________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006


Into the World of the Dead: Astonishing Adventures in the Underworld.

Michael Boughn.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2006.
56 pp., pbk. & cl., $14.95 (pbk.), $24.95 (cl.).
ISBN 1-55037-958-5 (pbk.), ISBN 1-55037-959-3 (cl.).

Subject Headings:
Death-Mythology-Juvenile fiction.
Future life - Juvenile fiction.
Voyages to the underworld - Juvenile fiction.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Laura E. Ludtke

*** /4


Mention the underworld to people today, and most will assume you’re talking about gangsters. Since about 1900, the term underworld has been used increasingly to mean criminals and their illegal activities. Before that time, the underworld was better known for three-headed dogs, sharp-taloned demons, boiling lakes, and sometimes even eternal youth and peace.

The Christian Hell was full of countless demons who had followed Lucifer during the War in Heaven and were condemned to damnation along with him. Asmodeus, with the heads of a bull, a ram, and a man perched atop the feet of rooster, was the demon who provoked people to adultery and meaningless fads. He was also believed to have invented music, dancing, and theatre.

Michael Boughn’s book Into the World of the Dead is an interesting approach to presenting myths and legends about the Underworlds of various world cultures. Boughn treats each story and culture with respect and emphasizes the important caveat that there are multiple versions of each story, and that each is sacred to someone.

     Boughn’s representation of the Underworlds is divided into nine chapters, including sections such as “The Way In”, “Guardians and Monsters”, “Who’s in Charge”, and “Why Go?” In each section, a variety of cultures and time periods are represented. For instance, when Boughn discusses Herakles’ twelfth labour, to fetch the three-headed dog Cerberus from the Underworld, he mentions that J.K. Rowling included a similar three-headed dog, Fluffy, in her novel, Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone, making a nice link between modern and ancient Greek culture. Other than the ancient Greek and Roman myths which might be familiar to more young readers than the other myths, Boughn includes tales from Japanese, Aztec, Hopi, Norse, Celtic and African traditions, as well as explanations from the religious beliefs of Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Christian faiths concerning the Underworld. The book had many beautiful illustrations throughout which complement the many tales.

internal art

     The introduction introduces readers to many complex ideas such as multiple narrative traditions (“many different versions of these remarkable tales exist”) and the gradual progression of oral tradition into written narratives (these stories “were told by generations of storyteller, often for thousands of years before they were written down”) without adequate explanation of these concepts. Periodically, Boughn will oversimplify or misrepresent a certain depiction of the Underworld. These instances will either leave readers confused or wanting to read a more in-depth account of the same tale. Whether due to lack of research or purposeful, they distract from the flow of the narrative and take away from the depth and detail which elsewhere in the book contribute to the success of Boughn’s accounts. While Boughn’s attention to detail is impressive, a glossary or guide to the pronunciation of names would enhance the learning experience.

     The most enjoyable aspect of the book is how Boughn presents the richness of material. Whether he comically relates the story of Aeneas and the Sibyl’s journey through the Underworld – where Aeneas, the seasoned soldier from Troy and the future father of the Roman Empire, cowers at the sight of Cerberus, the three-headed dog and the Sibyl, a 700 year-old priestess, successfully navigates the perils of the gloomy realm – or he includes pop-culture, such as references to Harry Potter and a website featuring current and scientifically proven doorways to Hell in England, Boughn endeavors to make relevant and entertaining age-old tales.

     Into the World of the Dead: Astonishing Adventures in the Underworld is an interesting account of the Underworld as it manifests itself in cultures around the world. Michael Boughn’s accounts are both vivid and respectful. This book will interest and hopefully inspire future mythologists, storytellers, gangsters, and artists (among others).


Laura Ludtke recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Honours Classical Studies. She will be attending Queen’s University to pursue a Masters in Classics in the fall.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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