Book Review: ‘Heroes’ by Stephen Fry

I’ve enjoyed Stephen Fry’s sense of humor ever since I watched him in programs such as Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie when I was a kid. I was pleased as I grew older to find that not only was he a brilliant actor, but he is also a talented podcast host and an author of many books. His latest book, Heroes, was released in November by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Random House in the U.K. The book spans over 400 pages and contains two sections with lovely artwork to accompany the stories.

You don’t need to have read Mythos, the first book in Fry’s Greek Mythology series, in order to understand what’s going on in Heroes. There are plenty of helpful footnotes along the way to recap those events. There’s a list of Gods and Mortals in the back, too.

The first installment focused on the drama and the humor involved in the origin stories of the Greek Gods in Olympus. This second installment takes a close look at the humans, the mortals who began to a degree to forge their own destinies. The important words there are “to a degree” because when humans incurred the wrath of the gods, particularly Zeus or Hera, that still boded an ill turn of events for the hero.

The characters that Fry examines in turn are Perseus, Heracles and his 12 labors, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Jason, Atalanta, Oedipus, and Theseus. The emphasis to start with is the line of Perseus, as is laid out in the introduction. Though we’ve seen the stories of heroes battling monsters, humans, and tricking gods again and again in texts, television, and film, Fry’s recounting of these tales brings a much-needed new zest and buoyancy to them.

He captures the right amount of suspense and heartbreak, such as when Orpheus looks back too soon in a quest to save a loved one. Fry uses modern dialogue in the stories even if they’re meant to be set so far back in time. Perseus argues back to other characters with the feisty attitude of a youth of today, for example.

Even though the different characters go on quests, sometimes of which are similar, they go about their journeys in different ways. Fry is excellent at pointing out these distinctions in their thought processes and giving each character a unique voice. He is quick to identify their faults to comedic effect as well.

Fry also peppers his descriptions and summations of the scenarios that characters find themselves in with numerous references to pop culture. You can find one of my favorites in a passage about midway through Heracles’ labors: “After all, the oracle had told Heracles that the completion of the tasks would guarantee Heracles immortality, merely attempting them was not good enough. As Yoda had expressed it a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away: ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.'”

If you’ve ever seen Fry on TV or listened to his podcasts, you might even find yourself reading the book with his voice in your head. It’s hard not to do that, especially when you examine the footnotes carefully.

They serve to explain confusing points such as characters with the same names but who are different, geographic considerations, and pronunciation tips. This gold mine of information reminds me of his podcasts on linguistics.

But where his voice most comes to life with his wit and sarcasm are the footnotes which delve into his humble opinion on certain topics concerning himself. For example, when he digresses in a welcome fashion about various performances of the story of Oedipus, he called his own “dreadful,” since “the unhappy citizens of Edinburgh still talk about it in hushed disbelieving tones.”

He goes on in the footnote to compare his work to that of the great Laurence Olivier as he writes,

They say Olivier’s scream as Oedipus when he suddenly realizes the truth about himself – the cascade of truths – was one of the greatest moments in theatrical history. They don’t say that of my performance.

Another wonderful aspect of Heroes is that Fry takes pains to explain not only where events and characters fit in with Mythos, but also what the characters in this installment often inadvertently set forth in motion for the future. Heracles was particularly guilty of this during the 12 labors he carried out. Watch for those footnotes that drop the hints about the Trojan War, the events of which are likely to light up the pages of Fry’s next book.

So do check out Heroes and enjoy it with your friends. While you’re at it, you’ll definitely want to pick up a copy of Mythos if you haven’t already and read that as well.

Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Virginia on a full scholarship. Pat is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C., but she's also covered events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Simon Callow, Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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