Tuesday 23 April 2019

Heroes: Stephen Fry reveals how modern superhero stories have plundered ancient mythology

Non-fiction: Heroes, Stephen Fry Michael Joseph, hardback, 496 pages, €25.20

Tragic hero: Oedipus, the King of Thebes (centre), with Tiresias (left) and young Theban girls
Tragic hero: Oedipus, the King of Thebes (centre), with Tiresias (left) and young Theban girls
Heroes by Stephen Fry

What have the Greeks ever done for us? It's a question that has never been uttered once in the history of mankind, even under the guise of Pythonesque spoofery. Leaving aside the minor matters of mathematics and politics, the contribution of our philosophical friends in the south-east Med to the realm of the written word we so cherish today is unquantifiable, whether we think along the lines of the three-act structure or the alphabet itself.

Classical studies in Irish schools now find declining subscription rates among Leaving Cert students and poor grades from those who do take these subjects. Reading through Stephen Fry's Heroes is a reminder for all of us who have escaped secondary school that more of us should have opted to study the drama, philosophy, art and architecture of the ancients - and the various things they might have explained to us about the universe. As well as that, it might have actually been some of the best fun the classroom could have offered had it been presented to us like this, rather than as a bloated fog of unpronounceable names and a spaghetti-junction of family trees.

This has certainly been Fry's feeling on the matter ever since his schoolboy days when an adept teacher opened up Greek mythology to him and led him to the conclusion that no other canon better illuminated the human condition. What's more, they are barnstorming yarns to boot, robust in narrative pedigree and throbbing with "what-nextness".

He unashamedly places this urge to reach the youth of today at the forefront of this sequel to last year's Mythos. That book dealt with the Greek creation myth - the gods begat the titans, who in turn begat Zeus and the other Olympian Gods, who in turn, with help from Prometheus's pottery skills, created man. Heroes deals with that Fry calls our "teenage years" where humanity both fears and worships these parental gods but also reckons it can go toe-to-toe with them.

What makes this assortment of heroes, each with their own section and sub-chapters - Perseus, Heracles, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Jason, Atalanta, Oedipus and Theseus - ring louder than the spandex-clad types that the late Stan Lee has left us with is their fundamental flaws, the things that mark them out as utterly human while also being able to achieve these otherworldly tasks. It is how like us they are that make these tragedies and triumphs sing. Similarly, they are framed by a cast of immortals that are petulant, fragile of ego, and often cruelly vindictive, traits readily visible in some of the most powerful people in today's politics.

The threads are made apparent, even where Fry declines to point them out in his litany of wonderful little footnotes. Heracles (or Hercules, as the Romans would go on to call him) is something of a Thor type - tough, handsome, heroic, but tetchy and prone to ill-temper. Marvel fans will understand the relevance of a god of death called 'Thanatos'. Meanwhile, Atalanta, the only female to qualify as a "hero", is the abandoned baby on the mountainside who is rescued and raised by Mother Nature and goes on to become the Tarzan/Wonder Woman blueprint, formidable, fierce, and awesome.

Elsewhere, Fry likens the words of the Oracle to Heracles to those of Yoda (If he wants immortality, Heracles must complete these thankless labours - there is no "try"). With Orpheus, the godlike musician who could bring the savage beast to heel with nothing more than a few lyre plucks and a sung melody, Fry goes to town, listing off a who's-who of comparable cultural deities that ranges from Mozart to Kendrick Lamar. It's perhaps a bit much.

Is more evidence needed of how modern fables have raided the Greek cupboard? Game of Thrones feels like a pastiche after reading Heroes - Medea (Melisandre) the witch whispering unconditional but expensive advice to Jason (Stannis) is one token example. Theseus, by turns, is the original Luke Skywalker/Harry Potter/Jon Snow, the "chosen one" raised beside an empty space where a mysterious absent parent once stood.

Linking such things to today's landscape becomes a central theme of Heroes, but Fry wants more to come out of the transaction. Cruelty and anything-goes promiscuity are softened slightly for younger readers, but remain astounding in places. It is rife with Fry's brand of British wit, and all the better for it, but there is no escaping the sorry endings these heroes meet at the junction of their own character flaws and the wrath of vindictive gods such as Hera. We can be deceitful and underhanded like her, or we can be direct and uncomplicated in our dealings like Heracles. We can be blinded by our urge to see like Oedipus or look back when we shouldn't like Orpheus. Be good to people on the way up because you might meet them on the way down. These and a thousand other lessons are what we should really be thanking the Greeks for.

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