Stephen Fry is a broadcaster, actor and writer who has just written Mythos, an elegant and entertaining retelling of the myths of Ancient Greece. Watch our full interview here.
How would you describe yourself to our readers?
I’m a whole parcel of different things, I never quite know what to say when people ask me what I do. I spend more hours writing than anything else, but that’s never what propels one into the public eye. There used to be a wonderful phrase in the sixties and seventies which was ‘TV personality’. It’s now completely démodé but I rather like the idea.
What was your first introduction to Greek Mythology?
I’ve been trying to remember when I first heard a myth… I think my mother told me the odd story whilst trying to get me to sleep. But I went away to boarding school when I was seven, as was quite common then, and there was a Latin teacher whom I rather liked. At the end of term during the last lessons, instead of us having to just repeat conjugations, he would read some of the stories. I just remember being absolutely thrilled by them. I loved the story of Theseus and it’s very much the archetype which J.K. Rowling picked up: this boy who grows up, apparently from a very ordinary sort of family, is special – a chosen one. I just remember there was something delicious about it, and exactly in the way I guess other generations relate and identify with Harry Potter; following this young boy who is going to be something remarkable. It’s like a flavour, and the first time you have it, you go ‘Oh I want more of this’.
When it came to writing Mythos, how did you decide where to start and what to include?
When it came to telling the stories, it occurred to me that one of the things that’s so unique about the Greek Myths is that they have a timeline, a beginning. Hesiod, probably the second greatest poet of the Greek period after Homer, wrote a number of books and in particular he told of the Theogony: the birth of the gods. And so I thought I’ll start with that. From there came all of these different elemental divine things like light and day – just like Genesis. But then at each pass, or each iteration, it became more complex. It reminds me of the 80s video game, Pong. No colour or depth or complexity, just elemental principles. Then by the next generation you get to an early Atari – big and blocky but a stage more interesting – and then by the time you get to Zeus and his family, you’ve suddenly got full-resolution 3D and all of the ambiguity and qualities you expect from great literature and mythological structure. And so I was able to tell in this book of the first and second generations of the titans, then the gods and then the creation of humans and Prometheus, the great hero of this book and the champion of mankind.
Do you believe that the Greek Myths still hold relevance in 21st Century culture?
The thing that really struck me is how the Greeks have this ability to crystallise, to distil and to express very deep characteristics of humanity, such that the myths are absolutely as relevant today as they ever could be. It’s not because they’re vague and so they can fit anything, rather it’s actually that they’re very specific. I’ll give you an example. In the late 80s I was the only person I knew who had an email address. There was no World Wide Web and there were no browsers. But slowly the thing began to develop, and I said to my friends, “this is like Pandora you know, the all gifted woman who was created and sent to us by the gods. This internet – it’s going to break down barriers. It’s going to dissolve rivalries, enmities and feuds. It’s going to make us all love and understand each other”. But the all-gifted Pandora was given a box you see.
By the time social media arrived, I was still quite optimistic. But somehow, and no one can precisely put their finger on it, the box opened and out rolled terrible things – trolls, bullies, thieves and miscreants. All kinds of beastly and horrific things that coloured this utopian dream of an internet connecting people and gave it nothing but horror and despair – just like Pandora’s Box. How exactly it seems to fit. But even more than that, one of the things I’m very obsessed with is the future.
You’d have to have been living in a hole if you aren’t aware of the fact that there is a technological tsunami coming. Robotics obviously, AI, machine learning, genetics etc. All of these things are coming together in sync with something called Moore’s Law, which has been the exponential doubling of the power of computing since the 1960s, every 18 months or so. For the first time in history, since Darwin, we’re obviously aware that there is no intelligent design, but this extraordinary magical thing: natural selection or evolution. But I promise you this – by the end of this century there will be sapient creatures on this earth that that have been intelligently designed. We will have created creatures in exactly the same way that Prometheus did when he created us.
