by Stephen Fry
£8.99 paperback (Penguin Books, 2018)
Mythos has been a steady occupant of the best-seller lists for the past year. Is it all it’s cracked up to be? As an erstwhile classical teacher and classroom pedant I approached it with all my antennae bristling. These stories have been told and retold, dramatised from the first Greek tragedies onwards, dredged for every possible psychological interpretation, catalogued in Robert Graves’ Greek Myths (1955) and revisited by Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson. Will Stephen Fry resist the temptation to trivialise them with his own inimitable brand of quirkiness and ebullience?
I have to report that I was completely won over. Fry transits between the ancient and the modern age with effortless abandon, for instance when he suggests that the names of Actaeon’s 36 hounds as given by Ovid would serve very well as online passwords. There are highly entertaining conversational fragments and throwaway remarks, all contributing to the playful as well as the serious sides of the book. On Kronos and Rhea: ‘It was quite natural that she had been a little upset by his consumption of their six children, but she surely understood that he had no choice.’ There are also telling analyses of the nature of Greek myth: ‘What we really discern is the deceptive, ambiguous and giddy riddle of violence, passion, poetry and symbolism that lies at the heart of Greek myth and refuses to be solved.’
So how do we actually read this book? It is on the whole not suitable for bedtime reading to young children (though I suppose no more violent than some nursery rhymes). There is an excellent Index which allows one to use it as a reference book. But probably the best way is to take it as it comes, chapter by chapter, story by story. There are 34 colour plates, making it even more of a bargain. There are footnotes on every page, in very small print and sometimes irritating (e.g. an excursus on the figure twelve on p67), but usually enabling Fry’s erudition to reveal itself without compromising the flow of the story.
Fry claims personally to have consulted the oracle at Delphi, which may be a flight of imagination too far. Perhaps, though, the priestess suggested that he should also write a second divinely inspired volume called Heroes – which came out a month ago. I can’t wait to get settled into it, if it’s as good as this one.
Mark Greenstock, Sherborne Literary Society