This Folio Life: Selecting an edition of The Golden Bough

Owing to its propensity to grow and grow and grow, A. E. Houseman once described James Frazer’s The Golden Bough as ‘a banyan tree’. The first edition (inspired in part by Frazer writing entries for the Encyclopaedia Britannica on ‘Taboo’ and ‘Totemism’) was published in 1890 and consisted of a modestly substantial two volumes. Some ten years later, the second edition added a further volume to the tally, but the real work was still to be done. Between 1906 and 1915, The Golden Bough grew to an impressive 12 volumes (one of which is simply the index for the previous eleven), and to which Frazer eventually added a further supplementary volume in 1936, taking the final total to 13.

The Golden Bough, two-volume edition from The Folio Society, 2018

The Golden Bough, two-volume edition from The Folio Society, 2018

Given the scale to which the work had grown, a single-volume edition was proposed in the early twenties, and Lady Frazer set to work abridging her husband’s tomes. (Initially her method was to sit down with a copy of the books, a pair of scissors and a pot to glue to simply cut out the passages she wished to keep and stick them on to fresh pages, but she soon realised that this meant losing the passages on the back of each page.) However, given the sensitive times in which the abridgement was made we find that Lady Frazer’s version omitted some of the more risky passages: excisions include material relating to the crucifixion of Christ, as well as the ‘deliciously irreverent’ parts on sacred prostitution.

Mask of Tezcatlipoca. Human skull with turquoise and lignite mosaic, red thorny oyster shell, Miztec-Aztec 1400-1521 (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Mask of Tezcatlipoca. Human skull with turquoise and lignite mosaic, red thorny oyster shell, Miztec-Aztec 1400-1521 (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Instead of any of these versions, our Folio Society edition uses Robert Fraser’s unsurpassed abridgement of the massive third edition. Retaining the necessary elements of Frazer’s principles and conclusions, this version of the text also reintroduces the passages relating to Christianity that so offended an early-20th century audience. Furthermore, ours is the first edition to fully illustrate this text, and what a challenge it has been. From ethnographic photographs and Aztec sculptures to Victorian corn dollies and Irish wrenboys, the pictures themselves give the reader some idea of the monumental scope of Frazer’s life-work. I think we can be proud of creating two volumes that even Frazer would want on his bookshelf (beside the 13 others presumably).

Find out more and order the two-volume Folio edition of The Golden Bough.

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