Book Review: Heroes // Stephen Fry

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As a child, I listened to retellings of the Ancient Greek myths on my cassette player over and over again. When I was a few years older, I was hooked on the Percy Jackson audiobooks. This year, I purchased the audiobook of Stephen Fry’s Mythos, which tells the stories of the Greek gods, to listen to during long lockdown walks. Afterwards, I couldn’t not buy Heroes

Heroes is the grown-up version of the cassettes I used to love. More detail, more violent and explicit content, more wit. Fry takes us on eight journeys with eight heroes: Perseus, Heracles, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Jason, Atalanta, Oedipus, and Theseus. Each of them teach us different lessons and add a new layer to our understanding of history and Ancient Greece. 

As a brief refresher for those who might not have spent half of their childhood thinking about the Greek gods and heroes, let me try to briefly summarise. Perseus beheads Medusa and kills sea monster Cetus. Heracles, who had incredible strength, killed his wife and children in rage. To redeem himself, he had to complete twelve labours, including stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides and capturing Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the underworld. Bellerophon captures Pegasus (who is also his half brother) and together they kill fire-breathing creature Chimera. Musician Orpheus was able to charm Hades into releasing his wife from the underworld. Jason led the quest for the golden fleece. Atalanta played a big role in slaying the Calydonian boar and in Jason’s golden fleece adventure. Oedipus leaves his adoptive parents (he believes he is their biological son) behind after an oracle tells him he would kill his father and marry his mother. Eventually the prophecy comes true with his real parents. Finally, Theseus slays the Minotaur, which leads to the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus flying too close to the sun.

Most heroes aren’t just randomly successful though. They go through tragedy, are influenced by both gods and other mortals and often start out as ordinary people (apart from the fact that they are related to a god). The skills and characteristics displayed by them aren’t so foreign to us in today’s world and their experiences can be transferred, if only in a metaphorical sense. The book’s opening quote sums up this message perfectly: “To all the heroes we have never heard of. Perhaps you are one.”

All of their stories are incredibly complicated: timelines overlap, locations are unclear, the gods always get involved, new characters pop up everywhere. Yet, Stephen Fry manages to break them all down to their core and make them understandable. He uses just enough, but not too much, detail to make sure the reader can keep track and understand the messages in the myths rather than getting confused and overwhelmed. An extensive glossary and footnotes help anyone who wants to do more reading and to keep track of the many different names. There are many niche aspects which Fry inevitably brushes over, but the central storylines are rich with visuals and explanations.

That being said, this is a book which requires a certain attention span and focus to read. This issue arises simply because of the topic – there have been so many, extensive retellings of the myths which Fry had to isolate stories and characters from. Unfamiliar names and creatures are bound to create some confusion for the reader. This is mitigated through the book’s structure. Rather than following a chronological approach, Fry tells the story of each hero separately and even points out inconsistencies in the timeline, which makes it a digestible read. 

As usual, Fry’s writing style is characterized by dry, witty humour, references to the present day and his own interpretation of the stories. These are his trademarks and he sticks to them in Heroes. It gives the adventures he retells a fresh lease on life, making them engaging and exciting. He excels at making the heroes relevant to our lives today, whilst still shrouding them in mystery and fantasy. This ensures that amidst all the educational passages, entertainment does not fall short. 

Overall, Heroes was an incredibly enjoyable read and definitely reminded me of why I was so fascinated by Greek mythology as a child. It can easily be read as a lone-standing book, the context of the gods is explained as much as necessary throughout and is in no way vital to understanding this set of adventures (although, I would also recommend Mythos). Fry’s ability to tell ancient stories in a modern, comical way is what really makes Heroes worth the read. It is mythology like you will not have encountered it before – not dry, neutral and factual, but lively, delightful and insightful. 

Words by Sophie Kiderlin

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