With "Hercules", author Fred Van Lente has made a fine addition to the new Myths and Legends-series from Osprey Publishing. Each title in this series focuses on a specific legendary figure or a collection of myths about diverse topics, that have helped to shape our cultures. This lavishly illustrated volume provides, in 80 pages, a concise retelling of the myths and legends surrounding the most famous hero of Greek mythology, Hercules. (Actually, his name is Heracles, meaning "The Glory of Hera", but in Rome and the modern West, he is better known as Hercules).
The main part of the book is a retelling of those myths which concern Hercules, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, famed for his prodigious strength and especially his "twelve labors", a series of near-impossible tasks imposed upon him as punishment for the killing of his wife and children. Amongst these were slaying the many-headed Hydra, retrieving the Golden Apples of the Hesperides and bringing the hellhound Cerberus up from the Underworld. Hercules was also one of the Argonauts.
Also covered are many of his other great deeds, that mainly occurred while doing penance for stupid acts done in anger or carelessness. Because of this, it would be easy to view him as a muscle bound buffoon, but he would also do anything to help a friend and once his anger passed he was the most critical judge of his own actions. All of this made him very human: a great guy to go bar-hopping with, but one with serious anger-management issues.
The author narrates all of these stories in an engaging style, larding his tales with a considerable amount of humor. Many photographs and illustrations in both color and black & white enliven the text. Particularly the specially commissioned color plates by Alexey Aparin are magnificent. For all of that, there are two reasons that keep this volume from being awarded the full five stars.
Firstly, there's no room for anything more than a concise recounting of the myths because of the 80-page limit format of the Osprey Myths and Legends series. As the author states near the end of the book (loc.1022): "Hercules had many more adventures, far too many to be mentioned any more than in passing here." It is markedly these lesser known accounts of Hercules that should have been expanded upon in one or two extra chapters to do them justice.
Secondly, although the book description states: "This book tells the complete story of this legendary warrior, including information on the classical sources, his deification and cult, and his continuing popularity as a character in film, television and comic books," the last part of this sentence is only covered in a few not overtly long sidebars scattered throughout the book. Reading them, I expected these parts to be expanded upon in a concluding chapter that looks at the image of Hercules in the modern world through media like movies, TV and comics, but, alas, this was not the case.
So for these two reasons, I subtracted one star.
And, also being a fan of the Hercules comic-book character, now what could have been greater than to finish this volume on Hercules with a Kirby-drawn splash page of Thor and Hercules going at it hammer and thongs, and Hercules shouting his battle-cry "Have at thee!" whilst he graciously bestowed "the gift of battle" on his opponent? Sadly, this did not happen.
Notwithstanding these quibbles, this "Hercules"-volume is a great read. Recommended for anyone who wants to learn about Greek mythology without diving into a dry, academic tome!
And here's hoping that in future volumes, the Myths and Legends scope will be broadened to, for example, Native American myths and legends, particularly the antics of Coyote and other tricksters, as well as any other non-Western mythology.