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‘Mythos’ by Stephen Fry *****

Anyone who knows me is aware of my fondness for Stephen Fry; even as a child, I loved to watch him on television, and was lucky enough to see him speak live around a decade ago after winning tickets to the iTunes Festival.  I have read all of his previous books, and have been wanting to read his take on Greek mythology, Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, for an awfully long time.  I received the book for Christmas 2017.  It seems shameful that it took me around nine months to get to it, but I wanted to save it for when I had finished my thesis, and was therefore able to devote a lot of time to it.  I am pleased to report that I loved the book just as much as I had anticipated, and it felt like a real treat.

9780718188726In his introduction, Fry notes: ‘No one loves and quarrels, desires and deceives as boldly and brilliantly as Greek gods and goddesses.  They are like us, only more so – their actions and adventures scrawled across the heavens above.’  He goes on to explain his love of mythology, which he discovered when he was very young.  In his foreword, Fry justifies his choice of Greek mythology as a focus here: ‘Much as I went on to enjoy myths and legends from other cultures and peoples, there was something about these Greek stories that lit me up inside.  The energy, humour, passion, particularity and believable detail of their world held me enthralled from the very first.’  The sense of history, and of beginnings, also contributes to this decision; he writes that the stories ‘were captured and preserved by the very first poets and has come down to us in an unbroken line from almost the beginning of writing to the present day…  The Greeks were the first people to make coherent narratives, a literature even, of their gods, monsters and heroes.’

Mythos is aimed at everyone, and the way in which Fry has approached the stories makes his a highly accessible tome.  He writes: ‘There is absolutely nothing academic or intellectual about Greek mythology; it is addictive, entertaining, approachable and astonishingly human.’  Fry acknowledges those who are already familiar with Greek mythology in his introduction, and ‘especially welcomes’ people who are new to the stories.  ‘You don’t need to know anything to read this book,’ he tells us, ‘it starts with an empty universe.’

In this manner, Fry begins Mythos by setting out the very start of Greek mythology.  He writes, with his usual knowledge, warmth, and sparkling humour: ‘Mythos begins at the beginning, but it does not end at the end.  Had I included heroes like Oedipus, Perseus, Theseus, Jason and Heracles and the details of the Trojan War this book would have been too heavy even for a Titan to pick up.’  (Heroes is, of course, the focus, and the title, of his second volume of Greek mythology, which was recently published.)

As Mythos progresses, Fry revises a wealth of the original stories, and provides a commentary upon them.  His prose style is controlled, but always fulfilling.  Fry certainly puts his own spin on things, particularly when it comes to the stylistically modernised conversations which he imagines between certain characters.  When Gaia and Tartarus are discussing Gaia’s son Kronos, Tartarus, for instance, says: ‘I wish you’d tell him to leave me alone.  He does nothing all day but hang around looking at me with his eyes drooping and his mouth open.  I think he’s got some kind of man-crush on me.  He copies my hairstyle and leans limply against trees and boulders looking miserable, melancholy and misunderstood.  As if he’s waiting for someone to paint him or something.  When he’s not gazing at me he’s staring down into that lava vent over there.  In fact there he is now, look.  Try and talk some sense into him.’

Each section in Mythos has been split up into smaller parts, and this approach makes it even more accessible for the general reader.  Throughout, Fry relates the Greek myths to other cultural points, both in order to give more contextual focus, and to chart the links between Greek mythology and popular culture.  In this manner, he shows just how important and pervading mythology is.  He says, for instance: ‘Had Kronos the examples to go by, he would perhaps have identified with Hamlet at his most introspective, or Jaques at his most self-indulgently morbid.  Konstantin from The Seagull with a suggestion of Morrissey.  Yet there was something of a Macbeth in him too and more than a little Hannibal Lecter – as we shall see.’

I found Mythos utterly compelling, and it retains a feeling of freshness throughout.  Fry’s approach has made the stories both scholarly and highly accessible, and the balance between the two has been handled with skill.  It feels as though every reader will get something out of Mythos, and I would highly recommend it, both to those who are new to Greek mythology, and to those who are familiar with various interpretations, by the likes of Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves.  I loved the commentary which Fry gives throughout, and found that it allowed me to view myths which I was already familiar with in a different way.

I shall end this review with a paragraph that Fry humbly notes in his afterword: ‘I cannot repeat too often that it has never been my aim to interpret or explain the myths, only to tell them.  I have, of course, had to play about with timelines in order to attempt a coherent narrative…  If anyone tells me that I have got the stories “wrong” I believe I am justified in replying that they are, after all, fictions.  In tinkering with the details I am doing what people have always done with myths.  In that sense I feel that I am doing my bit to keep them alive.’

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Book Club: ‘Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold’ by C.S. Lewis *** (May 2014)

‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S. Lewis

In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis retells – or, rather, reinterprets – the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  Throughout, the story, which takes place in the Kingdom of Glome, is told from the first person perspective of Orual, Psyche’s ‘ugly’ older sister.

