Following the stories of the gods, primordials, and other immortals of Mythos, the stories of Heroes turn the focus to, you guessed it, heroes. These are the men and women who rose up and exemplified themselves despite being human, despite being mortal. They often have divine lineages, but it was the extraordinary traits and feats that propelled them to greatness. The stories of Heroes read more like a narrative than Mythos, where those tales were all at once narrative as well as exploring the how and why certain things happened. Mythology is how people explain the world, why volcanoes are volatile, how the sun moves across the sky, or the nature of thunderstorms. The stories of Greek heroes fulfilled a different role within their culture. This is understandably mirrored by the Age of Heroes being markedly different within the understanding of Greek history and the mythological stories.
Like Mythos, Heroes is a joy to read in how accessible the tales are while fully encapsulating the author’s voice. The witty, dry humor adds levity and the stories of these heroes never feel dull, worn, or stretched out beyond their necessary length. Some deserve their longer entries, such as the Labors of Heracles, or the depth of backstory to the backstory for the full context of Jason and the Golden Fleece (the layers have layers in that one). Others are much more concise, and even a few merit little more than a reference or footnote detailing their parentage and role within the story of some other group or hero’s story.
The more limited number of entries in Heroes allow each story to explore its own arc and pacing, which also lends itself to the narrative feel rather than being an exposition of a piece within a larger tapestry. The greater Greek mythology is so far-reaching and expansive that to be contained within a single volume, such as Mythos, it needed to be abridged and presented in a concise manner. Heroes takes a different approach and focuses on a handful of the great heroes and their prominent journeys. Certain accounts are more detailed and thorough, such as the Labors of Heracles, Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece, and the Labors of Theseus. Those heroes that were widely and greatly loved within Greek culture, understandably, have greater accounts that other heroes, whose stories may today be less known, but were no less important within the scope of Greek mythology. Fry does those stories justice, and the tales of Perseus, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Atalanta, and Oedipus are given their due in Heroes as well.
Heroes, just as Mythos was, is a beautiful volume to behold, especially in hardcover. The books are comparable in length and presentation, though I found myself reading Heroes more like a story than Mythos. Partly due to the style and subject matter, the entries of individual heroes, though they overlap and intersect, allow for concise narratives where the great tapestry of the mythology of the gods, primordials, and other immortals are more intimately intertwined. For imagining the cosmology and mythological implications, Mythos was a joy to read. As a reader and student of the craft of storytelling, though, it is hard to compare to Heroes and the persisting tales of great heroes and their labors which propelled them to a different sort of immortality.
I found Heroes remarkably easy to pick up and read, almost more so than Mythos. Neither book requires any prior knowledge or understanding of Greek mythology, which is why I felt so comfortable delving into the subject in the first place. They are stories of gods and heroes that are bitter, cruel, spiteful, and selfish, but also compassionate, heroic, courageous, and clever. In short, Greek heroes, like their gods, were flawed.
Heroes ends not with a wistful farewell or speculation as to the end of Greek myth, but instead points to a great occurrence, the likes of which had been laid by the actions (or inactions) of many of the heroes in this volume. It points to the stories detailed in Homer’s epics, and thus reimagined in Fry’s third entry in this saga of reimagined Greek myths, in Troy.
Heroes is written by Stephen Fry, and is published by Chronicle Books.
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