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Stephen Fry's charmingly British retelling of the Greek myths

Stephen Fry acknowledges that his book doesn’t end at the end. Photo/Alamy

Stephen Fry’s take on Greek mythology is light-hearted and quite British.

The Greek myths have been told and retold for more than 2000 years. Just last year, novelists Colm Tóibín (with House of Names) and Kamila Shamsie (in Home Fire) delivered their own reworkings of ancient stories.

In Mythos, Stephen Fry invites readers to share in his lifelong enjoyment of Greek mythology in a retelling that is, well, rather Stephen Fry.

Fry’s twee vocabulary and delivery – think tea-and-biscuits meets Horrible Histories – mean it is difficult not to read the stories in his comforting voice.

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The approach makes it clear this is very much his interpretation of the myths – a light-hearted, charmingly British and 21st-century version.

For example, Fry paints Juno, queen of the gods, as a desperate housewife, “hurling china ornaments at feckless minions”, and envisages Aphrodite’s girdle as a “mythical Wonderbra” because “I’m damned if I can find a convincing definition of girdle”.

The book begins at the beginning of all things, with the introduction of Chaos, from which came the Cosmos, before the deities are introduced individually and in a chronological sequence.

Rather than using such familiar tales as The Odyssey, The Iliad and the Labours of Heracles, Fry draws his inspiration more from Hesiod’s Theogony and, later, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Handy footnotes make for enlightening asides to the main text, explaining etymologies and the creation of such things as seasons, geography and peculiarities that “make sense if you are a god”. Fry paints the cannibalism, incest and infanticide of the gods as rather jolly affairs.

But even though he spoon-feeds the stories, the sheer number of characters and their bizarre relationships to one another (as well as the Latin translation of names in Roman myths) may prove overwhelming for newcomers.

Mythos doesn’t quite finish when the mythology does. Having passed 400 pages, Fry had to stop somewhere and he acknowledges that his book doesn’t 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.”

The author’s fireside manner makes this an enjoyable holiday read rather than a study of great classical theology. His take on the Greek myths is undeniably entertaining, though, and altogether Quite Interesting.

MYTHOS: THE GREEK MYTHS RETOLD, by Stephen Fry (Penguin Random House, $37)

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.