Stephen Fry, Troy (2021)

Author: Stephen Fry

Title: Troy

Format: E-book

Pages: 432

Series: Stephen Fry’s Great Mythology #3

Hmmm, where should I start this review?

I really like and admire Stephen Fry, his dry humor and his wonderful acting abilities. The audiobooks narrated by him are among the best I ever listened to. His love for Greek mythology is widely known, and he certainly has a respectable amount of knowledge about it. Moreover, he has the uncanny ability to make it accessible and relatable to a modern, not classically educated reader.

And herein lies the problem ;). I gradually discover (yeah, I can be a slow learner ;)) that I do not like retellings of the mythologies I love. Nope. Just nope. I catch myself questioning the author’s decisions about including or omitting stuff, about structuring the narrative, and so on. Worse, I disagree with interpretation ;). So really, I don’t know why I’m even doing this to myself! But when I noticed Fry’s Troy on NG, I just had to check it out to see if it would be a good book for younger readers – and for me 😉

I assure you, the answer to the first question is yes. While the mythological history (or prehistory) of Troy and Trojan war is extremely convoluted, sometimes contradictory, and completely out of whack time-wise, Fry spends a lot of time to patiently unravel the Gordian knots and ultimately succeeds in presenting us with a streamlined version of the mythical conflict. It’s no small task, and while Fry is not entirely successful, his attempt is laudable. If you want readers without earlier exposure to Greek mythos to read Greek mythology, you can certainly do worse than Fry – though I’d suggest starting with something a bit easier than the Trojan War, like Mythos, or Heroes.

As to the answer to the second question – it is less unequivocal. It was an ok read, don’t get me wrong. But the main value I see in this book for someone like me, who’s been marinating in the Greek mythology for the vast majority of their life, professional too, is that it once again proves that there’s nothing better than the original. Oh, the myths are a dime a dozen, written down in different times by different groups of authors, with different aims and within varied context, again often ending up as contradictory as possible – but Homer’s Iliad (and Odyssey, but we’re not getting into THIS discussion here) is one.

This is the moment when I drag my hands through my hair and roll my eyes and start my lengthy rant on what was missing from Fry’s version. I’ll spare you the details 😉

The only thing I feel needs emphasis is the complete lack of a soldier/military perspective on what was, after all, a freaking ten-year extremely bloody conflict that ended in genocide. Oh, I know this is something that seems like a completely niche critique, but let me assure you – the fact that it seems niche stems from our culture’s repression of the real cost of war. We want heroes and parades, tales of noble deeds and patriotic duty, and we don’t want to hear what war really is. The end result is that we then start wars we are unable to end, for wrong reasons, with wrong aims, and we do not learn. Homer’s Iliad is one of the few so powerful lessons on the futility, rabidity, cruelty and chaotic nature of war, and I wanted Fry’s retelling to reflect some of this. There are sparks of this attitude, for example in Fry’s analysis of Achilles:

“We recognize that if we had ever encountered the real demon demigod Achilles, we would have feared and dreaded him, hated his temper, despised his pride, and been repelled by his savagery. But we know too that we could not have helped loving him.” (p.190)

This is however a case of too little, too late – especially considering that Troy came over a quarter of century (27 years exactly) after the publication of Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, and two decades after the UK sent their troops to Afghanistan and became embroiled in the War on Terror.

Of course, there’s also the problem of the narrative being abruptly cut; as you can imagine, another work, about Odyssey this time, is already being written. Still, there is much to love about Fry’s Troy. While the source material occasionally got the better of him and the narrative flounders in various side arcs and explanations, all in all it’s a solid, faithful retelling of the conflict that shaped the culture of ancient Greece. There’s also a nice Appendix with a short introduction to intricacies of the relationship between myth and reality – definitely worth a read.

I highly recommend this book to all who are not well versed in Greek mythology and want to learn more. It’s accessible, well written, and clearly a work of love.

I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

Score: 7/10

39 thoughts on “Stephen Fry, Troy (2021)

    1. I do realize my mythology-related nerdiness is not very common 😜 so I try to take it into account when reviewing books.
      And it’s not a bad book – it’s just… I feel it could’ve been better. But then I think that maybe I should wrote my own version, AND then I remember that mythology-related nerdiness is quite uncommon and I go “nah, that’s good enough” 😂😂😂

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Milou read this on our trip to S.A last year. I caught a few glimpses here and there as i was driving most of the time when she was reading. Fry is amazing but i can see the frustration in having intimate knowledge of the subject matter and an author not pulling through with certain things. Still a great review👍🏻

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That was an interesting review! I have read Mythos and I have Troy waiting for me on my eReader so, sooner or later, I would read it too. But aside from the military part (because it wasn’t so prominent in the myths in Mythos) I can find my opinion of Mythos really well explained by your words for Troy!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I sort of like mythology and read Mythos, but I always forget the myths afterwards and don’t feel as much appreciation for them as I feel for modern novels. I’ve read all of them in the past, part of a classical education, but I always forget about them. So I stopped after Mythos and did not pick up the other Fry books. The Iliad is perhaps the book I like the most, because it is the most like a novel. But then I’d rather read Homer himself.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yup, you can’t do better than Homer! 😁
      And I know I’m in the minority here, but I’m a big proponent of the classical education; I think we should all at least know the origins of our culture and see what brings us together before we learn what keeps us apart.

