CL - Geography

Dictionnaire des lieux et pays mythiques [Dictionary of Mythical Places and Countries]. Ed. Olivier Battistini, Jean-Dominique Poli, Pierre Ronzeaud, and Jean-Jacques Vicensini. Paris: R. Laffont, 2011. xxxiv, 1303 p. 20 cm. (Bouquins). ISBN 978-2-221-09542-3: EUR 32

An RREA Original Review by Wendeline A. Hardenberg (Southern Connecticut State University)

Despite the implications of the title, this dictionary covers far more than just imaginary and fictional places. Although many of the entries reflect locales that do not actually exist, such as “Hadès, royaume de” [Hades, Realm of ], many others can easily be pointed to on a current or historical map, for example, “Stalingrad, bataille de” [Stalingrad, Battle of ] and “Balkans au XXe siècle” [Balkans in the 20th century]. The concept of “mythical,” therefore, is taking on a very particular definition here, one that is not entirely stable from entry to entry. This varying definition is reflected in the five-part preface, which starts with a brief general statement, then moves on to four sections, each written by one of the four editors, explaining the methodology behind the selection of mythical places for each of four eras in (Western) human history: antiquity, the Middle Ages, the modern period (16th, 17th, and 18th centuries), and the contemporary period (19th and 20th centuries).

Antiquity is perhaps the most straightforward, given that our most easily identifiable myths originate in this time period, but there is still room for many different ancient interpretations of the relationship between myths and rational thought or history. The medieval period adds a layer of uncertainty and fluidity, with three narrative wellsprings—folklore, classical mythology, and scripture—“irrigating” medieval literature and consciousness, including their mythical dimensions. The early modern period ushers in the appropriation of antiquity’s symbolic spaces for allegorical purposes as well as the investment of real places with mythical significance. Contemporary times appeal more to collective memory and belief, internal atlases arising from culture and communal history. Such is the introduction to an extremely theoretical undertaking.

All entries are signed by their authors and frequently include mini-bibliographies for further reading or suggestions of other entries to examine. At the back is a more extensive selected bibliography as well as a very helpful index to both places (in italics) and persons and characters (in bold) that appear throughout the compilation. Though explicitly not an exhaustive collection, each mythical place selected receives full treatment: historical and textual situation, enlightening citations, analysis of construction and diffusion, and investigation of mythical dimensions—which is especially important for places that also have a physical reality. Many (if not most) of the entries extend for several pages, and they range in tone from the relatively neutral one expected of a dictionary to that of challenging scholarly essays in miniature. Dictionnaire des lieux et pays mythiques is not a tome for anyone without graduate-level appreciation for history, literature, mythology, and the French language. Recommended for libraries serving graduate French departments with explicit interest (either for coursework or faculty research) in mythology.

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Last update: November 2013 [RT]
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