“Mythos is Stephen’s vivid retelling of the Greek myths. Bringing to life the Gods, monsters and mortals of Ancient Greece, he reimagines their astonishing stories for the modern world.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Whilst worship of the Greek Gods may have come to an end over a thousand years ago, the stories of Greek mythology are still widely told today and arguably spark more interest than contemporary religious stories. The myths and legends of the Olympians, the Titans, and the Age of Heroes are still discussed to this day and the characters are more well known now in some countries than they were during the reign of the Greek Gods.
There is something about Greek legends that fires up our curiosity and imagination and it’s hard to believe they’ll ever fade away completely. Whilst we may no longer worship them, most people can still list off a few Gods and Titans such as Zeus, Poseidon, Prometheus, and Aphrodite. Many English words derive from Greek myths and our solar system is full of planets named after the Roman adaptations of Greek Gods such as Venus for Aphrodite, Mars for Ares, and of course Jupiter for Zeus. Greek Gods live on in our collective conscience thanks to writers, poets (especially Shakespeare), historians, scientists, and of course the countless depictions of them in films and television.
We may still be very much aware of Greek mythology, but it would be fair to say that most of us have a basic understanding at best. The number of characters and events are so numerous that the idea of sorting it all out from start to finish is a daunting thought indeed. Where does one even begin when it comes to unravelling the Gordian knot that is the complex cast of Greek mythology? Not only does time appear to pass differently to the Gods (Zeus apparently grew from infant to man within about a year), but many of key figures are produced by parents who are also brother and sister. Safe to say that, whilst Greek mythology is no doubt a compelling subject, it can be quite intimidating for newcomers. Luckily for us, Stephen Fry’s Mythos presents the Greek legends for us to enjoy in an easy to follow book that doesn’t feel dumbed down.
As he reveals in the book’s afterward, Fry has been fascinated by Greek mythology since he was a boy and first explored the ancient world with wonderfully illustrated children’s books (which no doubt tend to leave out the torture, murder, kin-slaying, and incestuous love). Children’s books are certainly an excellent way for young readers to experience the myths, but they are a heavily edited down version. On the other hand, books aimed at adults can be rather dense and dry. With this in mind, I believe that Fry’s Mythos serves as a mix of the two. Like the children’s stories, his retelling presents us with a distinct and colourful cast of heroes, Gods, and monsters, whilst not omitting all the adult content which make them all the more interesting, compelling, and realistic.
Make no mistake, this is a storybook, not a textbook. Whilst Stephen appears to have gone to every effort to recreate the myths as accurately as possible, he fills in the missing links with his own imagination to provide a narrative that’s both authentic and compelling. These are myths for the modern reader and Fry’s writing illustrates this, for instance when he describes the sullen Cronus as “a bit of a Morrissey”. It could be risky for any writer to try and write the dialogue between Gods, heroes, and monsters, but I personally greatly enjoyed Fry’s portrayal of each figure, giving them voices and personalities that fitted their domain and powers. This helps the characters become more three dimensional than they otherwise might appear and thus the reader can find themselves empathising with even the most slippery characters. It might be easy to dismiss Hera, Zeus’ wife, as a jealous and cruel God who took her frustration for her husband out on the unsuspecting women he wouldn’t stop sleeping with but, thanks to Fry’s portrayal, she can also be seen as a regal matriarch who’s severe attitude is not born of selfishness, but rather a dedication to keeping the house of Olympus in tact. Hermes may seem, on the surface at least, as one of the lesser Gods, but his sharp tongue and humour made for one of the most amusing chapters in the whole book.
Not only does Mythos attempt to retell the Greek myths in a captivating but true way, it also tries to tell the stories in chronological order. The book begins with the very earliest and elemental Gods that only seem semi conscious creating the land and the skies, then tells of the rise of the Titans, and how they were eventually overthrown and cast down by the Olympians led by Zeus. This leads to the Age of Heroes along with the creation of man and the God’s meddling and interfering with mortal affairs. As I mentioned earlier, time is a much more abstract thing to the Gods than it is to us mortals and it doesn’t seem to apply to them in quite the same way. Thus trying to weave a linear narrative of Greek mythology can be quite a challenge. Regardless, Fry does an impressive job of keep the flow of each story and the Gods and the world around them feels as though it grows and changes at a constant pace, ever drawing nearer to the rise of us mortals.
While I would certainly recommend starting from the beginning, Fry does an excellent job at establishing how things came to be as they are, each story is self contained in one or two chapters and one could easily open the book and begin reading whichever myth takes their fancy. As soon as I’d reached the end, I went back and re-read some of my favourite legends, such as Prometheus giving fire to man, the hubris of Sisyphus, and the very comical birth of Hermes. It should be noted that not every Greek myth is present here. Indeed, all the classics are included but the book ends with the end of the Age of Heroes and doesn’t cover more ‘recent’ events such as the Trojan war, Odysseus’s return journey, or the adventure of Hercules and the eventual appropriations of Greek mythology into Roman beliefs. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to be had with what Stephen does present to us and, as he says in the afterward, a book detailing the entirety of Greek mythology would take an age to read and even longer to write. It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed Mythos that I was still itching for more once the last page was turned. Perhaps Mr. Fry might one day create a second instalment? One can hope.
Fry has managed to present us with a loyal account of the Greek myths that is approachable to newcomers but not dumbed down. I found myself immersed in the world of ancient Greece and, like I’m sure people back then did, I found myself warming to some Gods whilst finding others to be too cruel or vain. Each one will appeal to different kinds of people and it just goes to show how some Greeks preferred to worship some Gods over others. It may seem strange to say but I found the Olympians to be very…human. They may be able to hurl lightening bolts, turn into animals, and manipulate time and space, but at their core they are flawed, complex, and deep. These stories aren’t just for entertainment, though they certainly are entertaining, they serve as warnings and as guidance for us mere mortals as we attempt to navigate our way safely through life with all our flaws, virtues, wants, and needs. As Fry muses at the end; most religious stories tell of how God created man in his image, but the Greeks created their God’s in theirs.
Added 2nd December 2017