Stephen Fry explains why the Greek myths still speak so powerfully to us across the centuries
Words Mark Fisher
Photos David Cooper
Stephen Fry is remembering the early days of the Internet. A bit of a tech geek, he was not just an early adopter of this new way of communicating but also an evangelist.
“I was incredibly naïve,” he says. “I thought it would solve the problems of the world. I thought, ‘Boundaries will dissolve and tribal divides and hatreds will disappear and we’ll all suddenly understand each other, and people who have unusual and different hobbies will be able to contact each other across the world instantly rather than relying on quarterly fanzines.’”
The actor, writer and comedian wasn’t exactly wrong, but what happened next puts him in mind of Pandora’s Box, the ancient myth about a woman graced by the gods with gifts ranging from wisdom to beauty, as well as one present, a box, she was forbidden to open.
“At some point in the first decade of this century the box opened and out flew all these creatures, just as they did with Pandora’s Box,” says Fry. “In the myth, a world without pain was infested with war, famine, lies, murder, lust and anger. Similarly, the box opened on the Internet and brought trolls, abusers, groomers, misinformation and viruses. What had seemed like a paradise, a beautiful clean pool in which we could all swim, was suddenly littered with broken glass and horribly polluted.”
Discovering such striking parallels between the ancient and modern worlds is one reason Fry is such an enthusiast for Greek mythology. Having retold a selection of his favourites in Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, published 18 months ago, he has turned the tales into a three-night storytelling marathon, switching his focus from Gods to Heroes to Humans with each performance.
Far from being an esoteric subject for academic study, these stories, he believes, are direct, accessible and immediate. They emerged, after all, as a popular artform.
“I hope I can take the smell of school out of Greek myths, because a lot of people associate them with a so-called classical education and believe you have to be intellectual to understand them,” he says. “But that’s just not the case. It’s welcoming you into this fantastic world, which is universal, sexy, juicy and full of fury, rage and adventure.”
As you’d expect from the former host of QI, Fry approaches the myths with a combination of good humour and a love of knowledge. Making the most of playing live, he gives the audience a choice in the tales he tells. Which of the twelve labours of Hercules you hear will depend on which Heroes performance you’re at. Likewise, in Humans, our choice of flower or bug will determine whether we hear the story of Narcissus or the one about Arachne.
“The myths are such great stories,” he says. “I enjoy telling them and, you know, this just struck me as being a fun way of telling them. I noticed a lot of people really enjoy audio books. There’s something about these stories because they were originally told to other listeners,
they work incredibly well in that communal sense of the hearth. After a long day’s work or a long day chasing antelope, they’d all come back and sit round the fire and tell stories of how the world was made and how spiders would spin webs.”
How easily, then, did the cultural values and beliefs of the Ancient Greeks translate into a modern idiom?
“Quite easily,” he says. “After all, two of the most popular ‘man-made’ mythological sequences are the Tolkien and JK Rowling series – I suppose you could add to that what is known as the MCU, the Marvel Comics Universe. And indeed you can add Game of Thrones. These are 20th-century versions – and they owe everything to Greek myth. It shows there’s a great yearning for stories that are out of our own milieu. The moment you are inside that story, it’s more universal because it’s about human spirit without it actually being about living in London, Manchester, New York or Hong Kong, which is a very specific thing.”
WHERE & WHEN
Mythos: A Trilogy, Festival Theatre, 19-25 August, times vary, £25–£42,