Capsule Review: Mythos by Stephen Fry


I read this (or rather, heard this) as an audiobook and loved it. The audiobook is read by Stephen himself and as you may expect, is very nicely read. It is also very nicely written, covering a lot of the Greek myths (this is apparently volume 1, many of the myths and legends that have been left out of this one are likely to be in the second volume titled “Heroes”). Stephen does an especially nice job of outlining the successive layers of Chaos, Gaia, Titans and Gods and makes the exuberant (and confusing) mass of origin stories into a coherent overall narrative. His retelling of the myths is full of humor and shows off his vast erudition with a very light touch. Since polytheism is having a bit of a recovery moment thanks to the intellectual (but not demographic) decline of the big four monotheisms (Judeo-Christian-Islamic and Marxist), this retelling is also timely and likely to strike a chord with some people.

Stephen is clearly a fan and this is a great introduction to these stories. And while his style is humorous and light, he is faithful to the sources and this is not some sort of modern “re-telling” that changes stories and characters to make them more contemporary, though being gay himself, he is more than a little eager to point out that the Greeks and their stories include a lot of same sex stuff. But do note that these are only SOME of the Greek myths and many of the most famous stories are not in this book.  Fry tries to impose a semi-chronological order on the world of Greek mythology (from primal chaos to Gaia and Ouranos mating, to Titans, to Gods, to humans, with a minimal detour into the war of the Giants) so this volume mostly deals with the early universe and the first adventures of the Gods and the humans they created. Later stories (such as the ones in the Odyssey and Iliad) will presumably show up in volume 2.

He does make the mistake in the epilogue of claiming that we should read these myths because they are so unique (“no where else in the world“), which is not really true. The ancient Greeks were not uniquely gifted in this matter (Indians in particular will find it surprising to learn that this cultural package and its multifarious many-sidedness seems so unique to Stephen), but of course they ARE the myths that were best known and most influential in Western Europe, and via that, are the best known and most influential for many modern people.  And because, via Greek and Latin and the heritage of Rome, they are so central to the literary traditions of such dominant languages as English, French and Spanish, they will remain relevant for all people who use these languages, whatever their ethnic or geographical origin. So while I am woke enough to point out to Stephen that his beloved Greeks may not be as unique (in the matter of creating and using such stories to illustrate human nature and the nature of the world at large) as he thinks, I am not in the camp of those who think these should be “decentered” or even thrown away “because Whiteness”. For people from Europe and people who mainly read and write in European origin languages (so really, all of us), these remain must-read literature.
I look forward to volume 2.