Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold

by Stephen Fry, Penguin, 466pp, £20

It’s not clear who said Stephen Fry was “a stupid person’s idea of a clever person”. It’s a brilliant line – it just isn’t true of Fry. Fry’s deep understanding of the Greek myths – and his readable retelling of them – could only have been achieved by a very clever man.

The Greek myths are the greatest stories of them all, their origins lost in the mists of time, their descendants echoing through Western literature, from the Romans to the present day. Still, though, the myths are an awkward, baggy thicket of prehistory, folklore and local cults, accumulated over centuries.

With a chatty ease, Fry negotiates his way confidently through the puzzling morass of the family tree of the Greek gods. In fact, he tells the story a bit like a family biography – beginning with the union between Gaia, the Mother Earth goddess, and Ouranos, god of the sky, and their children, including Oceanus, the oldest of the Titans.

Through another of their Titan children, Kronos, Fry leads us on to the famous branch of the divine family tree – in the shape of the Olympian children of Kronos – among them Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and Hades; and Zeus’s children Apollo, Artemis, Ares and Hephaestus. All this sounds like some genealogical bore banging on about the celestial quarterings of the Greek gods. In fact, it all provides a neat skeleton to fit the flesh of the Greek myths on to.

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