Review of Mythos by Stephen Fry
By: Michael A. Arnold

What is the point of telling stories?

Any answer you could give might feel somehow too obvious or subjective, right? People have probably been telling each other stories since the birth of language, and certain ones seem so ingrained in culture that it is almost like you were born already knowing them. The stories we hear as children are often parables, designed to teach us something: the boy who cried wolf, the Good Samaritan, or Goldilocks and the Three Bears for example. Other stories are not simply parables, they could be faint echoes of real events, or explain why the world is the way it is, and some are (obviously) simply good fun. Mythologies are so great because they are whole universes of stories that bring together all of these different reasons in one place. This might be why ancient mythology continues to interest us to this day, and the two most popular mythologies around are from the Vikings (recently explored in a fun and light-hearted way in Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman) and Greek mythology, which got a similar treatment in Mythos by Stephen Fry, published in 2017.

The legacy of Ancient Greece is so deep-rooted in western culture that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. Almost everyone has heard of the gods at least, and it can be assumed that most people would know a story like the flight of Icarus, or Theseus and the Minotaur they are mentioned, even if it is only the basic outline. Icarus was the guy who flew too close to the sun, Theseus killed the Minotaur monster in a big labyrinth. However, a lot of the time these can seem like random, one-off stories with no connection to each other. Mythos, and its sequel Heroes (published in 2018) tries to tell the greater 'narrative' across all these stories from Greek mythology, and tries to make it (like Neil Gaiman's treatment of Norse mythology) fun and a bit light-hearted while being informative.

All these mythological stories take place within a world of gods and battles and monsters with a sometimes vague but definable timeline that is trying to explain how the world became what it is – or was to the Ancient Greeks. The stories by themselves are often a lot of fun, and show the amazing creativity of a civilization now long gone, but here they are retold with Stephen Fry's characteristic enjoyment of wit and entertaining people, while giving little pearls of information that are (to reference one of Fry's best-known TV programs) quite interesting.

The story of Greek mythology begins before time, when nothing existed except 'Chaos' which Fry takes pains to point out both is loosely connected to the modern scientific idea of the state of things before the Big Bang, and also that 'Chaos' is indefinable and completely unknowable. From Chaos, somehow, sprang two creations, Night and Darkness, which eventually had children – who themselves had children, eventually leading to the creation of the earth with its night and day, land and sea, sky and depths. However the two most important of these early 'gods' are the earth 'Gaia' and the sky 'Ouranos', because it is from these two that all the more famous gods would come: Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo, Neptune and so many others. By the end of the first book all of their major god's stories are told, and looking back there is a definite sense of the huge scope and completeness of Greek mythology.

However, there is a sense, even when you know the basic outline of the mythology, that Fry can throw too many names at you in any given section. This is probably unavoidable, given how labyrinthine any one mythology can be, and Fry does do a good job at pointing out what is just extra information and what is vitally important with sentences like 'Oh, but don't worry about her, she's never mentioned again' or 'Remember that name, she's pretty important in the story of so-and-so'. Despite comments like this, because so much information can be given at once it is easy to get a bit overwhelmed. This book is also very quickly paced. Several things can happen in only two pages, and despite Fry's helpful, occasional hints of how important something is, the overall story becomes hard to see in a 'you cannot see the wood for the trees' kind of way. Because of this, I left this book not really knowing a great deal more about Greek mythology than I had before, but I already had a working knowledge of the subject, so perhaps this book was not quite aimed at me.

However, many of the stories (which Fry does not point out) are taken without question from the Roman writer Ovid, and his poem Metamorphosis. The story of Echo and her love for Narcissus (the man who fell in love with his own reflection) is basically Ovid's in prose. Fry does not even try to hint that there are other versions of any one story, it seemed he picked his favorite version (usually Ovid's version) and wrote jokes into it. While this might not be entirely fair on Fry, it still would have been better for more careful readers if Fry had cited his sources a bit more, and maybe encourage them to explore the mythology for themselves. As fun as Fry's interpretations can be (and they are amusing), it is a bad idea to trust just one source on mythology – especially Greek mythology, which was a lot more adaptable and fluid than a book like this suggests.

This should not be taken as a damning criticism of Fry's book, and nor is it intended to be. Mythos is a quite painless overview of Greek mythology with a load of facts and jokes thrown in. Humor is obviously going to be entirely subjective, but even though Fry is known as a wit I did not personally find this book very witty or funny. I liked the little aside comments though, often explaining where modern words or ideas came from. This is not a bad book, but it is not the best book out there on the subject. Basically it is worth reading, but that comes with an asterisk.