BMCR 2021.10.25

Antike Mythen im schwäbischen Gewand: Gustav Schwabs Sagen des klassischen Altertums und ihre antiken Quellen

, Antike Mythen im schwäbischen Gewand: Gustav Schwabs Sagen des klassischen Altertums und ihre antiken Quellen. Rezeption der Antike, Band 6. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck et Ruprecht, 2020. Pp. 358. ISBN 9783946317432 €59,99.


“Often have I told my youngest daughter the legends of ancient Greece, and have found myself wishing that I could give her a book that would show her more of that magic world which was the delight of my own youth, and to which I love to return, now that I am older.” The influential classicist Werner Jaeger (1888-1961), who had emigrated from Germany to the US in 1936, wrote this at Harvard in his introduction to Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes. Myths and Epics of Ancient Greece (New York: Pantheon, 1946, and in print ever since). He added: “Of course there are other books of this kind in English, but most of them, at any rate, fill a different need from the one I felt. They are intended to appeal primarily to children, though no one would deny that they are entitled to their share of these wonderful old tales. The Greeks themselves thought so. Plato wanted the future citizens of his ideal republic to begin their literary education with the telling of myths rather than with mere facts or rational teachings. This plan of the great philosopher of education mirrors the life of Greece as it then was, for there too the education of man—the paideia—began with the telling of myths, just as later, in the Christian era, Bible stories and legends of the lives of the saints were the basis of all education.” Thus the prominent author of the three-volume study of Paideia (1934-1944) neatly connected his most famous work with a then one-century-old retelling of Greek myths by the German teacher Gustav Schwab, Die schönsten Sagen des klassischen Alterthums nach seinen Dichtern und Erzählern, first published in three volumes in 1838-1840.

Gustav Schwab (1792-1850), who taught Latin and Greek at a Gymnasium (high school) in Stuttgart, was interested in popularizing classical literature to the general public, and especially to school children. Together with the classicist (and Byzantinist avant la lettre) Gottlieb Tafel (1787-1860) and the theologian Christian Osiander (1781-1855), he edited four huge series of German translations of Greek and Latin prose and poetry. His most successful work, however, was Die schönsten Sagen. While this has so far been analysed mainly by specialists in children’s literature, the ancient sources used by Schwab, but not clearly referred to by him, remained unstudied. Research on Schwab’s “pre-texts” and the methods applied by him is thus most welcome, and Jonathan Groß now presents an excellent book, based on his Düsseldorf Dr. phil. dissertation, which will become the definitive study of that topic for a long time to come. An introduction (Schwab and the Myths, pp. 11-41) is followed by the main section (Source Analysis, pp. 42-287). Groß studies selected parts of Schwab’s work for a detailed source analysis, beginning with Prometheus and the Ages of Man, where Groß clarifies Schwab’s debt to Ovid’s Metamorphoses; for the Argonauts, Apollonius Rhodius is shown to be the main source, while for “heroes and antiheroes,” and especially for Hercules, several ancient texts, consulted in the original languages (but also via translations and mythological handbooks) are demonstrated to be Schwab’s sources. Finally, Groß analyses Schwab’s passages on the “Tales of Troy” and shows his reliance not just on Homer, but also on late antique texts. The book ends with a concluding note (pp. 288-292), an English summary (pp. 293-297) and three appendices (pp. 298-312), a list of abbreviations, sources, and literature (pp. 313-343), an index of Greek and Latin citations (pp. 344-357), and a very brief subject index (p. 358).

In detail, Jonathan Groß’s analysis of the passages on Prometheus and the Ages of Man, which are based on heterogeneous pre-texts, exemplifies the central features of Gustav Schwab’s approach. First, Groß draws attention to the fact that Schwab did not select the myths and their sequence at random here but chose such myths which had been told several times in Greek and Roman literature (p. 44), and after analysing this book, Groß concludes that Schwab “intended above all to give coherent, consistent versions of the myths, quasi a Vulgate, in which he occasionally unites and harmonizes competing versions (for example, in the Prometheus chapter), but on the whole refers to the most complete and self-contained pre-texts possible” (pp. 99-100). As for Schwab’s second book, Groß concludes that Schwab “has succeeded, for all his simplification, in producing a retelling of its own charm, a fluent reading whose basic features correspond to the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius” (p. 149). The subsequent analyses specify further details, but essentially confirm the conclusions reached before, and thus justify the selective approach chosen by Groß.

Jonathan Groß has organized the massive amount of material well and helps his readership by presenting interim summaries after the individual chapters, a full bibliography not only of all editions and translations of Gustav Schwab’s work, but also of modern research, and a full index of ancient sources which—for the first time—enables readers to check the relationship of a passage in, say, Quintus Smyrnaeus, with the creative and ultimately more influential use by Schwab. Groß convincingly shows how Schwab based his narrative mainly on classical sources, and to a minor extent on their reception in translations and mythological lexica.

In dealing with Greek myths, Gustav Schwab’s protestant belief in the principle of sola scriptura met with the multifaceted and often contradictory versions of myths in classical literature. Schwab’s solution was to present a coherent narrative by leaving out most alternative traditions (and details that he felt were too frivolous for his young audience), and by retelling the myths as stories in a uniform language accessible to school children and the general public. Jonathan Groß’s work is a major contribution to understanding Schwab’s approach, whose success in the German-speaking world (though less elsewhere) lasts until the present day: Werner Jaeger was not the only scholar who had experienced “that magic world” in his youth through Die schönsten Sagen, and the present reviewer knows several German classicists whose enthusiasm for the ancient world goes back to reading Schwab’s work in their formative years. Towards the end of his introduction (referred to above) Jaeger mentioned, in relation to trends in studying myth that existed in Schwab’s time, that the latter’s book “is untouched by this speculative and symbolical conception of myths. The investigator of myths along the lines laid down by the Romantic School will think that the naïve teller of these tales has often ignored profundities. But this book is meant not only for children but also for the childlike spirit of the young and old alike. It conveys a breath of the imperishable strength of youth in Greek genius, which is perhaps most alive and beautiful in the myth.”