Medea by Anthony Frederick Sandys | Photo from the book
Medea by Anthony Frederick Sandys | Photo from the book

A lthough ostensibly a sequel to his book Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, Stephen Fry’s follow-up book Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures works superbly as a stand-alone read. Fry, an Oxbridge graduate best known for his portrayals of P.G. Wodehouse-created butler Jeeves (in the British television show Jeeves and Wooster) and the writer Oscar Wilde (in the film Wilde), displays a deep passion as well as thorough knowledge of the Greek myths — evidenced not simply by his accessible and engaging writing, but also by the carefully chosen colour plates that illustrate the text. Images taken from ancient pottery, as well as famous paintings, bring the legends of Hercules, Theseus and Jason, among others, to life.

But the major strength of the book lies in Fry’s writing, which is informative as well as light and humorous at times. He commences his text with the legend of Perseus, whose major claim to fame was the slaying of the Medusa — a female monster whose gaze could petrify any living creature, including humans. Fry then proceeds to delineate the fascinating labours of Hercules, performed at the bidding of the cravenly coward King Eurystheus. It appears as if Fry has a particularly soft corner for this hero. Although I have read myths recounted by authors as diverse as my alma mater Bryn Mawr’s Edith Hamilton, Roger Lancelyn Green and the inimitable Robert Graves, nowhere else have I perceived Hercules’s humanity and fallibility to be as sympathetically described as by Fry. A brief, insightful note towards the end of the text muses on whether Hercules’s heinous murder of his wife and young children parallels the actions of certain modern individuals with severe and unchecked mental disorders such as schizophrenia.

Be that as it may, the labours themselves are entertainingly described, especially the cleaning of the excrement-filled Augean Stables, and the conquest involving the girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyta. I strongly urge readers not to be put off by the footnotes that Fry intersperses throughout his text, since they are not simply eminently readable, but mini-legends in their own right.

The author then proceeds to recount the legend of the somewhat lesser known hero, Bellerophon, who was instrumental in killing the Chimera — a monstrous, fire-breathing amalgamation of various animals — with the help of his more famous winged horse, Pegasus. Following that, we get the adventures of the musically gifted Orpheus who went to the underworld to claim his wife Eurydice, who had died young because of a fatal snake bite. The talented 18th century poet William Congreve, who was part of the renowned Augustan circle of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, has also poetically described this myth. The Augustan translations of Homer and Virgil’s epics into English are epic endeavours in and of themselves, so I hope Fry’s next text gives us a fresh perspective on the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Stephen Fry’s entertaining follow-up book about Greek legends features heroes who have made a far more indelible name for themselves in popular culture than even the immortal Olympians themselves

Speaking of the Odyssey, which is one of the most famous sea voyages in literature, Fry then moves on to the nautical adventures of Jason and the Argonauts. More senior readers of Fry’s text will remember a classic film version of this story, which became popular in Pakistan decades ago when it was shown on the big screen at some major cinemas. It was all the more remarkable because it relied on no computerised special effects — this was before the time of CGI and digital technology.

Just as he does a fabulous job portraying Hercules’s human side, Fry equally skilfully depicts the human aspects of the enchantress Medea, Jason’s formidable romantic interest. Indeed, the section that follows deals with yet another famous female hero (I use the term ‘female hero’ deliberately, since heroines do not traditionally take on masculine tasks in mythology). This was the princess Atalanta, who took an active and successful part in hunting down the Calydonian boar, and was one of the most fleet-footed humans in Greek legend.

Medea’s twisted machinations find a corollary in the equally twisted plot of the Oedipus legend that follows Atalanta’s adventures. Many readers will be familiar with Oedipus’s incestuous marriage to his mother Jocasta, but what really stands out in this section is Fry’s hilarious recounting of Oedipus’s battle of wit and wills with the Sphinx, which Oedipus won by solving her famous riddle: What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon and three at night?

Humour is an integral part of Fry’s text and nowhere is this more evident than in the labours of the Athenian hero Theseus. Unlike the predominantly brawny Hercules, or the magically inspired Medea, Theseus relied on his wit and intelligence, as much as his strength, in order to defeat monstrous individuals such as Procrustes and, indeed, Medea herself. His conquest of the part man, part bull Minotaur is an especially memorable segment of this section, and the scene where the exhausted Minotaur begs Theseus to put a quick end to his miserable life comes across as truly moving. Feminists will wag a disapproving finger at Theseus’s abandonment of Princess Ariadne, but she received an undeniable promotion by being married off to none less tony than Dionysus, the god of wine himself!

I realise that this book has been viewed as a sequel, but I recommend that it be read before Mythos if possible, since these heroes have made a far more indelible name for themselves in popular culture than even the immortal Olympians themselves. Regardless of whether one applauds Disney’s Hercules and Meg, raves about Percy Jackson, or peruses more highbrow popular fiction such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe (with Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls thrown in for good measure), the Greek myths continue to exert a truly wondrous hold over our imagination and collective consciousness.

I simply cannot wait for Fry to take on the Herculean task of speaking for Homer’s heroes in the future; Mr Fry’s particular brand of magic is no less effective — in my personal opinion — than J.K. Rowling’s. The only difference being that we have yet to see if Harry Potter can withstand the test of time, Fry’s books imply that the Greek myths have beaten Chronos as comprehensively as Hercules subdued the Nemean Lion.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures
By Stephen Fry
Penguin Random House, UK
ISBN: 978-1405940368

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 26th, 2020