Author: Stephen Fry
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.