appendix at the end of Forest’s book offers an historical context, along with other interesting and noteworthy tidbits.
What these stories seem to offer for the reader, Heather Forest suggests, are the consequences of choices. Humans make decisions and must live with their repercussions—and we learn from making mistakes; and sometimes mistakes are irreparable, and sometimes the consequence of one’s mistakes (if one presumes oneself to be a god, for example) are visited upon someone else, and that someone else might turn into a tree—which, as it turns out, might not be such a bad thing—might be better than—well, turning into a swan! The carelessness, or shall we say the rape culture of the gods, might allow some contemporaries to see themselves in Apollo or Zeus.
The reader is compelled to consider the inspiration for the choices, along with the propriety of the consequences, and will judge whether one should be guided by morality, greed, virtuosity, love—or otherwise.
Greeting us first are the eyes of a large buck with his widespread antlers, the book’s cover illustration by Susan Gaber. Behind the animal are an eclipsed moon and stars; the animal looks directly upon the reader, and the landscape reflects that magical moment—an invitation to enter the ancient world.
This is a book with many tales of lovers—from the aged to the young. Likewise these are tales to enchant us all, whether we are reading to ourselves or enjoying them by proxy, as we pour the old/new wine in the chalices of our children. Very beautifully and laconically told by a master, Heather Forest, who is getting ready to return them to the medium where many of them were first told—namely, the oral tradition, as she is anticipating telling them, in her own inimical minstrel style.