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        1. Yeah, I get it. Still, you have that knowledge now (or at least parts of it) and nobody can take it away. I’m sure it colors the way you perceive different things and gives you a context you otherwise wouldn’t possess 😀

          Liked by 1 person

      1. Dark Chocolate is pure evil. It defeats the whole purpose of BEING chocolate.

        But like I mentioned in my reply to you on the other review (keeping track of who said what where is starting to complicated these days!), forcing a food metaphor just doesn’t work. I am an arteest after all! 😉

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I’m very sorry, deer arteest, but dark chocolate just fits so well! You hate it while I love it! (And I hate it too, when someone spoils it by creating some artsy-fartsy version with sea salt and whatnot 🤣🤣🤣)

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  4. You really only do honest reviews, don’t you? And that’s why we follow you and relish your opinions and squirm and laugh and boil and smirk when we read them!

    Me too, I prefer ‘original’, albeit in translation, and preferably with a heap of informative critical notes and some counter opinions. So I shall be returning to ‘Homer’ whenever the call comes, much as I like Fry’s caustic wit and enthusiasms.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Chris! (Bows deeply) 😊

      Alas, I cannot read ancient Greek (nor modern Greek, for that matter), so I also rely on translations. But therr is a world of difference between a translation and a retelling, and like you given a choice I will always choose the former 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love listening to Stephen Fry narrating pretty much anything. He could read my shopping list and I’m sure it would be wonderful. I recommend his narration of the Sherlock Holmes stories 😃

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’ve heard his Sherlock Holmes audiobooks are just the best! Right now we’re going through his Harry Potter audiobooks, but Sherlock is on the roster after them!
      … though it will take some time as we only listen to audiobooks while driving… And holidays are nearly half a year away 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You had me at Greek mythology and Stephen Fry narrating. Sound like an excellent combination. I am probably with you regarding preferring originals to retellings. I absolutely loved The Iliad, when reading it in school, but I haven’t attempted any original texts since then. Also, I can’t imagine reading these texts in English, which probably isn’t the best language to capture the rhytm in the hexameter writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t attempted to read the full English translation – only fragments, by various authors. One thing is that it is a sort of a double translation for me, but also the translator’s choices of words and interpretation are sometimes questionable 😉 I feel like more Latin-based languages fare better in maintaining the rhythm and plasticity of the original.
      Fry does a good job, no question about it – if you have a chance to listen to Troy, do 🙂

      My main beef with him is that he treats The Iliad as a dynastic affair, whereas Homer very clearly states that it’s a tale of Achilles’s wrath, menis – the roots of it and the results of it, and how in war a hero can be simultaneously a bane and a savior to his people. It’s a tale about the cruelty and tragedy war and what it does to people, how it changes them – and reading Fry I didn’t feel it at all. But that’s my professional interest speaking 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I do see what you mean about changing the underlying premise for the story. But perhaps I would feel less strongly about that, because I know less about this area than you do. I think we discussed this in relation to Circe, which I quite enjoyed (but you didn’t 😉 )

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Circe, that’s right! Oh, in that case you’re quite safe with Fry, I should think, and should enjoy his retellings a lot! 😁 Besides, all retelling-related things aside, these stories themselves are gold! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I bought Mythos AND Heroes in the hope that Fry would give me a relatively gentle introduction to Greek mythology. But I started Heroes on audio and just couldn’t get into it – it felt like he was going at such a speed I just couldn’t keep the info in my head.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it might be easier to start with Mythos, actually. Fry is very much a geeky overenthusiastic boy when it comes to Greek mythology, and he seems quite oblivious to the fact that others might not know or care about all those details 😉 I understand him, I’m just like it too – but I also realize most people aren’t! 😉 I’d say don’t worry about those names and locations – just go with the flow if you still want to give it a chance :).

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    1. Heh, he’s indeed an ingenious narrator!

      And you’re probably right about that audience, too, though actually I felt that Iliad’s vast material sometimes got better of Fry, and he – and with him, the readers – were getting confounded by the overabundance of names and family relations 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I like how understanding you are about anyone attempting to reimagine mythologies that you love, especially in this case! At least you know what you love and you are ready to give something a try even if there are almost no chances whatsoever for them to beat your expectations! 😛 Fantastic review, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! 😀

      …I won’t dig into that compliment too much, it might turn out sarcastic if I even scratch the surface 😉 I do try to be understanding, though, even if the results don’t show it! 🤣🤣🤣

      Like

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