Last summer, my car radio died. Actually it remains dead but is less of an issue since for obvious reasons, I’m not doing many long car journeys right now. Anyway, I dealt with this by air-playing Harry Potter books instead, with the restful tones of Stephen Fry as our travel companion. A few months later, I started thinking about my Greek Mythology Challenge and the adverts for Stephen Fry’s stage tour of his mythology books started cropping up on bus shelters along my walk to work. While I’ve always found Fry’s avuncular persona mildly grating (I vastly prefer QI now it’s presented by Sandi Toksvig), I felt like I should give Mythos a try. I was hoping for a fun refresher on ancient Greek mythology. What I got was something which left me with very complicated thoughts.
Mythos sets out to cover the age of the Gods while Fry’s other book Heroes deals with the mythology centred around the human race. I think I was hoping for something running along similar lines to Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes, which was the book that first made me fall in love with Greek mythology nearly a quarter of a century ago. Subtitled ‘The Greek Myths Retold’, I thought that Stephen Fry would offer a fresh perspective. Instead, Mythos felt derivative and patronising, relying on a heavy helping of sexual innuendo to appear relevant.
Reflecting on the experience, I recognised that the main emotion that I felt as I tried to slog my way through Mythos was … irritation. It irritated me to hear Fry simplify the myths that I had found so mesmerising as a child, reducing them to pap, as if there was no other way for the proletariat to comprehend them. It irritated me that all of Fry’s versions of the Greek gods and goddesses sounded just like him. It irritated me to hear him make tenuous analogies to the modern world, seeming more like a Sunday School teacher trying desperately to appear hip than an author breaking new ground. Given how much gossamer-thin Sunday School allegories have tended to put my back up over the years, that last one should probably count for double.
But I also felt irritated about how sordid the whole thing was. The emphasis on the sexual escapades, particularly the incest, felt excessively prurient and definitely hampered my enjoyment of the book. I will admit that I can be prudish in some areas but it’s not that I object to sex in literature when it’s well done but Mythos just seemed … icky. It also struck me as a really odd direction for Fry to take his book in since it seems to be intended as an introduction to Greek mythology. Fry’s patronising style seems to indicate that he is writing for children but there is no way I would ever recommend this for younger readers. Who exactly is this book supposed to be for?
More than anything, Mythos reminded me very strongly that classical mythology is a playground for the upper classes. This is a book written by a ‘posh’ man who wears his upper class gravitas as a badge of distinction and said book unsurprisingly has the strong odour of a boys’ public school. Outside of the private or public sector, Greek mythology is usually covered for about a term in primary school and that is all. For me, it was when I was nine. Because I happened to find it interesting, I read a lot around the subject and carried on doing so. But when I got to university, I discovered that a true classical education was something quite different. I remember a classmate expressing surprise in a tutorial when I identified a mythological character given that I was ‘from a state school’. At around the same time, an old schoolfriend blogged about feeling humiliated in a tutorial when she had not recognised another student’s classical reference. The situation was made more awkward when said student apologised, saying to her, ‘I forgot you haven’t had the same advantages as us’. Many years later, I worked for an Oxford college and was privy to the financial details around scholarships made available to students hoping to study classics. There were also prizes available for spoken classical competitions. These are all opportunities which are borderline impossible to access if your classical education lasts around eight weeks, grinding to a halt before you turn twelve.
All of this got me thinking. I started my Greek Mythology Challenge because I had always had the vague idea that I enjoyed Greek myths and I had quite a few retellings in my Netgalley Shelf which were awaiting review. I would say that I have a reasonable background knowledge even if my Latin is non-existent. What I have enjoyed has been the books which spun these ancient stories and shone a different light. The Silence of the Girls hit hard on what happened to the women of the Trojan War. Til We Have Faces made me think about faith. Ali Smith’s fabulous Girl Meets Boy made me consider how classical mythology continues to hang over our attitudes to sexuality. By contrast, Fry never brings any kind of innovative perspective. He never questions any of the obvious sexual abuse, his depiction of the female characters is consistently condescending – this is the Greek myths ‘retrodden’ rather than ‘retold’. Fry wafts in with a lofty tone of ‘oh it’s not as tricky as you’d think’ and that is all.
Indeed, what I truly bridled against with Mythos was that supercilious aura, that sense that Fry was bringing Greek mythology to the masses. That he was charitably sharing the benefits of a classical education with the great unwashed. An unkind quotation has long lingered around Stephen Fry, that he is ‘a stupid person’s idea of an intelligent person’. While I would not go so far as to agree with it entirely, I do recognise the truth at which the statement strikes. The trouble with a classical education is that people naively assume that if you have one, you actually are well-educated. Our current Prime Minister trots out his classical references too yet this is by no means an indication that he is suited to the office which he holds. An awareness of Greek mythology is a stupid person’s idea of cleverness.
Mythos reinforces the stereotypes which make classical mythology appear inaccessible to the general public, something which I am sure was contrary to Fry’s intentions. Indeed, in scrubbing away anything that might make the Greek myths seem too complicated, Fry also managed to sponge them clean of their original magic and glamour. In contrast to other contemporary authors’ takes on Greek mythology, Mythos is noticeably out of step. It feels like an attempt to gate-keep and really, we should be past that by now. More philanthropic endeavour than genuinely readable book, Mythos was a miss for me.
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Published by Penguin UK on November 2nd 2017
Genres: Fiction, Poetry, Ancient & Classical, History, Ancient, Greece, Literary Criticism, General, Religion, Social Science, Folklore & Mythology, Unexplained Phenomena, Mysticism
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