Greek myths are stories I have always felt like I have always known just the bare minimum about, but have known something about a lot of those stories. Everyone knows about Zeus and the Olympians, I remember the first time I watched Troy, and reading the Iliad was one of my first forays into the “classics.” The topic has always felt somewhat overwhelming and unreachable despite the continued interest I’ve had in it, because it’s such a massive wealth of inspiration and content to grasp. So finding a passionate author who takes the classic tales and retells them in a way that can be more accessible in our current day is something special. In a similar vein to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf, Stephen Fry’s Mythos takes classic stories and myths from antiquity into the current age, creating a new bridge for these timeless tales to persist.
Mythos is a modern retelling of the classic Greek myths, specifically the stories of the primordial deities, titans, and the gods, stripping away any preconceptions that the Greek myths are overly academic, complex, or inaccessible. It portrays the Greek gods in a light that the ancient Greeks themselves likely viewed them, and explores the rich history of the mythology that the Greek people created. Mythos starts at the beginning with the First Order, the first creations that came out of Chaos and their offspring, the first of the Primordial Deities. Then came the Second Order of divine beings, the children of Gaia and Ouranos. Prominent among these Titans would be Kronos, who would overthrow his father and become lord of earth, sea, and sky. And finally would come the Third Order, Zeus and his siblings who go to war with Kronos and the Titans in what would be known as the Titanomachy. Establishing the Greek pantheon, these children of Titan would instead name themselves gods, rather than Titans, and would rule over as the Olympians.
Mythos then tells the stories of the Olympians, their squabbles and struggles, their creations and triumphs, and leads into the ages of Man. Greek myths always had the looming sense that there would come a day when the creations of the Olympians would outgrow them. This fear, with the prophetic warnings of Kronos, was the origin of Zeus’ adamant denial to grant the newly created humans the knowledge and gift of fire. Mythos itself does not delve into the stories of humans, their heroes and wars, as that would be a herculean task it would make the book inexplicably long. Perhaps unrealized at the time of Mythos’ publishing, those stories would instead become the focus of Fry’s following book, Heroes.
Mythos is content with predominantly telling the most widely or commonly accepted version of the narrative, though Fry does justice to alternate versions of myths, either referencing them or at the very least including mention of them in his retelling, with more being included in the footnotes that pepper the book.
One of the closest similarities I can offer is that of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Gaiman’s retelling of Norse myths reads like a nighttime story, while Mythos reads like your brilliant friend sharing myths with you. Norse Mythology was written partly to take the feel of telling these stories on a deep, dark winter night or the warm summer’s evening. The tales are also shorter and more succinct, easier to consume (I felt) as single stories. Mythos is a longer and broader view, and the way Fry writes makes it abundantly clear that he is brilliant and has a wonderful grasp of the material, but he tells the stories in a way that allows the reader to also feel like they too can fully understand these ancient myths. If you’ve ever met people who are brilliant and can explain complicated concepts in ways that allow anyone to understand them, that is what reading Mythos felt like.
I found Mythos through a viral clip of an interview Stephen Fry did on Graham Norton around the time of Heroes’ release. The way he spoke about the book and the stories it contained made me want to Greek myths from his perspective. And I was not disappointed, the book fully feels as though it is being told to you by Stephen Fry. His author’s voice comes through clearly. It reads much more like a story and a retelling, with the occasional narrative conversation. The stories contain the author’s brilliantly dry British humor, which I found served the twin purpose of bringing subtle amusement and disarms the underlying preconceived notion that these stories are dull and boring history (which is of course, completely false, but is something I think we’ve all been told to some extent at some point). I think it is perfectly summarized by the author himself in the Foreword to the book:
“Perhaps you already know some of the myths told here, but I especially welcome those who may never have encountered the characters and stories of Greek myth before. You don’t need to know anything to read this book; it starts with an empty universe. Certainly no “classical education” is called for, no knowledge of the difference between nectar and nymphs, satyrs and centaurs, or the Fates and the Furies is required. There is absolutely nothing academic or intellectual about Greek mythology; it is addictive, entertaining, approachable, and astonishingly human.”Stephen Fry, Foreword of Mythos
You don’t need an extensive familiarity with the material, and in fact it may be a beautiful thing to have this be your first exposure to Greek myths and legends.
Reading these stories felt like the first time I experienced Greek myths. It was a simple joy to feel a return to those times, and reading the stories as told by someone who fully understands them was the crowning part. Reading Mythos was something I had been looking forward to ever since I first heard Stephen Fry talk about his book, and I am likewise highly anticipating my dive into Heroes and the stories of Man.
Mythos is written by Stephen Fry, and is published by Chronicle Books.
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