Both H. A. Guerber’s The Myths of Greece and Rome and William Hansen’s Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans serve as great resources and bases of knowledge to anybody interested in classical, especially Greek, mythology. Both books give accurate and unbiased accounts of classical mythology, although the books are very different as they are each written in very different styles.
The most obvious dissimilarity between the two books is their organization. Guerber’s book is comprised of thirty chapters, each centered around a major deity, such as “Jupiter”, “Apollo”, “Artemis”, “Neptune”, and “Pluto”, or a major theme or event, such as “The Trojan War”, “The Beginning”, and “Adventures of Ulysses”. Because the less essential mythological figures are written about within the chapters about the primary gods, the reader would need to have at least a basic knowledge of classical mythology in order to effectively look up an individual character. Read in entirety, however, The Myths of Greece and Rome provides a clear representation of the relationships between the various gods. Hansen, alternatively, has arranged his work into four chapters, with about two thirds of the book being the third chapter, “Deities, Themes, and Concepts”. This chapter is, essentially, an encyclopedia of classical mythology. The gods and ideas are written about alphabetically, with a bold type heading at the beginning of each entry, followed by a brief statement defining the topic, continuing with a few paragraphs of explanation of how that figure fits into mythology. This makes it very easy to flip through the book, find exactly what you are looking for, and get concise information about that particular subject. It does not, however, give quite as good of an explanation of how that figure is integrated into the stories of other mythological characters.
The writing style is very much fitting to the organization of each book. Guerber writes in a very elegant, story-telling manner. His elegant descriptions are full of details and very chronologically oriented, as if he is writing a novel. This narrative nature of the book makes reading several chapters at a time an enjoyable experience, much the opposite of reading a monotone textbook. Classical Mythology is written in a very terse and concise style. As each entry is only allotted a few paragraphs at most to explain the topic, the writing is inundated with information. The sentences are also short and abrupt, moving the reader constantly forward so as to portray a large amount of facts in a small amount of time and space.
While both texts are written about classical mythology as a whole, each author chooses a different focus, which is evident in the names they use when referring to the gods and other characters. H. A. Guerber tends to use the Roman versions of names, such as Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, and Minerva. William Hansen, however, uses Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and Athena to refer to those same deities. Both authors do, though, make sure to put the other form of each deity’s name in parenthesis after their first mention.
One major difference between the two books is the amount of analysis and interpretation of the myths and commentary on how Greek and Roman life and culture was affected by mythology. The Myths of Greece and Rome only dedicates a single twenty-five page chapter to the analysis of the myths. The writing is relatively informative, but it is, and the author agrees within the first few lines of the chapter, “superficial”. (Guerber 340) In contrast, William Hansen devotes almost one hundred full pages of text, a quarter of the book, to introducing the basic literary theories of classical mythology, as well as how the myths fit into historical context and how the Greeks and Romans were influenced by the stories and the religion. This section of the book stands out against the rest of the book as it is organized into a singular, cohesive analysis, rather than a set of mostly independent ideas.
Both authors use very traditional, though separate, means to index their books. Guerber uses a combination index and glossary where each entry gives a very brief description of who each character is and where to find more information about that person in the texts. Hansen uses a separate index and glossary. The glossary contains simple terms that might not be defined within the text but are imperative to an understanding of the subject matter, such as “folktale”, “allegory”, and “mythologist”. The index, then, simply lists each figure or topic and refers the reader to each page on which more information is located.
Both authors cite ancient references such as Homer’s The Odyssey and The Illiad, Hesiod’s Theogony, Virgil’s Aeneiad, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as their main sources for information. Guerber also tends to use Romantic and Victorian period quotes and poetic verses to augment his stories. He simply cites these references when he directly takes a quote from a works. Hansen, however, lists his references in the last section of the book, arranged alphabetically and according to type. He also uses frequent in text references and cites each quote that he takes from outside sources. Additionally, Hansen closes each entry with a “suggested reading” list which names a few works in which somebody would find more extensive and detailed information on any one particular topic.
Lastly, both books differ in their styles of illustrations. As advertised on the cover of The Myths of Greece and Rome, the book contains sixty-four illustrations, most of which consist of a photograph of a sculpture or reproduction of a painting that portrays classical figures. The end of the book also contains a genealogical chart which shows the lineage of many of the gods. The chart makes it easy to see the relationships between various members of the pantheon. Also, there is a map of ancient Greece that contains both physical and mythological locations. While it is informative, it is also, in places, convoluted, making it exceedingly hard to read. Classical Mythology is full of illustrations, with one appearing at least every few pages. The illustrations are mostly just sketches and drawings of the figure that are being written about on that particular page. For the most part, they do not add anything to the understanding of the material and tend to crowd the pages and distract from the text on the page.
Overall, both books are well researched and well written. Each book is intended to be a basic resource for those learning about classical mythology, but each should be used in a different context. Guerber’s The Myths of Greece and Rome is best read straight through as a basic introduction to mythology as a whole, while Hansen’s Classical Mythology is better used as a reference when the need arises to look up a particular figure from mythology.
Guerber, H. A. The Myths of Greece and Rome. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY:1993.
Hansen, William. Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans. Oxford University Press, Inc., Oxford: 2004.