In the myth, Prometheus creates mankind and he adores his creation, and Zeus decides that they can have a happy life, but they must never have fire. By that he means two things. He means literally the fire that separates men from other animals, keeping predators at bay, allowing them to transform materials, to make tools and cook food. But what he also means is that divine spark – the fire of self-consciousness. It’s the thing that separates us truly from animals more than our opposable thumbs. More than fire. Zeus didn’t want us to have because if we did we wouldn’t need Gods anymore.
Now that’s all fine, but say in 100 years’ time there will be robotic creatures that we have made and there will be decisions for society to make. Do we, like Prometheus, love these creatures and want to give them autonomy and independence and rights? Or do we, like Zeus, ban them from ever having such a thing, because we’re scared? Even now there are people who are working on legal frameworks for robotic rights which would make them equal to us and maybe challenge us.
I mean isn’t that astonishing that these thousand year old myths could be so absolutely pertinent to the major problem facing mankind in the next 100 years.
Do you think that these ancient myths are able to provide contemporary readers with a sense of belonging? With “fake news” being termed the word of the year, is the evergreen importance of these stories useful in forging boundaries between reality and pretending, and the relationship between these two worlds?
I think it’s a very interesting question to look at myths and wonder about where truth resides in them. We live in an age in which we’re very obsessed, nervous and almost neurotic about the wall that separates truth from fantasy from lies and fiction. It’s very important to us to believe there is such a thing as fact. The magical thing about myth is that it hangs in a separate space between fact and fiction, because it’s full of truth. It’s full of truth but it is not a representation or narrative of true events. If you write a biography you can tell factual truths, chronological truths. If you want to get to the absolute heart of something it’s probably easier to write a novel because then you can really express how feelings work. The mythic space is a place where you can tell absolute truths about human experience.
How do you feel about the expansion of the Greek Myths, with modern adaptations such as Percy Jackson and God of War creating their own mythic characters?
I think the great mythic world is robust enough to take any amount of treatments. I mean you go back all the way through to the Renaissance when Greek myths suddenly became a subject for art and poetry and plays. All kinds of versions of the myths appeared and took on their own age with the anxieties and interests of their religion. We have that now with the Warrior Princess type things, and Hercules on TV, versions of Jason and the Argonauts, movie versions of Troy and so on. And I think that’s terrific. And if some people want to use modern language in which they shout “dude” at each other, well that’s fine. It’s no more anachronistic than my version using the language I use or 100 years ago Nathanial Hawthorne and Bullfinch using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. Unless you’re writing in an Attic Greek you’re never going to be exactly as the myths were, so they’re always going to be interpreted by the generation. I think that’s the glory of such stories.
Did you feel a certain extra pressure when retelling these stories as opposed to writing fiction?
Well I looked on it as you might do you know if you were a musician, like Bowie or Elton John. If I told stories people already knew they’d be thrilled. When you go to a concert you’re fine to hear new songs, but what you really want to hear is “Your Song”. And similarly yes, a lot of people will know the story of Arachne or Narcissus, but they won’t necessarily know all the details of the birth of Hermes. Myths are about sunlight and personality, they’re alive and sexy. So I hope people will read them in that spirit and not in the spirit of feeling that it’s something clever only studied by schoolboys in Classics lessons.
Do you have a favourite God or Goddess?
Well perhaps my favourite God is Hermes, just because he represents a lot of what I like – joking, storytelling, and he’s just generally a slightly transgressive figure. But also he’s funny and his childhood is amazing. I would probably say Athena is my favourite Goddess. I loved Athena when I was a boy, whenever she appeared in front of Achilles or whoever with those grey eyes… the wisdom, the strength and also the whole mixture of everything that she represents. She was handicraft and also wisdom and thought, but in a different way to Apollo, who’s obviously a fabulous God too. But Apollo is golden and he’s athletic and he’s harmony in music. But actually it was Hermes who discovered and then gave music to Apollo. Apollo could also be so cruel. I mean they could all be cruel, and you have to remember that none of them is a perfect, wise God. That’s one of the things I love about the Greek gods – that they’re as capricious, as inconsistent, as wilful and as contradictory as we are. They’re just fully rounded complex characters.
Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece is available online and in stores now.
Watch our full interview here.
Interview by Emma Quick and Lucy Binnersley