From Adonis to Prometheus: the beautiful men of myth

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

Stephen Fry has had a go at the Greek myths, in a competitively priced hardback, just in time for Christmas. And he has done it jolly well, actually, so lower that collective eyebrow, please, all of you purists who think entertainers ought to stay away from the classics, and remember that as one of our top TV deities, Fry can do what he likes.

Born wearing tweed, he was dipped by the heel in the River of Wisdom (though some say it was only the Trickle of Cleverness) and ascended via the Cambridge Footlights into the Equity-approved pantheon. He is loved, as the Greek gods were loved, not only for his talents, but for his failings and vulnerabilities too. He could get away with anything, except perhaps denim.

In Mythos, he is clearly enjoying himself. The goddess Hesta reminds him of Aunt Agatha. The infant Hermes is ‘a cocky little squirt’. Death himself, Thanatos, he gifts a pantomime evil laugh: ‘Mwahahaha.’ The backcloth and scenery is all two-dimensional clichés — Persephone ‘chasing butterflies as they flitted from blossom to blossom in a sun-dappled meadow’ just before she is stolen by Hades, for example. But the characterisation and dialogue is super. Sisyphus leaps off the page as a Hellenic Larry David, patting down his pockets when asked to pay the ferryman Charon: ‘No, nothing doing.’

Fry does not shun the trickier parts of the canon, such as the child-eating Sky Father Ouranos, and his graphic genital dismemberment: ‘Kronos had flung the Sky Father’s junk, if you recall, far across the sea.’ Fry’s wry primness of tone is comforting, given all the gory incest — like Miss Marple narrating a chainsaw massacre or Dumbledore doing Medea.

From the beautiful silvery-gold liquid called ichor that ran in the veins of the gods, to talaria, the proper name for winged sandals, this book is full of satisfying detail. But Fry’s enthusiasm is frighteningly genuine and cannot be contained in the narrative, spilling into footnotes and appendices. ‘In fact, the area of central Greece where Mount Othrys stands is called Magnesia to this day: it gave its name to magnesium, magnets and, of course, magnetite.’ Recording 180 episodes of QI has, I’m afraid, done its damage. And no chapter in any book should begin ‘Interestingly…’

Fry cannot contain his passion for trivia, but for Greek boys he maintains a respectful tone of whispered adulation. The action as far as sex is concerned is all strictly PG, but there is an unending roll call of shapely koroi: ‘A son of quite transcendent loveliness’ (Hermaphroditus); ‘he was strong, almost distressingly good-looking’ (Prometheus); ‘this pert and handsome youth’ (Hermes); ‘with his dreamy brown eyes, sweet voice and bewitching ability to cause the toes to tap and hips to rotate…’ (which sounds like Cliff Richard, but is actually Arion, of dolphin’s back fame); ‘the gentle heave and swell of muscles gave his youthful beauty a manly cast’ (Eros); ‘a young shepherd of great beauty lying naked and fast asleep on the hillside’ (Endymion); ‘a sensitive and wildly attractive young sculptor’ (Pygmalion); and finally, ‘his hair golden, his skin like warm honey, his lips a soft, sweet invitation to lose yourself in mad and magical kisses’ (Ganymede himself).

As Mrs Merton might have asked, what could possibly have attracted Stephen Fry to the Golden Age of Male Love? But he is self-aware enough to make a joke of it. By the time we get to Adonis:

Smyrna’s baby grew up to be a youth of the most unparalleled physical attractiveness. Oh dear, I’ve written this too many times for you to believe me again. But it’s true that all who looked upon him were smitten.

There is some great storytelling here, and a winning unpretentiousness. A person of less charm would certainly have mentioned that he studied Ancient Greek at school sooner than the last page of the appendices. Why there is are contents or index in a production of this quality is utterly baffling, except perhaps for the reason that it would quickly reveal that this selection is full but not comprehensive; there is no Medea, nor Oedipus or Herakles, for instance. ‘Mythos begins at the beginning,’ acknowledges the author, in a note that faintly presages a sequel, ‘but it does not end at the end.’

Finally, a brief apology. In 2004 my friend Willie Donaldson called Stephen Fry ‘the stupid person’s idea of a clever person’. I corpsed and we put it in the loo book we were crafting at the time, the Dictionary of National Celebrity. Of course, the reason the phrase stings has nothing to do with Fry himself. Confusing an entertainer for an academic would indeed be a stupid thing to do, like expecting moral guidance from Charlton Heston, or asking Fiona Bruce to authenticate a Rembrandt. They are not themselves authorities. They are entertainers: interpreters, communicators, re-tellers. They have good teeth and mellifluous voices. This book has all that facility and charisma coupled with a high level of layperson’s scholarship. To sniff at it would be an act of snobbery.

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