This month, our staff voted for their favourite book on the theme of ‘Myths and Legends‘. Find out which books they recommend and why.
February’s Staff Pick: The Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript, edited by Raymond Clemens, received the most votes from our staff and is this month’s Staff Pick.
Many call the fifteenth-century codex, commonly known as the “Voynich Manuscript,” the world’s most mysterious book. Written in an unknown script by an unknown author, the manuscript has no clearer purpose now than when it was rediscovered in 1912 by rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich. The manuscript appears and disappears throughout history, from the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to a secret sale of books in 1903 by the Society of Jesus in Rome. The book’s language has eluded decipherment, and its elaborate illustrations remain as baffling as they are beautiful. For the first time, this facsimile, complete with elaborate folding sections, allows readers to explore this enigma in all its stunning detail, from its one-of-a-kind “Voynichese” text to its illustrations of otherworldly plants, unfamiliar constellations, and naked women swimming though fantastical tubes and green baths.
The essays that accompany the manuscript explain what we have learned about this work—from alchemical, cryptographic, forensic, and historical perspectives—but they provide few definitive answers. Instead, as New York Times best-selling author Deborah Harkness says in her introduction, the book “invites the reader to join us at the heart of the mystery.”
“Handsome and well-produced. . . This fascimilie and the accompanying series of essays give a clear sense of the current state of knowledge on the manuscript and reveal the findings of new research.” —H.R. Woud Huysen, Times Literary Supplement
Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic, translated by Sophus Helle
International Sales Executive, Kit Yee Wong recommends Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic
Knowing next to nothing about the 3,000-year-old Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, it has truly swept me off my feet. Sophus Helle’s new translation cracks along at a rollicking pace, combining a tale of adventure with a story of what it means to be human. The hero Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and 18-feet tall, and we follow him in his quest for immortality. Along the way, passing by magical forests and lethal seas, we meet scorpion people, monkey mothers, and a bull the size of a city. Yet, he is relatable as he is a hero as we watch him fall short of heroic ideals.
Sophus Helle has worked hard to recreate the world in which Gilgamesh lives and breathes. His Introduction is illuminating, offering an overview of a tale that is variously about loss and grief, a romance between two men, the environment, monstrosity, power, escape, and — according to Star Trek’s Captain Picard — friendship in adversity. The five essays look at the epic’s long history, its literary structure, its emotional force, its reflections on history and death, and the social world in which it is set, including its depiction of women and the natural world.
However, it is Sophus Helle’s expert translation from the Akkadian that is the centrepiece. It is bolstered by the translator’s linguistic knowledge of the original language and is enhanced with a poetic eye that recreates the alliteration and assonance of the Akkadian – an important feature of the original.
The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present by Ronald Hutton
Why have societies all across the world feared witchcraft? This book delves deeply into its context, beliefs, and origins in Europe’s history
The witch came to prominence—and often a painful death—in early modern Europe, yet her origins are much more geographically diverse and historically deep. In this landmark book, Ronald Hutton traces witchcraft from the ancient world to the early-modern stake.
This book sets the notorious European witch trials in the widest and deepest possible perspective and traces the major historiographical developments of witchcraft. Hutton, a renowned expert on ancient, medieval, and modern paganism and witchcraft beliefs, combines Anglo-American and continental scholarly approaches to examine attitudes on witchcraft and the treatment of suspected witches across the world, including in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Australia, and North and South America, and from ancient pagan times to current interpretations. His fresh anthropological and ethnographical approach focuses on cultural inheritance and change while considering shamanism, folk religion, the range of witch trials, and how the fear of witchcraft might be eradicated.
“Magisterial . . . Hutton concerns himself with the bad, black version of the craft that has terrified poor souls for centuries. His approach blends a broad geographic sweep with the detailed attention of microhistory.”—Kathryn Hughes, Guardian
The Aeneid: Revised and Expanded Edition, translated by Sarah Ruden
A powerful and poignant translation of Vergil’s epic poem, newly equipped with introduction and notes
This is a substantial revision of Sarah Ruden’s celebrated 2008 translation of Vergil’s Aeneid, which was acclaimed by Garry Wills as “the first translation since Dryden’s that can be read as a great English poem in itself.” Ruden’s line-for-line translation in iambic pentameter is an astonishing feat, unique among modern translations. Her revisions to the translation render the poetry more spare and muscular than her previous version and capture even more closely the essence of Vergil’s poem, which pits national destiny against the fates of individuals, and which resonates deeply in our own time.
This distinguished translation, now equipped with introduction, notes, and glossary by leading Vergil scholar Susanna Braund, allows modern readers to experience for themselves the timeless power of Vergil’s masterpiece.
“Ruden set the bar for Aeneid translations in 2008, and has raised it now with this revision. I am confident it will be a long time before a translator exceeds the standard that she has set.”
—A.M. Juster, Athenaeum Review
The Vampire: A New History by Nick Groom
An authoritative new history of the vampire, two hundred years after it first appeared on the literary scene
Published to mark the bicentenary of John Polidori’s publication of The Vampyre, Nick Groom’s detailed new account illuminates the complex history of the iconic creature. The vampire first came to public prominence in the early eighteenth century, when Enlightenment science collided with Eastern European folklore and apparently verified outbreaks of vampirism, capturing the attention of medical researchers, political commentators, social theorists, theologians, and philosophers. Groom accordingly traces the vampire from its role as a monster embodying humankind’s fears, to that of an unlikely hero for the marginalized and excluded in the twenty-first century.
Drawing on literary and artistic representations, as well as medical, forensic, empirical, and sociopolitical perspectives, this rich and eerie history presents the vampire as a strikingly complex being that has been used to express the traumas and contradictions of the human condition.
“Nick Groom concludes this invigorating study of vampires by suggesting that we should try to be a bit more like them. Thankfully this doesn’t entail hanging shiftily around blood donor banks . . . Rather, Groom wants us to think about vampires as a way of re-enchanting the contemporary human condition.”—Kathryn Hughes, Guardian (Book of the Day)