Stephen Fry’s retelling of the great Greek myths, Mythos, utilises these ancient stories to tell us who we are. They were created to define and explain our world, and with his gentle wit and cheeky humour, Fry’s collation and interpretation is entertaining and smart. From the birth of the universe to the creation of humankind and beyond, these myths still resonate in our tragic, comic, fateful age.
Fry believes that the Greek gods are the best and worst of us: he has loved these stories since he was a child and you can tell this opportunity to retell them gives him great joy. From Athena born out of the cracking-open of Zeus’ great head, to Pandora opening her jar of evil torments, Fry sails through the myths to construct a framework to see and understand the stories, as well as their resonance today.
We start with the beginning, in the Chaos, and from the very first page Fry’s wit and passion are clear:
“It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or a hiccup, vomit or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea-lions, seals, lions, human beings and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.”
Throughout the book there are asides and footnotes, Fry diverting to inform us how this particular name is the root of a common contemporary word, or what the Roman equivalent of this story is, or to dispel a misconception about a tale. For example, Pandora did not have a box, the translation of the Greek word more easily settles on jar.
I enjoyed these asides because they demonstrated the depth of the author’s knowledge as well as passion. And throughout, of course, there is a wit that can veer from gentle to caustic; always amusing:
“The island of Cyprus, being the landing ground of spume-born Aphrodite, had long worshipped the goddess of love and beauty with a special fervour, earning Cypriots a reputation for libertine licentiousness and libidinous loose-living. Cyprus was thought of by the mainland as a degenerate place, an Island of Free Love.”
But, in the end, it just felt like a collection of very short stories. There is a clear, chronological through-line in the beginning of the book, but as we progress Fry just collates myths of varying length and groups them thematically. It made it just too easy to put down and not pick up again. I do know these stories, and love them too, so I needed just a little bit more authorial intervention to make this a new and worthwhile experience.
These are enduring tales for a reason, and Fry’s passion for and knowledge of them are apparent on every page. The myths tell us of loves and quarrels, desires and deception: tales of who we are today but from the very first, bigger and bolder than humankind. This is a delightful collection of timeless storytelling.