Book review: Mythos, by Stephen Fry

People have been telling and retelling the Greek myths for more than 2,000 years. They have done so not only because the stories are fascinating, beautiful, troubling and sometimes shocking, but because they may be termed fairy-tales with meaning. In an afterword to his version of the earliest myths, Stephen Fry distinguishes between legend and myth. 'Legend,' he says, 'is taken to have been built up around a grain of truth'¦ Myths, however, are imaginative, symbolic constructs. No-one believes that Hephaestus ever truly existed.' This is fair enough, even if one is left wondering whether in the dark of distant centuries, some may indeed have believed in the real existence of the mythical inhabitants of Olympus.

Stephen Fry PIC: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images
Stephen Fry PIC: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Fry has loved the Greek myths since he was a child. This book is written partly, I suppose, for his enjoyment, but more as an invitation to people, especially children and adolescents who don’t know the myths, to learn about them and share his delight in the stories and the imagined world called into being. He disarmingly assures readers that their ignorance is no obstacle: “you don’t need to know anything to read this book; it starts with an empty universe… There is absolutely nothing academic or intellectual about Greek mythology; it is addictive, entertaining, approachable and astonishingly human” – even when the characters are all gods or demigods.

Mythos begins at the beginning, with Creation stories, but much of what readers might expect is missing. “Had I,” Fry writes, “included heroes like Oedipus, Perseus, Theseus, Jason and Heracles, and the details of the Trojan War this book would have been too heavy even for a Titan to pick up.” Certainly there’s enough here to be going on with, but it seems likely that Fry and his publishers have reserved the myths featuring human, or at least half-human, heroes for a second volume.

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Fry is erudite, but determined not to let his erudition make him seem superior, so his language is often deliberately downmarket?: “Erysichthon awoke from strange dreams feeling very, very peckish. So he surprised his kitchen staff with an enormous breakfast order… He was perhaps the first man ever to eat himself out of house and home.” Similarly, when Psyche goes to tell her sister, Calanthe, how Eros, the God of Love, had come to her the night before, the sister greets her in best Romantic novel style: “Psyche! Darling! Did all go as planned? You look a little – ”

Well, this may be better than pseudo-archaic dialogue. The trouble is that Fry is inconsistent. Only a few lines later, Psyche says that Eros really wanted Calanthe: “Fetch me your beautiful sister... She of the green eyes and russet hair.”

None of this will matter much to many readers. The narrative goes with a swing and the dialogue is always clear – you are rarely in doubt as to its meaning. There is humour too. When the Naiad (water nymph) Salmacis spies the beautiful boy Hermaphroditus, we learn that “Unlike most of her kind – modest, hard-working nymphs who attended with diligence to the maintenance of the streams, pools and water-courses over which they had charge – Salmacis had a reputation for vanity and indolence.” I like the idea of modest, hard-working nymphs, while the outcome of this nymph’s lust for the beautiful boy is suggested by his name, for she made the mistake of praying that the two of them might never part. “Doomed lovers,” Fry tells us, “owe a great debt to the tragic Greek tradition” – even if this may be little consolation.

Often when a celebrity – and Fry is unquestionably that – appears as the author of a book on a well-worn or popular subject, you may look for something bland or perfunctory, even suspect the hand of a ghost. This book is different. Fry is an exuberant enthusiast and he invites us to share his enthusiasm; it’s an invitation easily accepted. Mythos combines authority and accessibility. Most readers will learn something, many a great deal; and all will find the experience enjoyable.

Mythos, by Stephen Fry, Penguin/Michael Joseph, £20