Stephen Fry: comic god on why Greek myths are the best

From Sunday Morning, 10:08 am on 12 November 2017

Stephen Fry fell in love with Greek mythology as a young boy. Now the acclaimed British actor, comedian and writer has written a book about them: Mythos - The Greek Myths Retold.

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry Photo: Flickr

He has re-imagined these stories which he says remain the greatest ever told.

“If you want to tell a story about humanity, then mythology seems to be the best way to do it, if you do it in your own time it looks like it’s a political comment on this particular style of government, or this particular class of person, whereas mythology is so universal.”

And that mythology is deeply ingrained in our culture, he says. The words, phrases and concepts Greek myth has given us are numerous: labyrinth, mentor, hermetically sealed, Oedipus complex, Herculean task, Midas touch, Achilles heel, narcissistic, titanic, stentorian, echo, aphrodisiac, tantalising, jovial and mercurial.

“It’s extraordinary how these particular myths are so deep within our cultural DNA,” says Fry.

He says he enjoys the capriciousness of the Greek gods.

“They’re not just distant, noble beings that know everything and can see everything and judge us; they have the same weaknesses humans do. After all, they created us in their own image.

“The Greeks understood if there were creator Gods then looking at their creation it was clear that they were flawed, imperfect, intemperate, unjust, capricious and inconsistent.”

Fry says he wanted this book to bring these stories to life, but not in a dusty academic way.

“I wanted to be clear the Greek myths are nothing to do with the school room, they’re not black academic gowns and chalk dust, they’re sunlight and olive trees and the blue sea of the Aegean.”

Fry says the myths are “full of profound insights”. But the insights are expressed dramatically rather than intellectually.

Stephen Fry's Mythos is published in NZ on November 13.

Photo: Supplied

The story of titaness Mnemosyne is an example, he says.

"Mnemosyne is the Greek for memory and she by Zeuss, the king of the Gods, had nine daughters - the muses who each stood for one of the arts - epic poetry, music, comedy - it's as if the Greeks were saying that the arts are daughters of memory, art springs from memory.

“It’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? That art comes from memory - because it’s true.”

Apollo is also an example of the Gods having very human flaws.

“The Greeks understood the importance of Apollo: mathematics, reason, harmony, logic, music, all those harmonious enlightened ideas expressed in golden Apollo.

“But they understood to be human you had an Apollonian side and you also had a Dionysian side - Dionysus the God of wine, feasting and revelry - without the two together you were not a perfect human.

“It’s a bit like Star Trek - you’ve got to have McCoy and a Spock.”

So although Apollo is the God of enlightenment, Fry says, he’s also capable of “furious vengeance and temper tantrums.”

Fry told Wallace Chapman he hoped the book would bring these stories alive for a whole new generation.

“I think they’re the best stories ever told, and they have a resonance and a beauty and a wit and a sexiness - without being too silly about it - which is just unmatched as far as I know.

“I wrote the book really to be the book I would have liked to have read when I was younger.”

Stephen Fry's Mythos is published in New Zealand on 13 November.

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