The idea of Stephen Fry, man of the world and, on screen at least, great educator of esoteric information via the likes of QI, retelling the Greek myths for a modern world is, on paper, a perfect combination and so I was excited to read just that in Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold.
While I thought I had a decent knowledge of the basic bits of the stories that would be told, that turned out to not be the case. Rather than the vaguely historical legends of the Trojan or Spartan wars or the great fantasies of the likes of Homer, Fry takes us back to the beginning, literally, making this, for those of a Christian upbringing, a bit like the Greek version of the stories from the Old Testament.
Fry takes us through the beginnings of the world, the age of the immortals with giants and titans et al, and then the arrival of the Olympians and the birth of mankind and ‘his’ first stumbling steps into greater understanding.
There’s no denying that all of these stories are, in their own ways, fascinating and, while some are very familiar others are far less a part of the general consciousness which gives a good balance between retelling of the familiar and discovering something new — for me at least.
Throughout, Fry is his expectedly witty, slightly irreverent self and you can hear his voice in the prose as he explains some of the more complex elements, revels in the twisting machinations of the Gods, or simply tells some great stories that, in their own ways, have lessons about the human condition that remain important even now.
That said the book and the style aren’t perfect.
It being, essentially, a series of short stories loosely tied together by an arranged ‘historical’ timeline (Fry admits this is constructed to allow the stories to hang together more coherently as a complete book) means that some of these tales are more engaging than others.
Generally it’s the slightly longer form ones that work best in this context as they allow, as much as archetypal myths ever could, far greater depth of character, location and plot and in the hands of a writer like Fry he really does develop all these elements very well.
In contrast the shorter stories often lost me somewhat and did at times become repetitive — how many stories of humans becoming trees or flowers because of a dispute with a cantankerous deity do we really need — this was something I found challenging at points and like I had to work through to get to the juicier sections that made a real narrative connection.
The thing that definitely keeps the book moving and interesting though is the overall sense of enthusiasm from Fry that is infectious, as well as the simple telling of the tales without need for explanation and commentary so you can enjoy simply as stories and take what meaning you find (if you find any, though it would be hard not to).
I have to admit though that, as I finished the book, I couldn’t help but think it comes across so much in Fry’s voice that it is one of those cases where it would likely be even better as an audiobook read by the author.
This would likely allow his asides and tone to really bring it to life — after all, as he points out in his afterword, much ancient myth was designed to be told rather than read and that is something often overlooked and that I feel should be more widely celebrated.