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Stephen Fry revisits the world of the Ancient Greeks in Heroes

Stephen Fry. Photo/Alamy

In his delightful way, Stephen Fry dips back into the ancient world with more stories of tests, quests and feats of old.

The Greeks are up to their old tricks again: “If they weren’t casseroling their children they were sacrificing them; while those who made it to adulthood, if they weren’t committing incest with their parents were murdering them.” Stephen Fry revisits the Ancient Greeks in Heroes, a companion to his best-selling Mythos. In his delightful manner, Fry tells of the tests, quests and feats of famous Greek heroes and the Gods who meddle in their fates – particularly the scorned Hera in revenge against philandering hubby-brother Zeus.
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Much of Heroes is dedicated to the poster-boy Heracles (Romanised as Hercules) and his Twelve muscle-flexing Labours. Perseus, whose bloodline gave Persia its name, is also widely covered, being both the great-grandfather and half-brother of Heracles. Fry rejoices in the many adventures of Jason and his Argonauts on the quest to capture the Golden Fleece. There’s also self-made hero Theseus, who created his own labours, and Oedipus, too, has his tragic tale recounted.

Fry also draws attention to lesser-known heroes, such as Bellerophon, son of Poseidon, and his obsession with the winged-horse Pegasus, and Orpheus, “Mozart of the ancient world”, with his lyre. There’s also Atalanta, raised by bears and unmatched in speed and hunting, the Amazons and their unfortunate end and the intolerable Medea.

Fry frequently refers to Mythos in the footnotes and declares in the foreword that it isn’t necessary to have read the first volume to understand the second, although the reader would benefit from a contextual understanding of the cosmos. As with Mythos, the endless names and places can be overwhelming, especially as many Greek names look alike. Fry understands. “A lot of names will come at you now. I am aware of how complicated and forgettable such divagations into the family tree may be.” The non-linear timeline can also make comprehension tricky, as events overlap and weave through multiple storylines. Fry warns, “Don’t think too hard about timelines and the relative ages of Theseus and Heracles or we’ll all go mad.”

There are illustrative plates, but unique to Heroes are the references to works by playwrights Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Apollonius Rhodius, as well as lost texts. At the end, Fry alludes to a further instalment, so we can expect to meet figures from the Trojan War and the Odyssey soon.

HEROES: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, by Stephen Fry (Penguin Random House, $37)

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.