Cover image for The king of the ants : mythological essays
The king of the ants : mythological essays
Herbert, Zbigniew.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Essays. Selections. English
First edition.
Publication Information:
Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
ix, 85 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PG7167.E64 A23 1999C Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



A collection of prose rewritings of myths and tales. In the title story, The King of the Ants, Herbert considers the tension between humankind's solemn idleness and progress - that treacherous force. Other pieces include a Chinese tale about the dangers of vanity and authority.

Author Notes

Zbigniew Herbert: October 29, 1924 - July 28, 1998.

Polish poet and playwright Zbigniew Herbert was born in 1924. His works have been translated in most European languages. His awards include the Jurzykowski Prize (1964), the Austrian Government Prize for European Literature (1965) and the Petrarch Prize (1979). He created the character of Mr. Cognito.

Herbert died in Warsaw in July, 1998.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

These may be the last books by the late Herbert (1924^-98), except for the probable collected editions and possible roundups of fugitive work. Elegy includes, besides all of his last book, first published in Poland in 1990, new translations of poems from his first (1956), second (1957), and third (1961) collections and of prose poems dating from 1957 to 1969. King is a set of seriously fanciful speculations on the characters and fates of figures from Greek mythology. Both are books that, once read, it is easy to imagine rereading, a poem here and an essay there, again and again. Some of the poems are parable-like little stories whose protagonists, whether subjective or objective, are Everyperson; others reimagine such resonant events as the trial of Jesus, the subsequent life of Barabbas, and Tolstoy's panicked flight from his home at the end of his life; and still others question the conceptions of revolutionaries and reformers, such as Rousseau's sentimentality about nature--did he know of the carnivorous pitcher plant, Herbert asks. Always they uphold the traditions of common life and of art and the integrity of the person against the tyranny of ideology--a tyranny that, as a twentieth-century Pole, Herbert knew very well. Although he calls them essays, the prose pieces in The King of the Ants can and will be read as thought-provoking and often highly amusing short stories. Each essay takes a figure (usually a deity) from classical Greek and Roman mythology and speculates on what about him or her has not come down to us in the extant literature. The ugly, disputatious warrior Thersites, mentioned only once in the Iliad; the warrior-king Ajax, whose subjects, the Myrmidons, were bestowed by Zeus in a dream in which a rain of ants became humans; Atlas, the Titan who holds up the world forever and, Herbert says, deserves to be better remembered than as "the catatonic of mythology" --these are some of the mythic protagonists Herbert makes simply and sympathetically human and whose emotions and thoughts he imaginatively reconstructs in order, it seems, to remind us that the gods and humans are the same kind of beings. Both books give new luster to that frayed ideal, humanism. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Employing a Borgesian pedant-narrator in these delightful "mythological essays," acclaimed Polish poet Herbert (Elegy for the Departure; Barbarian in the Garden) reconstructs classical myths, drawing on conflicting sources and embellishing as he sees fit. In the nine pieces here, Herbert engages with figures as obscure as Cleomedes of Astipalea and as familiar as Atlas. The opening and closing "essays"‘"Securitas" and the title piece‘are political allegories. The seven other tales examine individuals, either those who have been overlooked, or those who, despite their mythic dimensions, are surprisingly hapless: Ares, the god of war, finds himself handily defeated; Cerberus, the multi-headed dog who guards the gates of hell, becomes, once tamed by Heracles, a faithful pup; Endymion is beloved by a goddess and granted immortality‘but at the cost of remaining in an eternal slumber. And in the title entry, the Myrmidons (the "ants" of the title) constantly undermine the innovative, democratizing plans of their king, Ajax, simply by adhering to their traditional conception of his autocratic power. Advised by highly educated outsiders, Ajax stages his own assassination, hoping to bring change to his people. Luckily, their simple goodness is too much even for such machinations, and in the end, he returns to rule them again, cured of his need to "improve" things. Herbert's success here lies in a lightness of touch, never pressing his ironies, but letting them unfold gently. These pieces, like the best of mythology, tackle weighty issues while maintaining a pleasantly slight‘or in the case of this volume, slim‘appearance. (Feb.) FYI: Herbert passed away last summer; a collection of previously untranslated poems is also due from Ecco in February (Forecasts, Dec. 21, 1998). (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This slim volume from the late honored Polish poet and essayist defies easy categorization. Comprising 11 short prose forays into classical subjects (Greek, Roman, and biblical), it is nevertheless contemporary with a vengeance. Witness Ares, the god of war, sipping coffee at an outdoor café while the bomb he'd planted earlier detonates. Or Atlas, forgotten patient carrier of the world, reincarnated as the patron of the terminally ill, prisoners, and the hungry. Herbert (Report from the Besieged City, LJ 3/1/95) lived under both Nazi and Stalinist regimes in Poland and throughout his career used mythological subjects as a means to comment on injustice while maintaining a light touch and, yes, even some humor. Highly recommended for classical and Polish collections, as well as libraries of any kind lucky enough to serve adventurous readers.‘Mary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.