The best retelling of the Greek myths since Graves

Fry uses paintings such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to explain the Greek myths

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold
by Stephen Fry, Penguin, 466pp, £20

It’s not clear who said Stephen Fry was “a stupid person’s idea of a clever person”. It’s a brilliant line – it just isn’t true of Fry. Fry’s deep understanding of the Greek myths – and his readable retelling of them – could only have been achieved by a very clever man.

The Greek myths are the greatest stories of them all, their origins lost in the mists of time, their descendants echoing through Western literature, from the Romans to the present day. Still, though, the myths are an awkward, baggy thicket of prehistory, folklore and local cults, accumulated over centuries.

With a chatty ease, Fry negotiates his way confidently through the puzzling morass of the family tree of the Greek gods. In fact, he tells the story a bit like a family biography – beginning with the union between Gaia, the Mother Earth goddess, and Ouranos, god of the sky, and their children, including Oceanus, the oldest of the Titans.

Through another of their Titan children, Kronos, Fry leads us on to the famous branch of the divine family tree – in the shape of the Olympian children of Kronos – among them Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and Hades; and Zeus’s children Apollo, Artemis, Ares and Hephaestus. All this sounds like some genealogical bore banging on about the celestial quarterings of the Greek gods. In fact, it all provides a neat skeleton to fit the flesh of the Greek myths on to.

And then Fry always lightens the burden of the myth complications with his trademark mix of bathetic humour and wordplay. So, he first defines Nemesis as “the embodiment of Retribution, that remorseless strand of cosmic justice that punishes presumptuous, overreaching ambition”. And then he switches into a comic gear: “I suppose you could say Holmes was Moriarty’s Nemesis, Bond was Blofeld’s and Jerry was Tom’s.”

The Greek myths are a unique body of creative thought but, to be honest, they’re a bit short on laughs. Fry introduces those laughs, without demeaning the myths. When he’s describing the young Zeus’s extraordinary beauty, he drops in a quick gag of a footnote: “His radiance had become almost painful to look upon. As is often the case with extraordinarily attractive people. It is incumbent upon us to apologise or look away when our beauty causes discomfort.”

Fry studied Greek and Latin at Uppingham. But, unlike a lot of classicists who like to keep their subject obscurely intellectual, he lifts the veil of difficulty, to reveal the beauty of ancient thought. One of his techniques is to explain the myths through famous pictures – such as the birth of Aphrodite, or Venus, displayed in Botticelli’s epic painting.

He is also unabashed about the dirty side of the Greek myths. We know Fry is unabashed about dirtiness in general but, when it comes to the myths, sex is an integral part of the story. It is there, written in the myths, that Erechtheus, the archaic king of Athens, was a product of a clumsy, failed union between Hephaestus and Athena. The bewitching Erechtheum (next door to the Parthenon) – the Ionic temple, part supported by a team of caryatids – is named in honour of Erechtheus. Fry tells the story of the Erechtheum alongside the rude Hephaestus story. He is alive to all the incarnations – literary, historical, architectural, artistic – of the astonishingly flexible myths.

And he follows the myths’ long, winding tails all the way to their modern form. Take the story of Pyramus and Thisbe – the star-crossed lovers who kill themselves, and inspired the tale of Romeo and Juliet. Fry recounts how Pyramus, after his suicide, turned into the river that bore his name for millennia. The River Pyramus – today, the Ceyhan River in Turkey – has been dammed for hydroelectric energy, writes Fry. The power of the doomed lovers now lights Turkish homes.

Fry isn’t too reverent about the myths, for all his love of them. I share his disappointment with the story of Alexander the Great breaking the Gordian knot. The legend held that whoever untied the knot would rule over all Asia. That’s exactly what Alexander the Great did – except he didn’t untie the knot, so much as slice through it with his sword. “He cheated!” as Fry justifiably says.

This is the best telling of the Greek myths since Robert Graves’s version in 1955. Like all good interpreters of the myths, Fry has taken his own selection of the vast cast of gods and goddesses and told the stories in his own way.

My only criticism is the lack of an index. You can read this book straight through as a jolly narrative. But, with an index, it would also work brilliantly as a light, entertaining dictionary of the myths.

Harry Mount is the author of Odyssey – Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus (Bloomsbury)