Vivid, classic retellings of the myths of Greece and Rome, along with stories of the Norse gods and heroes. Zeus and Hera, Apollo, Jason and the golden fleece, the wanderings of Ulysses and Aeneas, the deeds of Thor, many more seminal stories underlying Western culture.
The book attempted to do two things: acquaint the reader with the legends, and show how they are alluded to in poetry. While the legends were terse and informative, I found the poetry references tedious and arbitrary.
I was also confused by the scope of the book. The contents are overwhelmingly stacked toward Greek and Roman mythology, but there's also chapters on Egyptian, Norse, and even Eastern myths. These chapters felt like unnecessary additions that didn't do justice to their subject matter.
I should also say that my edition (I scanned my own cover, above) is beautiful. The fabric wrapping on the hardcover is embossed. The maps inside both covers are printed in two colours. Even the pages themselves are printed on high quality paper. Unfortunately, this edition isn't in print—the link directs to a mere Dover Thrift edition.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in classics, literature, religion or geography.
There's something rather precious about the Victorian writer's obvious discomfort with certain aspects of the myths. For one thing, Bullfinch has to work quite hard to extract his moral lessons; no matter how much you bowdlerize them, the major aesop of most Greek myths is, let's be honest, that you'd better "put out" whenever requested or someone is going to turn you into a tree. I also rather admire the complex feats of literary doublespeak that Bullfinch employs when handling the stories involving same-sex love; he does his best to either portray such relationships as (very) close "friendships" or simply obfuscates the pronouns. I had to laugh at his version of Sappho, as he tells the entire story without once revealing the gender of her lover.
I also found his emphasis rather interesting. The book is supposed to be a collection of myths and fables from around the world, yet almost the book focuses on Greek mythology (or, I suppose, Roman myths, as Bullfinch uses all the Roman names. Personally, I found that rather irritating as I had to keep translating them in my head.) After 35 chapters of Greek mythology, Bullfinch decides on a brief world tour--one chapter on Egyptian mythology, one chapter on "Eastern" mythology, three chapters on Norse mythology, and one chapter for the Celts. This actually can be seen as emblematic of the era; during Bullfinch's time, the Romans were venerated as having created a Utopian society that was lost to the dark ages, and--at least, according to the British--regained by Victoria's imperialistic regime. The fascination with Romans is then something of a self-congratulatory belief that the Victorian world recreated the splendour of the ancients.
Overall, Bullfinch's book exemplifies the Victorian attempt to both venerate and sterilize ancient folklore. Although perhaps not precisely true to their originals, I think Bullfinch's stories have a charm all their own.
This three-volume collection presents Bulfinch's studies first published in one combined volume in 1881: The Age of Fable presents the Greek and Roman myths of the classical period. The Age of Chivalry is a retelling of the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and sundry British/Celtic folk tales. The third part, the Legends of Charlemagne, recounts tales drawn from France, Germany, and Africa.