I’ve found myself living in Ancient Greece this past week, which is perhaps the best compliment that I can give to Stephen Fry’s works on Greek mythology.
For me, he has brought these stories and characters to life in a way that has had me transfixed and immersed in these pages almost to the exclusion of anything else in my life right now.
Heroes is a volume that can be read separately from it predecessor Mythos but one gets a much better experience with the former if you’ve read the latter. It shifts the focus away from the Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus and on to the mortals (or fools) that dare to dream, that are in the possession of an incredible amount of self-belief (or hubris), and have the boldness, brawn and brute strength to accompany it.
Stephen Fry makes it very clear that the history and interrelatedness of the characters in Greek mythology are so tangled that one will simply go mad if one tries to memorise all the kings, queens, sons, daughters and, of course, incestuous unions and offsprings. He makes a valiant effort, though, to highlight and cross-reference important ones in what is undoubtedly my favourite part of this book and the last one: the footnotes.
But I think that readers shouldn’t approach this book as they would an academic exercise. There is no requirement for you to recall who Heracles‘ father was, or to remember that he had a twin, for you to enjoy the tale of how he tricked Hades into lending him Cerberus, the literal hound of hell. The only fundamental requirement to reading this book is that you, as a reader, have every information you need to understand and enjoy these stories (and very helpfully, the book comes with a glossary to help you with that).
Because believe me, this is a book with an extensive cast of characters, each of whom play a role one way or another in the events that unfold. There are a few standouts, apart from the heroes themselves. I found myself intrigued by the role that women played, or how they were portrayed and perceived in greek mythology. There is a hint of misogyny that is typical of that time period I suppose, but I’d like to think that Jason would never have gotten the golden fleece without Medea’s help, and that Theseus would still be stuck in the labyrinth were it not for Ariadne’s love and life-saving advice.
Some of the stories here will be familiar to readers. Like, who hasn’t heard of Icarus and his failure to follow his father’s advice to not fly too close to the sun? It’s like the mother of all cautionary tales. I think they teach it in school so that young impressionable minds will know from the get-go that there are consequences WHEN YOU DON’T LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS.
The tale of Icarus, as well as that of the heroes in this volume, is also a testament to the saying that pride cometh before the fall. The gods seem to take a particular delight in punishing heroes when they overreach and overstep, perhaps out of jealousy but perhaps to remind them that whatever else they achieve, they are still in fact human.
And I guess that’s an important thing to remember when we talk about heroes. They are human just like us, and there’s two important things I’d like to point out in addition to that.
One, anyone can be a hero. Think about it, a hero is someone who finds himself under difficult circumstances and chooses to do something about it. We do that in our every day lives. For me, a nurse who stays beyond her shift in order to see to a trauma patient is just as much a hero as Perseus, and believe me, its easier to deal with Medusa and her hair of snakes than it is to placate a patient who’s been waiting in the busy A and E for four hours.
The second thing is, perhaps, just something I’ve come to realise about us and our entire belief system. I’ve said this so many times before, that the saddest thing in the world is to see someone who’s lost the ability to dream and have hope. I think that’s why Hollywood (and Disney) have chosen to gloss over the more unsavoury parts of greek mythology’s so-called heroes. We don’t want to know about the tragic end to their stories, or that they weren’t the men we always thought they were when we placed them so high upon their pedestals.
I certainly don’t want my child to know that Mr. Zero to Hero Hercules (or Heracles, which is his proper name) killed Megara AND his two kids. Or that Perseus and Jason were in fact considered murderers by many who knew them. That did not make it into the final cut of well-known movies, did it?
I think that the reason for that is because Hollywood and Disney recognise (and cater to) man’s innate need to believe in the extraordinary. We need to believe that somewhere out there are people who can rise to the occasion and rise above human flaws to fight the battles that we cannot fight. We will always need to believe in that, and for as long as we do, we will always need to believe in Heroes.
Great book and just as hilarious and entertaining as Mythos. Four out of five stars!