Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures – Stephen Fry

I read various pieces of advice on what to read or not read during the lockdown. I actually gave a few myself (happy, depressing, wise, grieving, the long ones and moving). One advice I didn’t take seriously at the beginning was that to read ‘books that you know, genres that are comfortable, nothing too challenging’. Being me, I immediately started to make a list of books I never had time to read. It was a mistake, the first three weeks spent reading two books and finishing only one of them, proved to me my attention span was extremely short.

No surprise, if you consider that I obsessively read the news for the first two weeks. But as I moved on towards the end of week three and in weeks four and five things picked up. I started thinking about why that happened. The answer was simple: comfort reading! I read an Inspector Montalbano crime story, then swiftly moved on to a vet describing his various cases (who doesn’t like pets?) and then to another familiar territory: Greek mythology. And that was exactly what I needed to get me going. Familiarity, nothing too complex or challenging.

I read Mythos just over a year ago and loved it. Since I had it on my shelf since October 2018, my Bigger Half decided to buy me Heroes for Christmas that year. Just so I have a set. Due to its volume, it landed on the ‘scary ones’ shelf, which is never a good sign. But as I now spend a lot more time in my home office (as I’m still WFH at my daily data job it’s actually most of my waking time) I get to socialize a lot more with the ‘scary ones’ shelf. It’s the only shelf in the office, maybe that’s what I had in mind when I put them here. Anyway, Heroes caught my eye so here we are.

Just as Mythos was a retelling of the main part of the Greek mythology, Heroes concerns itself with the myths surrounding the…yes, heroes. I have a sneaky feeling Stephen Fry may be working on a third book, about the Trojan War, as it is mentioned several times but we never get the full story.

So, who do we have here? Everyone, and some dogs, and bulls and other animals 😉 Perseus, Heracles, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Jason, Atalanta, Oedipus, and Theseus. With all their stories and weird warped chronology. Fry even advises us a few times to try and disregard the obvious impossibilities and contradictions. Which is what I’ve always instinctively done.

Every quest and every mission comes with the backstory, all told in an engaging way. Maybe not as irreverently as in Mythos. I think Stephen Fry has a bit more sympathy for the heroes than the gods.

Those are the stories we all know, and that’s why reading them felt so comfortable. Fry’s execution made it a pleasure, light but never stupid, witty and frivolous, of course, but also seeking to understand. What I liked the most is that he gave each of the heroes a very distinctive personality. They are not defined by their actions only, their motivation is key. Heracles always between exploding in rage or atoning for the previous outburst. Smart but a bit arrogant Theseus. Much more arrogant Bellerophon. Dreaming and despairing Orpheus. They are all different, they are all human.

Reading this book was like wrapping myself in a mental blanket of the known, but written anew. I really enjoyed it, especially in this weird time. And yes, there is plenty of cattle in the tales (hence the cover photo), it is even explained why. But I’ll leave you hanging. It’s the one case when footnotes make sense.


As I was adding tags to this post one thought stopped me: is mythology fiction or non-fiction? Not in a sense of believing the myths, of course. But it is non-fiction in a sense of documenting what people really believed in. On the other hand, it is pure fiction. What do you think?

One thought on “Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures – Stephen Fry

  1. Pingback: Q2 2020 round-up – bookskeptic.com

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