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Journal of American Folklore 116.460 (2003) 235-236
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Hero Myths: A Reader. Ed. Robert A. Segal. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Pp. ix + 219, introduction, index.)
Robert A. Segal, well known for his scholarly publications on mythology, for his classic study of Joseph Campbell, and for his recent book Theorizing about Myth (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), has now published a reader eminently suitable for classroom use. It appears at the right time, since interest in mythology continues unabated on American campuses, and undergraduate mythology courses are increasingly popular. The line-up of the twenty-two hero figures in Segal's reader includes hero myths from distant times and places (Sigurd, Finn, Coyote, Maui, Arjuna, Gilgamesh) as well as a selection from American cultural hagiography (John Henry, George Washington, Davy Crockett, Elvis Presley). Other figures come with interesting and more or less appropriate tags: "national hero" (the duke of Wellington), "class hero" (Robin Hood), "explorer" (Christopher Columbus), "saint hero" (Joan of Arc), "intellectual hero" (Galileo, or rather, Brecht's Galileo), and "madman" (Don Quixote). Ancient Greek (Penthesilea, Prometheus, Oedipus, Sisyphus) and biblical (Eve, Job) hero figures put in a predictable appearance, but not necessarily in a category to which one would automatically assign them. Eve is no longer the mother of all our woe, but rather "the defiant hero" paired off not with Adam but with Prometheus. Job, although he gets it all back in the end, is linked with Oedipus as a "tragic hero." Penthesilea the Amazon queen is designated an honorary male, and so is Joan of Arc; feminists may not agree with this particular classification.
Each of the twenty-two selections is preceded by a short introductory essay likely to generate classroom discussion and a short bibliography useful for orienting student research. But one can always quibble here and there. For instance, with Arjuna, Segal has missed a golden opportunity for gender-bending nomenclature, primarily because the text he uses (R. K. Narayan's retelling of the Mahabharata) fails to note that prior to the great battle Arjuna had lived for a whole year as a eunuch in female dress at the court of King Virata (see book 4 of the Mahabharata in van Buitenen's translation [University of Chicago Press, 1979]). With Gilgamesh I would liked to have seen a link to the current dictator of Iraq, but perhaps such a comparison would have been insulting to the more complex career of the ancient Sumerian "failed hero." In the case of Oedipus, Jean-Joseph Goux (Oedipus, Philosopher, Stanford University Press, 1993) should have been mentioned [End Page 235] for his original discussion of the irregularities of the myth, in particular his theory that the absence of the motif of a trial assigned by a king indicates an absence of initiation, which leaves Oedipus, for all his swollen foot, as the archetypal hero of the swollen-head trip—a hero whose intellectual pretensions are not matched by strength of character. Some mention of Charles Baudouin's study Le triomphe du héros (Plon, 1952)—alas, as yet untranslated—would have been welcome. But there will surely be a second edition for this wonderful reader, and one can hope that Segal will make a few additions here and there.
It is gratifying to note that, unlike some rival collections in the myths-for-undergraduates marketplace, Segal's reader reprints recent texts and modern translations, not hoary items whose copyright has expired. This decision may have increased the cost of the volume, but it was the right one. Another welcome feature of Hero Myths is its thirty-page introduction, in which Segal provides a succinct and pellucid rundown on modern theories of myth from Carlyle's "great man" view of history to René Girard's anatomy of the hero as the luminous afterimage of the persecuted scapegoat.
Steven S. Walker