Considering they came into being thousands of years ago, the legends of Zeus and his fellow gods, of Jason and Perseus, of Medusa and the golden fleece, have echoed down through the ages, inspiring countless retellings and re-imaginings. Mythos, by Stephen Fry, is just the latest of these efforts, as he tries to capture the stories of Greek mythology for a modern audience.
Throughout the book, Mr Fry keeps things light and respectful, telling each story in a way that entertains, amuses, and informs. It’s clear he loves the subject matter himself, and it’s difficult not to be swept away by the sheer joy that permeates the work throughout.
Mythos is broken into two parts. The first, “The Beginning”, tells the story of the birth of the gods. Beginning with Gaia (Mother Earth) and Ouranos (Father Sky), the story follows the line of the gods down to Cronos and the Titans, and finally on to Zeus and his siblings, who go on to form the council of gods known as the Olympians.
The second part, “The Toys of Zeus”, begins with the story of Prometheus. He was the titan who created humans and gave them the gift of fire, a gift forbidden by Zeus and stolen from Mount Olympus. The stories go on to detail other unwise crossings of the gods by foolish mortals, including the likes of Psyche and Arachne, Phaeton and Cadmus, Echo and Narcissus, and culminating in the story of Midas.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have heard some of these stories and you’ll recognise the names of some of the characters, but many more will be new to you. Either way, Stephen Fry makes them all feel fresh and accessible.
The fact that some of the more famous names are missing – Heracles, Jason, and Perseus for example – simply shows what a wealth of material exists in Greek mythology. I expect these missing legends are told in the follow up book, Heroes, and I’ll definitely be picking that up at some point.
My one complaint would be that some of the stories feel a little too light. I’d have loved to see some of them given more time, with the characters more fleshed out, but I guess that’s probably missing the point to some degree. Mythos offers a window on an ancient world and shines a light on the belief system that powered it. In doing so, Stephen Fry is able to show just how human and flawed the Olympian gods were, and, in most cases, how foolish the mortals were to find themselves on their wrong side.
While it may lack the punch of a more focused novel, fans of ancient mythology - especially the sort ingrained in western DNA - will find Mythos an enjoyable, informative read. The fact it was written by Stephen Fry is an added bonus, with his wit and charm adding an extra flavour to the writing.
Better still, if you’ve ever listened to the Harry Potter audio books, you’ll know Stephen Fry makes for a superb narrator, and it's safe to say he loses none of those skills while narrating his own work.