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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 5 January 2018

"Mythos" by Stephen Fry

Fry takes us through the earlier Greek myths, including the creation, but not including the labours of Hercules, the siege of Troy and its Oresteian and Odyssean aftermaths, or the story of Theseus etc. Perhaps there was just too much.

But what he has given us is his own retelling of some of the less-well-known stories. The ones that lurk in the corners of the cultural subconscious (or did for those of us with some sort of traditional British education). As such it enlightened many dark pockets of my ignorance. I had heard of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with the statue he had carved, the classical reference underpinning the GBS play that metamorphosed into My Fair Lady, but I had never read the story. I was dimly aware of the story of Hero and Leander, one of whom drowned swimming the Hellespont, but I knew no details. Again and again Fry fleshed out the bare bones of my knowledge. And told me how these stories had passed into our culture by, for example, citing the poems by Byron or Keats or the passages in Shakespeare that had referred to them.

There was a huge western European culture built around these ideas. Young people today are ignorant of much of it (although the themes are often reprised without their knowledge in computer games, sci-fi serials, and soap operas). It is sad that so much cultural heritage is slipping away although of course it was only available to the public-school educated elite and there is a great deal of wonderful culture that is replacing it. I was ashamed of my ignorance. After all, I am a few months older than him, we had similar educations (although I wasn't expelled) and our times at Cambridge overlapped. But I studied science and that is a huge culture in itself. Life is too short for everything.

The real joy of this book is the way that Fry writes. He retells these stories of Gods and mortals in the most human way possible. For example, Ganymede is such a beautiful youth that both men and women are lovestruck on meeting him. “When they got home they wrote and instantly tore up poems that rhyme ‘thighs’ with ‘eyes’, ‘hips’ with ‘lips’, ‘youth’ with ‘truth’, ‘boy’ with ‘joy’ and ‘desire’ with ‘fire’.” (p 306) It is the "instantly tore up" that makes the imagery so quotidian, so mundane, and so real you can touch it, poke it, prod it and squish it. These are humans. “A compound of village gossip, nosy neighbour and over-solicitous best friend, Echo found it impossible to hold her tongue.” (p 333) I know Echo. She lives down the street.

And then there is the erudition. Legend, we are told,  “derives from the gerundive of the Latin legere, meaning ‘to be read’. Interestingly, the absolute origin of the verb legere and its supine form lectum bears the meaning of ‘gather’ - as in ‘college’ and ‘collect’.” (p 403 & fn) This single example will have to suffice for the learning that is displayed on every single page of this brilliant book.

Other moments I loved:
Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn. As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.” (p 3)
In time you will abandon your trousers - not yet, I hope - and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned.” (p 4)
It was a sickle. An enormous scythe whose great curved blade had been forged from adamantine, which means ‘ untameable’. (p 16)
Our word ‘hearth’ shares its ancestry with ‘heart’, just as in the modern Greek for ‘hearth’ is kardia, which also means ‘heart’.” (p 59)
If that makes her seem a spoilsport, well, sometimes sport needs to be spoiled and the children called in from the playground.” (p 67)
The blameless majority, whose lives were neither especially virtuous not especially vicious ... were guaranteed a pleasant enough afterlife: before they arrived they drink of the waters of forgetfulness from the River Lethe so that a blithe and bland eternity could be passed, untroubled by upsetting memories of earthly life.” (p 144)
In this story, as in so many others, what we really discern is the deceptive, ambiguous and giddy riddle of violence, passion, poetry and symbolism that lies at the heart of Greek myth and refuses to be solved.” (p 227)
Perhaps narcissism is best defined as a need to look on other people as mirrored surfaces who satisfy us only when they reflect back a loving or admiring image of ourselves.” (p 344)
Gods of this kind are created in our image, not the other way round.” (p 403)

There is only one thing missing from this book. All the other stories! Please, Mr Fry, let us have the stories of the heroes, Theseus and Hercules and Achilles and Ulysses and Oedipus and Orestes and Antigone and Medea and Jason and ...

And then perhaps you can move to the Viking gods who are just as much fun.

January 2018; 410 pages


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