Two non-fiction books I have read recently

edited December 2019 in Book Reviews

I thought I'd bundle both of these together - they're quite interesting as non-fiction books in their own right, but may also be helpful for those who design or play games involving the mythology of the Old World.

The Idea of North, by Peter Davidson
I was totally captivated by the first third of this book, but then found myself flagging. Partly this was because the author seemed to have only one real insight, which was then played out exhaustively. The insight was that to those of us in the northern hemisphere, "the north" conjures up two opposing images - it is a place of radiance and purification, and also a place of darkness and peril. I was watching my way through Game of Thrones when I started reading the book, and that opposed pair is captured very effectively therein.

Having presented this idea, Peter then proceeds to itemise lots of examples of this, drawing on art, poetry, prose and film to make his point. It's a very Europe-centred view (which suited me), and there was only limited space dealing with Asian or American views of the matter (which might frustrate some readers). There was also, strangely, no discussion of what contrasting views there might be in the southern hemisphere - is there, for example, a contrasting "idea of south" waiting to be told?

So I ended up struggling to finish the book. It was, I think, worth persevering to the end, as there were little nuggets of insight scattered all through, but I could understand it if some folk give up after absorbing the main message from the first couple of chapters.

The Land of the Green Man, by Carolyne Larrington
This is a whistle-stop tour of mythology from the UK and Ireland - the subtitle is A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles, which is suitably exact and explicit. Carolyne's intention is not to trace the ways in which tales have been compiled and collated through time (though every now and again she does touch on this), but rather to think about what moral and social values might be promoted or criticised by the tales. Some, then, are warnings about the regulation of family and sexual life, some are about ensuring good treatment for workers and neighbours, and so on.

She classifies tales according to their main theme - the passage of time, love, death, gain and loss, beast and human, and change - and since stories do not necessarily fall neatly into a single bucket there are links between the sections. This also means that similar tales and myths from quite different parts of these islands are brought together, to highlight similarities and differences. In a rather neat twist, she connects the old myths with new ones that recent or contemporary authors are making - The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is well-referenced, likewise the folk-tales underpinning the Harry Potter stories, and a bunch of others. When I traced some of these, the majority are children's or young adult books, and it would have been nice to have some more adult connections. She managed to get Neil Gaiman to give a cover quote.

My only real complaint about the book is that it is all too brief. I strongly suspect that the publishers enforced a size limit, and the effect is to make it a whistle-stop tour rather than a deeper exploration. But a lot of ground is covered, and it's probably a useful source book for creative purposes.

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