Redival and Orual are the daughters of a king and queen.  When their mother dies, their father remarries rather quickly, and their stepmother passes away after giving birth to a baby girl named Istra.  Istra is rather quickly given the nickname of Psyche by Orual, who dotes upon her from the first.  As one might expect in a novel such as this, there is a thread of brutality which can be found from beginning to end.  Violence is a way of life in Glome, and the king in particular exemplifies this cruelty.

Orual is quite a strong heroine, but in some ways, she did not quite feel fully developed.  I did not like her, but on reflection, I do not think that I really needed to.  She is such a pivotal character in Lewis’ retelling of the myth, who serves to bring all of the story’s threads together coherently, and her behaviour – nasty though it was – was rendered understandable due to her past and the treatment of others under her father’s rule.  The same can also be said for Redival.

Lewis’ take on the myth has been well thought out, and the twists which he weaves into the plot are clever and often unexpected.  He clearly knows the original material well, and successfully puts his own spin onto the story’s events.  Despite this, I found that it took rather a long time – until Psyche’s birth, really, which does not occur for some time – to get into the story.  Lewis does not make the best use of his Ancient Greek setting throughout, and the beginning of the novel does not therefore feel grounded in any way. Some of the dialogue used sadly felt a little flat, and it was particularly unemotional during those scenes in which it really should have been.

Whilst I did not enjoy Till We Have Faces as much as I thought I would, it is a good choice for a book club read, as many points within its pages are worthy of discussion.  I am looking forward to reading more of Lewis’ adult books, particularly to see the ways in which they compare to this one.

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‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller

Since visiting Olympia in Greece whilst on a Mediterranean cruise in June, I have been trying to get my hands on as many modern day stories of Greek mythology as I could.  The first which I plumped for was Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, a novel which I have heard only good things about.  When I saw that April also written an incredibly favourable review of the book, I felt I just had to read it.  Whilst my review below is rather mixed, I did very much enjoy the novel; it just hasn’t quite reached the heights of ‘favourite’ status for me personally.

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow...

Achilles
tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on
the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500
BC. From Vulci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In The Song of Achilles, Miller has presented the story of Achilles and Patroclus.  I knew the story from reading the wonderful Penguin Book of Mythology (edited by Jenny March) earlier in the year, but I tried to discount all knowledge and enjoy the book for what it was – a love story set amongst the heat of Ancient Greece.  Rather than make her telling of the tale stolid and old fashioned, Miller has given a modern feel to the entirety of the book.  In consequence, it felt as though Achilles and Patroclus’ tale was presented in an entirely fresh way.  I was surprised at how easy it was to read, particularly for rather a lengthy novel.  I must admit that I wasn’t quite expecting the style or tone which Miller presented, but once I got used to it, I felt that it matched the plot perfectly.

With regard to the characters, the way in which the author captured their changing emotions was skilfully done.  I liked the fact that as the boys grew, so did their friendship; a friendship begun merely on the foundation that Achilles found Patroclus ‘surprising’.  Whilst going through their teenage stage, their relationship was often awkward and almost unsettling, and this technique echoed the often tumultuous field of puberty rather well.  The first person perspective throughout worked marvellously, and I loved being able to see the story through the eyes of one who was so involved in it.  The speech between the protagonists and the minor characters too was, like the narrative, rather modern in its style.  This has been criticised in a couple of the reviews I’ve read since, but on reflection, I honestly don’t think that it takes anything away from the story.  Had the language used in conversations and asides been more old fashioned in their style, I feel that it may have bogged down the tale.  It would also have clashed horribly with the modern feel of the narrative.  Miller achieved a good blend between the modernity of the telling and language used and the antiquity of the story.  She also wove in a good deal of historical detail to set the scene and ground the story.  The intertwined storylines which she used also added to this.

 

Ахиллес, оплакивающй Патрокла - Ге Николай Ник...

Ахиллес, оплакивающй Патрокла – Ге Николай Николаевич. Achilles and the body of Patroclus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Miller’s writing was lovely at times, and my favourite aspect of the novel was the way in which she wove in sensory detail.  This was particularly effective when the senses overlapped, and descriptions like the following were introduced: walls which ‘rasped softly as I traced them with my fingertip’.  Her use of music was also a lovely touch.  The Song of Achilles is a novel which I struggled to put down at times, but I must say that I enjoyed the first half of the novel far more than the second.  As soon as the battle scenes came into the story, I felt that Achilles and Patroclus were suddenly fading into the background – almost as though they had become second best for the author.  From here onwards, the development of their relationship was rather stifled and unrealistic. Whilst it had been well paced up until this point, it felt as though the ending was somewhat rushed and not quite developed enough as a result.  To summarise then, The Song of Achilles is a wonderful take on an incredibly interesting myth, but if only Miller had carried on in the way in which she had begun, I feel that it would have been a far more enjoyable novel.