Daisy Dunn is entertained by Stephen Fry’s latest retelling of ancient myths
Here’s a phrase you do not expect to encounter in a retelling of the myths of Troy: heteropaternal superfecundation. It describes the fertilisation of an egg by two men or male animals resulting in twins who share a mother but not a father. There were reports of a woman in China giving birth to half-sibling twins as a result of the phenomenon last year. One baby was her husband’s. The other was her lover’s.
Stephen Fry mentions this in a footnote to his description of the birth of Helen of Sparta in the final part of his Greek myth trilogy, Troy. Leda, a princess of Aetolia, he relates, was napping by the river after a romantic afternoon with her husband when she felt what she assumed to be his body upon her once again. But it was not Tyndareus but Zeus, disguised as a swan. Leda went on to lay two eggs, each of which, by some “crazed zygotic quirk”, contained twins. Clytemnestra and Castor were said to be the children of Tyndareus, while Polydeuces and Helen shared the blood of Zeus.
Much like Mythos and Heroes, which have sold over 400,000 and 200,000 copies respectively, Troy is very Stephen Fry. The book abounds in fruity puns and wordplay, wit, and mischievous interventions. Laomedon, an early king of Troy, has sacrificed his favourite daughter because “his own flesh and blood mattered more to him than his own flesh and blood (as it were)”. Tantalus has Pelops cooked not in a stew but in a “fricassee”. Apollo and Poseidon help to build Troy as they are “not above a little contract labour”. Such lines sit surprisingly comfortably beside those of a more traditional register, such as that old favourite of classical translators, “hue and cry”.
Fry sets out to tell the story of Troy from its earliest foundations to its fall following war with Greece. This necessarily involves bringing together the narratives of the great epics. For the war itself, his main source is Homer’s Iliad, which closes with the funeral of Hector. For the fall, Fry must proceed to late 1st-century BC Rome, when Virgil composed his Aeneid. And for the aftermath, he has at his disposal a range of later sources, including Quintus Smyrnaeus’ 4th-century Posthomerica. The unfortunate thing for Fry is that these works are brilliant. How does one make a retelling of their stories worthwhile?
In the middle of his book, Fry is concerned with the Trojan War and I could not help but feel that I might as well be reading the Iliad. Fry’s account of the duel between Hector and Achilles, for example, is remarkably close to Homer’s. Achilles spears the hero between the collarbone and the neck, and Hector implores him not to leave his body to the dogs. It is far harder to produce a faithful version of Homer today than it is a subversion.
In the other parts of the book, however, Fry’s willingness to entangle himself in the twisted and often contradictory threads of ancient authors results in something splendidly original. Whilst imploring his reader to “bear with” him and not fret about remembering every character’s name, he weaves the most beguiling portrait of Troy through the complex lineages of its early founders. He even makes a virtue of the knottiness of mythology, comparing the timelines of ancient stories to a gallery in a Jacques Tati film. Straighten one, and the next will fall, knocking out the next.
Fry gives dimension to some of the less developed characters. Helen is praised for not being spoiled or self-regarding, and for having an excellent sense of humour. Paris, by contrast, is just as thick as we would like him to be. When the time comes for him to make his judgment, he can barely keep hold of the fact that he has three options to choose between. In a delightful invention, he sees in Aphrodite’s hand a shell containing a miniature of Helen, and yearns “to dive inside”.
Purists may blanch at the invented dialogue and contemporary flourishes with which Fry embellishes his narrative. But to do so is to neglect the fact that the myths have been evolving and mutating since long before they were written down. It is through such reinvention that they have been preserved. Fry’s narrative is an entertaining tribute to the power of storytelling in a post-oral age.
Daisy Dunn is the author of Homer: A Ladybird Expert Book (Penguin Random House)