In Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, from Penguin/Random House, Stephen Fry has elected to take on the nearly impossible task of retelling Greek Mythology for a modern audience. The fact he’s been able to stay true to them without making them dry as dust, without playing to the lowest common denominator by dumbing the stories down, speaks volumes to his ability as a raconteur.
Of course, there has been plenty of retellings of these stories over the years, so what separates this version from the rest? Well, to put it succinctly, it’s Fry himself who makes the difference. How many authors do you know who can reference Monty Python, Percy Jackson and classical Greek Scholars without sounding affected?
Then there’s the fact you can almost hear Fry’s voice as you’re reading. It has become part of our universe. Through his various television and film appearances and work on audio books, specifically the “Harry Potter” series, its rather dry and acerbic tone has permeated our awareness. As you move through the pages you can’t help but feeling like an old friend is telling you all these stories while the two of you’re sitting around chatting.
However, while Fry does imbue the pages with his wit and intelligence, he doesn’t allow the force of his personality to interfere with the stories themselves. He is too skilled to allow this book to be more about him than his material. What he does do wonderfully is use his presence to make the stories accessible to a new generation of readers.
Even more remarkably, these versions of the stories should also appeal to those who have read other interpretations previously. Aside from everything else, Fry has a wide breadth of knowledge to draw upon which allows him to make reference to how the stories have influenced writers throughout history. While Shakespeare and Keats are obvious examples of those who have been inspired by or who have referenced the stories in their work, Fry also makes sure we’re aware of how deeply ingrained the stories are in all of European culture, not just English.
Of course it’s not just literature that’s replete with classical allusions, the visual arts are also full of references to the classical myths as well. Fry not only includes nods to these works in the text, he’s also included photos of examples dating from pottery dating back to 400 BC to sculpture from the 20th century.
What’s most impressive is you never feel like you’re being lectured or given a history lesson. Somehow Fry manages to drop these little nuggets of information into his retellings without it being obvious. In fact you might just be enjoying yourself so much while reading the book you won’t even notice you’ve learned something in the process.
Naturally none of this would be possible if Fry hadn’t done such a remarkable job of telling the stories and bringing all the characters to life. He not only manages to capture all the qualities of the gods, goddesses, demi-gods and assorted beings in vivid colour, he depicts them in very human terms.
While some might find his almost casual way of describing them, or the fact the gods of Olympus occasionally act like a gang of teenage street toughs, a little disconcerting, they’ve never been shown as being very mature. We also don’t live in Classical times anymore, and these are stories which are meant to be told in the current vernacular to be most effective.
The antics of the gods, and the warts and all way of bringing them to life, helped people to understand their own flaws and foibles and learn life lessons. What’s the use of giving a modern audience a book written in stilted academia or the language of a bygone era? By stuffing these stories into glass cases and making them museum pieces we suck the life out of them. Fry has made them loud, rude, sometimes crude, and most definitely alive.
Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold is a delight to read. It somehow manages to be irreverent and reverent at the same time in both its treatment of the stories and the manner in which it tells them. Instead of treating them like dusty artifacts Fry has taken them off the shelf and made them relevant to a new generation.