Folio Society: Myths and Legends Series

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Folio Society Myths and Legends Series

Video Review

Introduction

Greetings, dear readers, and welcome to this tour de force through the Folio Society’s beloved myths and legends series! The books in this series share a thematic theme of classic mythological retellings, and a visually similar design. The volumes are quite large (10” x 7”) and in most cases, contemporary artists were commissioned to illustrate the works with duotone illustrations. 

Early printings feature colour-stained page edges. However, later printings often lack the sprayed page edges, and swap leather and cloth for a quarter buckram binding over paper boards, so early printings are recommended if you can find them. Three of the books (Greek Myths, British Myths & Legends, and Legends of King Arthur) were also printed in smaller-sized multi-volume sets, the main difference apart from size being that the illustrations in these sets are reproduced in black & white. More details about each volume below!

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The Greek Myths

Editor: Robert Graves | Illustrator: Grahame Baker
Published: 1996 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: The Greek Myths @ Abebooks

We open our tour with the single volume edition of The Greek Myths, retold by Robert Graves. This book was first released in 1996 and it is a fairly scholarly study of the myths, relating them to the way the ancient Greeks lived and thought. Each myth is presented in the voice of a narrator, and each God or Goddess is introduced as they are born. The tales are followed by an interpretation of its origin and significance. Grahame Baker provides the lovely illustrations.

If you’re interested in a comparison between the original books and the smaller multi-part volumes that Folio also released a few years later for some of these editions – whilst the text is identical and the obvious difference is size, I believe the most important distinction is in the illustrations – the single volume editions contains beautiful two-colour images, whilst the illustrations in the smaller cheaper sets are produced only in black and white.

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The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer

Editor: Robert Fagles | Illustrator: Grahame Baker
Published: 1996, 1998 (leather), later reprints (cloth) | Status: In print (buckram binding)
Where to buy: Iliad @ Abebooks or Folio Society and Odyssey @ Abebooks or Folio Society

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were the next two volumes produced, in 1996 and 1998, using the translation of Robert Fagles, which was the preeminent English translation of the 1990s.

Fagles uses a loose five-beat line and I find this translation both clear and sensitive to the magic of literary techniques such as alliteration. Again, these volumes are illustrated by Baker, and they feature printed map endpapers. As mentioned above, not all of these volumes are quarter-leatherbound, only the earliest printings. Later, more brightly coloured bindings use buckram and are missing the stained top edge..

British Myths & Legends

Editor: Richard Barber | Illustrator: John Vernon Lord
Published: 1998 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: British Myths and Legends @ Abebooks

The collection of British Myths and Legends was released in 1998. The tales drawn together in this book by Richard Barber are from a wide range of medieval sources, spanning the centuries from the dawn of Christianity to the age of the Plantagenets. The Norse gods which peopled the Anglo-Saxon past survive in Beowulf; Cuchulainn, Taliesin and the magician Merlin take shape from Celtic mythology; and saints include Helena who brought a piece of the True Cross to Britain, and Joseph of Arimathea whose staff grew into the Glastonbury thorn. Occasional illustrations are by John Vernon Lord.

This is another of the books to watch out for which edition you purchase. Similar to the Greek myths, there is a monochrome 3-volume set of this series also available, with the three volumes being titled ‘History and Romance’, ‘Heroes and Saints’, and ‘Marvels and Magic’. But as before, the coloured illustrations in the single volume are far superior, while the smaller sized multi-volume set is probably easier to read.

Icelandic Myths & Legends, Volumes 1 & 2

Editor: Magnus Magnusson | Illustrator: Simon Noyes
Published: 1999, 2002 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Icelandic Sagas @ Abebooks

Next we have the two volumes of the Icelandic Sagas published in 1999 and 2002, that are edited, introduced by Magnus Magnusson. It’s a lovely collection.

 The first volume contains three of the big five with Egil’s Saga, Eyrbyggia Saga and Njal’s Saga, along with other gems including the stories that relate to the discovery and attempted colonization of the Americas in the 10th century, and one of the Sagas of the Poets which features two poets in love with the same woman. It’s not a happy ending. This volume is illustrated by Simon Noyes. 

The second volume rounds the set out with the remaining two of the big five – Grettir’s Saga and the Laexdala Saga – and several other tales. Fabulous illustrations are by John Vernon Lord and the endpaper maps are drawn by Reginald Piggott.

This is one of the titles where later printings changed to quarter buckram and no stained page edges.

Legends of King Arthur

Editor: Richard Barber | Illustrator: Roman Pisarev
Published: 2000 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Legends of King Arthur @ Abebooks

The Legends of King Arthur was released in 2000, introduced by Richard Barber and featuring a number of different translations of the Arthurian legends. The book includes extracts ranging from from The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth and The Death of King Arthur, to The Romance of Tristan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier, The High Book of the Grail, and Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach. 16 full-page illustrations are by Roman Pisarev.

Myths & Legends of India

Editor: William Radice | Illustrator: Various
Published: 2001 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Myths & Legends of India @ Abebooks

Myths and Legends of India followed in 2001, a compilation from a range of sources that was selected and introduced by William Radice. It includes a long section from Lal’s English version of the Mahabharata and the plates in this volume reproduce traditional Indian art, rather than being commissioned directly for this volume.

