Tuesday 24 April 2018

Greek myths distilled with Fry's wit and bonhomie

Myths: Mythos, Stephen Fry, Michael Joseph, hardback, 432 pages, €24.70

Stumped: Apollo pursues Daphne, only for her to escape by turning into a bay laurel, one of the Greek myths deciphered by Fry
Stumped: Apollo pursues Daphne, only for her to escape by turning into a bay laurel, one of the Greek myths deciphered by Fry
Stephen Fry
Mythos by Stephen Fry

Henry Whorwood

The polymath clearly had great fun romping through Greek myths - but who is it for.

Mythos is Stephen Fry's 10th book. He has turned his hand to the disparate genres of fiction, autobiography and didactic tracts with varying degrees of acclaim and success. In that same time, his reputation has vacillated between Britain's national treasure and Twitter twit. Fry's star deserves to be back in the ascendant because Mythos, which keeps him in his familiar role of teacher-cum-quizmaster, is the best thing he's written since his superb first novel, The Liar (1991).

Greek myth, he tells us, "is addictive, entertaining, approachable and astonishingly human". Fry puts this down to the fact that "the ancient Greeks seem to have developed the art of seeing life, the world and themselves with greater candour and unclouded clarity than is managed by most civilisations, including perhaps our own." To convince us of that: Mythos.

It is hard to pin down the book's genre: guidebook to Greece, narrative encyclopedia of myth, free verse? What is clear is that Fry had an unabashedly good time writing it: "Pleasure is what immersing yourself in the world of Greek myth is all about."

Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry

He starts at the very beginning: we hear how from Chaos came Cosmos (Order). But he does not end at the end: the last myth tells of Midas's death. Fry does not explain why the book ends where it does, except to say that if he had covered everything, it would have been not so much unputdownable as unpickupable.

Fry tells us that "no 'classical education' is called for" and that "you don't need to know anything to read this book". This is either naïve or dissembling. A single page might introduce dozens of gods, demigods and heroes, and it's not easy for a novice to know which must be memorised and which are just colour. And as well as countless etymologies and aetiologies, Fry often gives the Roman equivalent of a Graecism, which would be fatally overwhelming if the book were seriously seeking the ignorant audience he claims.

Where the book's encyclopedic tendencies do help is in justifying Fry's having a go at the very well-known myths as well as the lesser-known ones, and synthesising them - as Ovid did in his Metamorphoses and Robert Graves in The Greek Myths - into a new and better compendium. Fry acknowledges his debt to both Graves and Ovid in an endnote, and there is something of each in the book. One could describe Mythos as a Metamorphoses with a narrator who can consult notes on his iPhone, or as Graves' The Greek Myths with sarcastic footnotes.

The most transparent intention of Mythos is to give Fry a forum in which to hold forth on a subject he clearly enjoys. And he does so with the humour and bonhomie you would expect. The footnotes, which would be completely flawed were this a reference text, are home to his more ebullient asides: "The Greeks still add pine resin to wine, call it retsina and offer it to visitors. No one knows why a normally kind and hospitable people should do such a thing. It tastes like what it essentially is, the kind of turpentine artists use to thin their oil paints. I love it."

It is not all jokes and asides. Fry flexes his famous intellect in making the myths more coherent. It is not easy, for instance, to explain why there was a Python at Pytho, home to the Pythian Oracle and the Pythian Games, and how Apollo came to kill it. Add in the fact that, after that, Pytho was renamed Delphi, and even someone with a "classical education" might struggle. But Fry makes it seem natural: suddenly it felt like the etymologies were the by-product of an irresistible story rather than the story having been retrofitted to explain an etymology.

Ovid and Graves are not the only influences on Mythos: there's also a whiff of Oscar Wilde, another of Fry's specialisms. Wilde was a superb classicist who understood the importance of infatuation as a mode of Greek love. (He once said, of an athlete at Oxford: "His left leg is a Greek poem.") As with Wilde, so with Fry. His treatment of Zeus and Ganymede - the story of a beautiful youth being led away, or abducted, or worse (depending on how bowdlerised your version is) by the father of the gods - pointedly emphasises love over erotic desire. When Fry imagines Ganymede's fan base in ancient Phrygia writing "poems that rhymed 'thighs' with 'eyes', 'hips' with 'lips', 'youth' with 'truth', 'boy' with 'joy'", one suspects he knows whereof he speaks. That feels inevitable, however, as Fry seems to know just about everything: the revelation that Ganymede seems to be the root of the word "catamite" made me inclined to indulge the book in all its idiosyncrasies.

There are some editing errors: auctoritas is misspelled auctoritis; a footnote on the mountain Megala Kazania is partially duplicated on facing pages; and so on. These would be a problem in a reference book but are forgiveable here. It is curious that Fry rejects as implausible the story of Apollo riding a dolphin to Delphi (which is only about three miles from the sea) while he exercises no scepticism at all in the tales of impregnation by semen-soaked scarves, but such lurches in tone serve a humorous purpose.

It's probably clear that I have struggled to decide what kind of book this is; I'm still not sure what I would call it. But it is entertaining and edifying - one cannot really ask for more than that.

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