Mythology & Folklore
From Homer to Harry Potter by Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara (2006)
What elements of mythology can we see in modern fantasy, and how do we define a myth and a legend and a folktale and all that anyway? This book aims to answer these questions. The introductory discussion of myth and the importance of retellings is, to me, notably better than the later chapters where they start ripping into The Golden Compass with an obvious Christian bias, but hey.
From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner (1994)
A gloriously in-depth study of the evolution of fairy tales and their connection to women’s culture throughout history. The writing style is in that beautiful space between academic text and prose, making it delightful to read as well as interesting.
Great Heroes of Mythology by Petra Press (2010)
A big ol’ glossy illustrated guide to hero tales from across the world. By no means a definitive guide, so if you see something interesting do set out into further reading rather than taking this as your only source, but it is very fun.
In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender by Barbara Fass Leavy (1994)
A study on the fairy tale/folktale archetype of the magical marriage—if a shape-changing supernatural creature and a human have ever ended up together (whether under coercive or romantic circumstances) Leavy has it covered. This is a very dense book, so if you can’t quite get into it but still want to read about fairy tales and gender, I’d say Marina Warner (see above) is a much more accessible start.
Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture by Lori Landay (1998)
The Trickster is a familiar archetype, but one has to ask: what would one look like when taken out of the realm of myth and placed in 20th century mass media? And what would one look like if they were a lady? Landay makes the case for the specifically modern, specifically female version of this character as seen in novels, Hollywood movies, and on TV.
Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women’s Fiction by Susan Sellers (2001)
In a similar vein to From Homer to Harry Potter, Sellers examines the importance of retellings, though in this case specifically retellings with a feminist lens. Has a very handy and interesting introduction that covers the topic broadly, then delves into studying specific novels and short stories in the chapters themselves.
Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends by Marie Heaney (1994)
The book that absolutely hooked me on Irish mythology. The storytelling style is vibrant and engaging, and the larger-than-life characters and their epic adventures—from the exploits of the gods in the Mythological Cycle, to the shenanigans of Cúchullain in the Ulster Cycle, all the way through to the goings-on of the modern saints—come to life in a way that gets you very attached.
The Celtic Myths by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (2015)
A fantastic introduction to both the myths of Ireland and Wales and some historical/archaeological background about the culture that created them.
The Encyclopedia of Mythology by Arthur Cotterdell (2007)
A big, fun, bubbling pot of information full of pictures just like Petra Press’. Again, a neat introduction, but use it as a jumping-off point rather than the sole source of your information on a thing.
The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz (1911)
An old and seminal work in the mythology and folklore of the British Isles. The prose style can be a little dense and tangled owing to its age, but it’s a fascinating read that covers basically everything you need to know about fairy folklore and where it developed from.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (1949)
I spent 2017 shredding through the theory at the heart of this book (or at least, the gendered slant of it) but listen, it’s still a fascinating and important book that has influenced so much of our modern conception of narrative study and storytelling.
The Trickster in Contemporary Film by Helena Bassil-Morozow (2012)
You know me, I love looking for ancient archetypes within modern media, and lucky for me so does this author. Bassil-Morozow delves into the history and evolution of the Trickster, and how it manifests in a postmodern world, namely in cinema, plumbing modern comedies (and other unlikely places) for new incarnations of the archetype.
Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art by Lewis Hyde (1998)
A dense, but readable, dive into the Trickster archetype as it appears across the world. Full of useful definitions and interesting stories, though the author does waffle on a bit in some areas.
A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James (2009)
Exactly what it says on the cover, from the genre’s roots in mythology to the “literature of the fantastic” of the early 20th century to Tolkien and Lewis and Pratchett and Rowling. Very detailed and example-filled, but quite accessible and readable.
Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror by James B. Twitchell (1985)
From ancient folklore to 19th century “shilling shockers” to Universal Studios’ monster movies, Twitchell traces the origin of several different monster “types” (vampires, shapeshifters, and man-made life a la Frankenstein) and looks at why exactly we like them so much. A wonderfully readable and fascinating look at the evolution of the most iconic monsters around.
Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy edited by Jude Roberts and Esther MacCallum-Stewart (2016)
A neat collection of essays on, well, exactly what it says on the cover, covering all sorts of media from Robin Hobb’s novels to BioWare’s RPGs.
Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover (1992)
If you’ve ever heard the term The Final Girl bandied around in discussion of horror tropes, this is where that comes from. Clover takes a long look at the horror genre’s tendency to have female protagonists leading its movies, be they slasher, supernatural, rape-revenge, or any of the gory and frightful subgenres in between.
Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn (2008)
Divides fantasy into four categories based on how the magic is handled and examines them. I have a whole post about it here!
Stories About Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth by Brian Attebery (2014)
An engaging, sometimes even funny, and oh-so-readable study of the growth of the fantasy genre out of its roots in mythology. If you liked the concept of From Homer to Harry Potter and want a more in-depth look at such genre study/folklore study things, definitely pick this one up.
The Lesbian Fantastic by Phyllis M. Betz (2011)
A study of queer (though in this case, predominantly lesbian, as the title suggests) genre fiction, from gothic horror to sci-fi to high fantasy. As well as talking about how LGBTQIA+ (though again, mostly L) writers can use the familiarity of genre to create new, inclusive stories, it’s also just a super neat and fairly comprehensive guide to what genres are made of and how they developed.
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Dianna Wynne Jones (1996)
If you want to read a beloved fantasy author affectionately shredding her own genre, this is the book for you. Presented as a tour guide for your quest through a generic European-style fantasy landscape, the book dishes out information on common tropes and character types you will surely encounter. An informative look at clichés as well as just super fun.
Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives edited by Megan Milks and Karli June Ceranowski (2014)
A collection of academic essays on asexuality—apparently the first of its kind! They cover a wide range of topics from the historical treatment and growth of the identity, to its representation in media, to its relationship with masculinity.
Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine (2010)
Are male and female brains really “hard-wired” to be different? Psychologist Cordelia Fine digs in to try and answer the question. This is a fascinating cultural study presented in a very readable way, however Fine’s bias is fairly clear throughout the book—she obviously already thinks that there is no gender difference, but she also occasionally stops and tells the reader in first person narration how particularly silly she finds certain authors/studies. So it’s good, but maybe don’t have it be your only source if you’re going to be talking in-depth about this topic.
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler (1990)
If you’ve ever heard of the concept of gender as a social construct, this is where that comes from. Gender Trouble is a dense intellectual tornado of philosophy, anthropology, and ‘90s queer studies, but the message at its core is a fascinating one that quite literally changed the way we talk about gender.
Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture by Alexander Doty (1993)
A look at the concept of subtext and queer readings with particular focus on American films and sitcoms. Very readable and accessible, and even sometimes sarcastic and funny, while remaining informative and analytical.
Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker (illustrated by Julia Scheele) (2016)
What’s great for helping us understand complex concepts? Pictures! This is exactly the concept behind this book, which is an illustrated rundown of the brief history and philosophical ins and outs of queer theory and the queer rights movement. Incredibly useful and accessible (though obviously, a brief history, so if you find someone/something in there that piques your interest go look them up rather than taking the guide as your whole source of information). Also includes a very fun illustration of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault setting fire to the gender binary.
The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo (1981)
An influential study of the history of “Homosexuality and the Movies”, charting the portrayal of queer characters in American cinema from the silent film era all the way through The Hays Code to the ‘70s. If you’re looking to dig into concepts like queer-coding, subtext, and the evolution of the Bury Your Gays trope, this is an invaluable source.