Unlike the Fry & Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster fans out there, I’m most familiar with Stephen Fry from his work on BBC panel quiz show QI. I’ve heard he’s quite a good writer, as well as a rather intelligent bloke, but instead of picking up one of his autobiographical works I decided to start with Mythos, his “vivid retelling” of some of the major Greek myths. Apparently Fry has a lifelong passion for the subject; he says in the Foreword that it all began with a copy of Tales from Ancient Greece that he had as a child.
I’m about as far from a Greek myths tragic as you could imagine – I haven’t even read Circe. I brought to Mythos only what I’d absorbed through assorted and infrequent pop-culture references. Fry seems to have foreseen readers like me, and reassures us: “You don’t need to know anything to read this book… certainly no ‘classical education’ is called for,” (page vii).
He also acknowledges other cultures and sources of mythology, but says that he focuses on the Greek “because it has survived with a detail, richness, life and colour that distinguish it from other mythologies” (page viii). He derives the myths he’s chosen to retell from a few key sources (Hesiod’s Theogony, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), and he acknowledges those, too. The only thing he fails to mention until the very end is his cut-and-pasting: these myths are so intricately woven, they defy our conventional storytelling beats, so Fry has had to arrange them into a timeline of sorts for coherence’s sake.
“As if such a consistent and stable a device as a timeline could ever be used to delineate the complex, kaleidoscopic and disorderly unfolding of Greek myth… I have, of course, had to play about with timelines in order to attempt a coherent narrative.”Mythos (page 401-2)
All of the maps and family trees in the front evoke Game Of Thrones-esque fantasy, and that theme continues throughout. From the beginning, there’s a lot of fighting and fucking, a lot of incest and polyamory and MLM. A lot of names are thrown at you very quickly, but Fry helpfully highlights the ones that are particularly important and gives you explicit permission to forget the ones that aren’t.
Hera was my favourite of the gods and goddesses in Mythos, unafraid to inflict her wrath on her “all powerful” husband (Zeus, King of Gods, et cetera) for his philandering and general ridiculousness. I also took a particular shining to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. I was disappointed, however, to find no reference to a god of booklovers (though, I suppose they didn’t really have books, so I suppose that’s forgivable).
Fry offers a lot of linguistic insight (clearly another pet subject of his). It turns out the Greek gods are where we get all kinds of words (chronology, atlas, narcissism), and even imagery like that we associate with the Grim Reaper. The footnotes throughout are particularly illuminating, fleshing out a lot of the myths’ relevance to each other and to today’s world – so don’t sleep on them!
But don’t think that Fry lets his intimidating intellect overwhelm the stories of Mythos. He keeps the language colloquial, the banter humourous, and goes to great pains to emphasise the contemporary resonance of the Greek myths. He makes the gods tangible and relatable to us in the 21st century (e.g., Cadmus and Harmonia as the “iconic power couple”), which makes Mythos an infinitely more entertaining read than some of the other re-tellings you may have encountered. He certainly made the stories as interesting as they could possibly be to a reader like me, who otherwise wouldn’t have taken much notice.
I’ve heard endless (glowing!) recommendations for the Mythos audiobook (Fry is a talented and popular voice narrator, and he reads this one himself), but unfortunately it’s not available through my library’s app. Still, I’d be keen to give it a listen if I get the chance, and I’d be willing to hazard a recommendation to you, too, if that’s your preferred format.
All told, Mythos is a fun and fact-filled read. It might be more of a beginner’s guide version of Greek mythology, but I reckon even the more passionate Greek myth readers could read it just for fun.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Mythos:
- “Atheists shouldn’t write books about myths – they generally tend to think the people “invented” them. They didn’t – myths are evocations of inwardly experienced interactions with, for lack of a better term, higher worlds. That’s why they have such staying power. I found Fry’s Mythos snarky and unpleasant – like sitting through a burlesque show during Easter Mass. The Greeks deserve better.” – P Jerome
- “It’s quarantine and everything sucks. This is the only thing I like. Thank god for Stephen Fry and thank god for greek mythology.” – Babrams
- “It was interesting, but alittle boring.” – thalia becak
- “It was a gift, which has not yet been red, but my adult son expressed enthusiasm.” – Wendikins