Ever since William Godwin persuaded Charles Lamb to retell The Odyssey as a novel for younger readers in The Adventures of Ulysses (1808), the myths of ancient Greece have been retold in contemporary prose by every generation. Most of these retellings were originally poetry – the epics of Hesiod, Homer and the philhellene Latin poet Ovid, the Athenian tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – in Mythos, Stephen Fry has narrated a selection of them in engaging and fluent prose. But do we need another version of the Greek myths in an already crowded market? Such treasured collections as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (1853), Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942) and Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths (1955) are still in print. Countless family car journeys are enlivened by Simon Russell Beale’s audiobook of Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths. So should a reader looking for an initiation into the thrilling world of the ancient Greek imagination choose Fry’s book?
One reason to do so is that Fry is unusually sensitive to the contemporary resonance in myths about gay gods and heroes and the transgender Hermaphroditus. But his subtitle “The Greek Myths Retold” is misleading; it implies a certain comprehensiveness. In fact he has selected a rather small group of stories. They derive mostly from Hesiod’s Theogony (the birth of the gods and the creation of the first few generations of humans), Apuleius’s Latin novel The Golden Ass (Cupid and Psyche), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Arachne, Midas, Echo and Narcissus). Disappointment awaits readers expecting the myth cycles centring on Troy and Odysseus, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Jason, Medea and the Argonauts, Heracles’ labours, Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Andromeda or the Theban royal house of Oedipus and Antigone. Fry’s collection is the equivalent of a book advertising itself as retelling “the stories from Shakespeare” that leaves out Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Julius Caesar, Romeo, Juliet and Henry V. Since there is no contents page, nor even an index, the eccentricity of his choice of myths would not be immediately apparent to a shopper browsing in a bookstore.
Yet Fry’s ear is finely tuned to the quaint tonality of some of his ancient sources. This is best revealed in his retelling of two Homeric Hymns, to Demeter and Hermes. They deal respectively with the abduction of teenage Persephone and the theft by the newborn Hermes of his big brother Apollo’s cattle. Fry’s distinctive voice undoubtedly adds something lively, humorous and intimate to myth’s psychological dimension. People who enjoy his media personality and particular style of post‑Wodehouse English drollery are in for a treat. He tells us that he imagines Hera, queen of the gods, “hurling china ornaments at feckless minions”. Ares, god of war, “was unintelligent of course, monumentally dense”. Baby Hermes tells Maia: “Get on with your spinning or knitting or whatever it is, there’s a good mother.” Epaphus, child of Zeus and Io, “was always so maddeningly blasé about his pedigree”.
Dialogue is Fry’s great strength, his wit demonstrated in the episode he has invented where an infant Artemis cajoles her “daddy” Zeus into promising her a whole series of presents. This enables Fry to explain her divine attributes: a bow and arrows, a short practical tunic, hunting dogs, choirs of maidens, protection from men and, of course, the moon. Fry’s gods and heroes exchange banter in an endearing style resembling his own posh but colloquial metropolitan argot. Indeed, despite his excellent knowledge of the topography of Greece, especially the Olympus mountains, that informs the narrative, the episodes themselves often feel as if they are set in north London: Cadmus and Harmonia, who Fry tells us today might be called an “iconic power couple”, watch the lethal combat between the Thebans sown from the dragon’s teeth “like a frantic parent on the touchline watching their son being squashed in a scrum”.
Sometimes the charm of Fry’s rather domesticated mythical world comes at a price. He tells stories about love and children and animal metamorphosis with grace, but is less successful dealing with grand elemental or heroic themes such as the emergence of the universe from cosmic chaos, or the philanthropy, heroism and terrible punishment of Prometheus. He tends to play down the horror of the primal power struggles and violence in his sources: Kronos has “an unkind habit of eating anyone prophesied to conquer him”. Perhaps this explains why Fry has kept away from the legends of quest, war, politics and kin-murder that are the stuff of the major mythical cycles.
This leaves the question as to the intended audience. Fry insists eloquently in his foreword that the dazzling Greek myths are for everyone and require no traditional classical education whatsoever. He has a touching mission to inform the public about some relatively arcane issues of classical scholarship: as might be expected in a celebrity who has chaired television quiz shows on etymology and quirky facts, he often explains the meaning of Greek or Latin terms, or appends learned footnotes that provide historical or cultural details to illuminate the meaning of a myth. But he also reveals that he was introduced to them as a child, so does he see children as his primary audience? If so, although the book reproduces 34 famous illustrations of myths from classical art and old masters, he has to compete with some exquisite illustrated children’s versions, notably Marcia Williams’s evergreen Greek Myths (1991), my own children’s runaway favourite. But I have already heard from schoolteachers at both primary and secondary level that the accompanying audiobook, in which he reads his versions himself, is going down well in the classroom. This applies especially to the Ovidian tales in the second half of the collection. Despite my reservation about the book’s limited coverage of the teeming world of Greek mythology, it is commendable to see the well-loved Fry put his fame to such constructive use.
- Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece by Stephen Fry (Michael Joseph, £20). To order a copy for £17, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian