REVIEW: Stephen Fry’s ‘Mythos’ retells Greek myths in a fresh, exciting way

(Penguin / Michael Joseph Books)

Mythology is a universally-loved subject and it’s also an easy subject for the erudite Stephen Fry to banter around. If you’ve ever read any of his other works, you’ll know that not only does he have a gift for dry, sardonic wit, but he also can’t help but fly his classicist flag up the flagpole for the world to salute. His personal love for the subject combined with an irreverent style of comedy all adds up to what you can expect from his most recent book, Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece. (Penguin/Michael Joseph Books).

In that, Einstein’s unified theory of physics attempted to bring together understanding of the basic forces in our universe, Fry attempts to do the same with Greek mythology. He melds all of the various Hellenic legends in a single narrative continuum. He places everything in a chronological context, beginning with the way the Greeks saw the beginnings of creation, through the Age of the Titans, the Age of Olympians and finally to the latter era of the tie of the mortal heroes.

While this has been done in endless anthologies and works on Greek Legend (ie: Bullfinch, et. al., which Fry gratefully and whole-heartedly acknowledges), what makes this re-telling different is the delightfully cheeky way in which Fry delivers it. After all, this is a man who, while playing Lord Melchett on Blackadder II, stated: “As private parts to the gods are we! They play with us for their sport.” A great line, and that’s the lens piece with which to view this book.

Every mythology-lover knows that the entertainment value of these stories are the Gods’ own human-like fallibilities and hubris. They are emotional creatures that respond to flattery, are quickly offended and are possessed of all the same failings their human creations have, yet writ large. Of course, that is the nature of these stories: the sin has to be large so that is easy to see and Fry wastes no words in revealing their peccadilloes and pernicious faults in such humorous and delightful ways.

For example: when Sisyphus, the flawed and prideful king is to be punished by Zeus for his transgressions, he encounters Thanatos, who will ignominiously take him to Hades. Upon their meeting Sisyphus merely remarks unimpressed: “Hm. I thought you’d be taller.” From then on, Sisyphus goes on to cheat death through his wit, yet Fry tells this story in such a comedic way, one could imagine it as a comedy sketch from “Fry and Laurie.”

No stranger to comedy is Fry, the entire Greek Pantheon are introduced to us like characters from a sitcom.

Yet that is Fry’s greatest strength: he has the capacity to recount these stories with the voice of an Oxford don yet have it appeal to pretty much anyone who enjoys these legends. In fact, one can imagine a televised production of this book, broken down into enacted encounters scripted by Fry himself. Yes – I think this would make an amazing television show. My only challenge would be to come up with a title for it.

Perhaps I should leave that to Fry? Tis probably best.

If you’ve ever read any of Fry’s other written works, then you should expect the same tone. It is irreverent – particularly as it relates to deities. Yet, this should come as no surprise, if his autobiographical works are in your library. Fry, though a participant and product of the English Public-School system, has always been an outsider to the regular way of things and though he loves the Greek legends, he treats this institution with the same rebellious and impertinent attitude. He wantonly throws in the homosexuality of the Greek Gods with a near-patriotic light, daring anyone to say anything contrary to its tradition. He flagrantly mocks the Gods’ silliness and tells the story in a simplistic, yet engaging way that is both informative and entertaining. Like private parts to Fry, he plays with the Gods for his sport.

I think the greatest enjoyment for me is how quick this book seems to flow. I finished this in record time because of my own familiarity with the Greek legends. Yet, Fry’s take on it added a great deal of enjoyment, laughter and entertainment. Those, like Fry and me, who already know a great deal about mythology will breeze through this title. However, those who need a refresher on some of the obscure details (the Titanomachy, the lesser Olympian deities, etc.) will derive a substantial amount of entertainment seeing the Greek Myths presented in this fashion. This book is not only informative to a near encyclopedic level but will also entertain in its professorial style of humour.

I need a beverage of an epic vintage to accompany the reading of this book.

Hmm … with the assistance of the epic vintage (a glorious single malt scotch of an 18-year vintage), I have realized that I made a mistake. The greatest enjoyment of this book is not that it flows so quickly; it’s that I feel I am enjoying re-visiting the Greek mythos with not only someone who appreciates them as much as me, but someone who knows them better. Perhaps that accounts for how quickly this book went.

Fry is an unabashed devotee and reader of Greek legend. The English public-school system not only introduced him to classical languages but also the stories of these languages. Fry knows ancient Greek, Latin, philosophy and every other subject one would expect from a product of this rigorous educational system – and as an educator myself, that’s said with a professional degree of appreciation. His passion for the subject is not only a personal love but one that’s reinforced by years of rigid education. This man has taken the benefits of his education and passion and turned it into a treatise that people can not only learn from, but also enjoy. When I teach, that’s what I try to do and Fry has just validated that in order to learn form something, you need to make sport of it. Reducing it to humorous levels makes learning the subject less intimidating and, in this way, Fry has shown us how to be the master of the subject. In fact, if more teachers tried to laugh about their subject, they might find more acceptance of their teaching. Again, speaking from personal experience, I know that has some effect.

It’s a wonderful book. I lost myself in the Greek myths – again – but found the experience not only nostalgically rewarding but also renewing because I was laughing with a writer who shared the same level of appreciation that I did. As a story, the Greek mythos only function if you willingly suspend disbelief. That’s a common refrain I give to my own students in retelling these myths. If the reader suspends that disbelief (I mean, come on: what mother – Tyro – would be okay with murdering her own sons to thwart a prophecy?) then the value of the story’s lesson is communicated – and that is a powerful lesson for neophyte students of literature to grasp: accept the story first, and THEN criticize it. That’s such an integral lesson for new readers.

I’m a devoted fan of Fry’s work. I have followed his career since its inception in the late seventies to the present literary incarnation he has become. Still, putting that aside, this is a thoroughly entertaining re-telling of the Greek myths that should entertain everyone – regardless of their knowledge of Fry’s previous work – with its level of humour and its matter-of-factness.

Greek mythology is generally the first mythology that most people in the West learn about. Yet Fry’s approach to retelling it makes it fresh, exciting and downright funny. If you have any affinity for the Greek legends of yore, then you’ll certainly love reading Mythos.

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.