Myths & Legends of the Ancient Near East

Editor: Rachel Storm | Illustrator: Jane Ray
Published: 2003 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Near East @ Abebooks

A few years later in 2003, FS released the lovely Myths & Legends of the Ancient Near East by Rachel Storm. The boards are a lovely linen cloth and it includes 17 colour illustrations by Jane Ray. The stories range over several civilisations where legend merges with history – from Daniel, thrown to the lions, to the Assyrian epic of Gilgamesh to the heroic feats of the Amazons; to Midas and his golden touch to the Arabian Nights entertainments.

Legends of the Ring

Editor: Elizabeth Magree | Illustrator: Simon Brett
Published: 2004 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Legends of the Ring @ Abebooks

Legends of the Ring was released in 2004 and is edited by Elizabeth Magree. This volume is based on the Ring Legends of Scandinavia, including the Volsungs and the Eddas, and also the Ring Legends of Germany, such as The Nibelungenlied. Illustrations are by Simon Brett. But with this volume, I have to say I was very disappointed with Folio’s decision to put all the pictures in a clump here in the centre. I understand that this design saves money, but when someone is buying an expensive book like this, it’s unexpectedly disappointing. Fortunately, it only happens in this one volume of the series.

Epics of the Middle Ages

Editor: Richard Barber | Illustrator: John Vernon Lord
Published: 2005 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Epics of the Middle Ages @ Abebooks

2005 brought us the Epics of the Middle Ages, edited and introduced by Richard Barber and illustrated again by John Vernon Lord. These are stories with champions rooted in real events including The Song of Roland and William of Orange, inspired by the exploits of Charlemagne’s reign centuries before; and El Cid, the story of Rodrigo Diaz of Vivar, a noble knight caught up in the vicious struggle between Christians and Moors in Spain, begun in 1140, only forty years after his death. Historical figures, transmuted by the epics into the superheroes of legend.

Celtic Myths & Legends

Editor: Caitlin and John Matthews | Illustrator: Jane Ray
Published: 2006 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Celtic Myths & Legends @ Abebooks

Celtic Myths and Legends was compiled in 2006 by acclaimed folklorists Caitlin and John Matthews, with more lovely illustrations by Jane Ray. Organised in eight sections: I Beginnings (Irish, British, Cornish & Manx); II Quests and Adventures (Irish); III The Deeds of Cuchulainn (Irish); IV The Story of Conall Guibeanach (Scottish); V The Adventures of Fionn Mac Cumhail (Irish & Scottish); VI The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Welsh); VII Legends of Arthur’s Court (Welsh, Breton & Cornish); VIII Visions, Saints and Other-Worlds (Irish, Cornish & Breton).

Legends of the Grail

Editor: Richard Barber | Illustrator: John Vernon Lord
Published: 2007 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Legends of the Grail @ Abebooks

Legends of the Grail in 2007 was also edited by Richard Barber and illustrated by John Vernon Lord. This volume collects the five great medieval masterpieces, simply re-told in elegant modernisations. From Chretien de Troyes to Malory, the romances tell of Perceval, Gawain, Lancelot and Galahad in their quests for ‘Sangraal’.

Legends from Ancient Rome

Editor: Lawrence Norfolk | Illustrator: Grahame Baker
Published: 2008 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Legends from Ancient Rome @ Abebooks

Legends from Ancient Rome released in 2008 is edited by Lawrence Norfolk and illustrated by Grahame Baker. It includes all the most iconic stories, drawing on Plutarch, Virgil, Livy and Ovid amongst others, but also lesser-known traditions, including some of the more bizarre Roman superstitions, such as the Lupercalia in which youths dressed in animal skins and smeared with dog blood would whip female onlookers with strips of goatskin to promote fertility.

Myths & Legends of Russia

Editor: Alexander Adanas’ev | Illustrator: Niroot Puttapipat
Published: 2009 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Myths & Legends of Russia @ Abebooks

Myths and Legends of Russia released in 2009 is a highly sought after volume due to the particularly exquisite silhouette illustrations by Niroot Puttapipat. The 170 tales within are taken from Afanas’ev’s record of orally transmitted folk tales, with the translation is by Norbert Guterman.

Irish Myths & Legends

Editor: Lady Augusta Gregory | Illustrator: Jillian Tamaki
Published: 2011 | Status: Out of Print
Where to buy: Irish Myths & Legends @ Abebooks

Finally, in 2011, we have this odd little volume of Irish Myths and Legends. It’s the same size as the others, but the spine design doesn’t match; however I include it in my set. It’s an old volume – the stories were compiled by Lady Gregory in the early 1900s and there is a preface by William Yeats. But the 12 lovely illustrations by Jillian Tamaki are new for this volume.

Other titles

There are some additional loosely related volumes that I mention here for the sake of completeness, as they have complementary binding designs, and so some consider them to be part of the same set.

In this category, we have Virgil’s Aeneid, published in 1993. This volume is translated by John Dryden, introduced by Peter Levi, and illustrated by Francis Cleyn. A full-leather limited edition (not part of this series) of the same volume was later released in 2010.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published in 1995. It is translated and introduced by Mary M. Innes, and illustrated by Richard Shirley Smith.

The Histories by Herodotus was published in this binding design in 1996. It is translated from the Text of Baehr by Henry Cary, and edited and annotated by Chris Scarre. Maps and a Geographical Concordance by Andrew Heritage and P. J. M. Geelan. Be careful if you are collecting this for the series though, as this volume has also been published in several different bindings by FS throughout the years.


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