The York Companion to Themes and Motifs of World Literature: Mythology, History, and Folklore


308 pages
Contains Bibliography
ISBN 0-919966-27-6





Reviewed by Bruce Whiteman

Bruce Whiteman is Head of Rare Books at the McGill University Libraries
and author of The Invisible World Is in Decline, Books II to IV.


This book is both more and less than its title promises. It is more, because in addition to including entries for what might properly be considered themes and motifs, it also contains entries for persons, places, and “things” (e.g., Hannibal, Ithaca, the French Revolution). Some of the entries of this kind seem curiously out of place. One will find listed both Galileo and Marat, each of whom has been the subject of a play (thus making them themes?); but though the Brecht play is mentioned, Peter Schaeffer’s Marat/Sade is not. At the same time, such seemingly obvious themes as the wasteland or the voyage are nowhere to be found. It is true, as Elkhadem says in a brief prefatory note, that the choice of themes and motifs in such a book as this “will always seem arbitrary and biased” (p. 3). It nevertheless seems to a degree eccentric to have an entry for “crab” (where the only reference is to the Batrachomyomachia, hardly a principal work of world literature), but no entry for a theme that persists all the way from Gilgamesh to The Cantos (the voyage).

Indeed, some of the entries are to all intents and purposes invisible because they are so unlikely. Even if one thought to look up “chemistry” in a companion to literature (and who would?), how helpful is it to be told that “Paracelsus initiated modern chemistry” and nothing else? Never mind that the statement is highly debatable to boot. Equally perplexing — to the point of being charming — are the entries for “funeral,” where we are told simply that “Mozart’s funeral was not attended by anyone except the grave-digger,” and “bureaucracy,” which tells us only that “Philip II of Spain was very fond of bureaucratic procedures.”

The York Companion to Themes and Motifs of World Literature clearly suffers from imprecision in the compiler’s mind as to what was to be included and who the users of the work were to be, and the result is that it tries to cover many fields well, but really covers none adequately. If one compares the book to, say, William Rose Benet’s The Reader’s Encyclopedia (New York: Crowell, 1965), the York Companion comes out a poor second. The Benet book gives fuller information on people and books, and yet it is not clogged with entries which no reader would think to look up (“bleed,” “grey hair,” “smell,” “enjoyment,” etc.). One might browse in the York Companion, profitably and even amusingly, but I cannot think that one would need it close to hand in the way that one wants Bulfinch, or Benet, or Bartlett, or the O.E.D. close to hand.


Elkhadem, Saad, “The York Companion to Themes and Motifs of World Literature: Mythology, History, and Folklore,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 25, 2024,