Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2020

Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, written and narrated by Stephen Fry

I bought this audio book ages ago when I was about to have eye surgery and wanted to have a book to ‘read’ at bedtime.  But in the event, I listened to Campbell Scott’s narration of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Heroes languished until more recently when my old foe, insomnia, surfaced again.  I am pleased to be able to tell you that this recording is soporific. (Which is why it took months for me to finish it.)

TBH, I don’t much like Stephen Fry.  (There wasn’t much else to choose from in the bookshop).  I admired his role in the film Wilde (1997), but I find his humour, as seen in the QI series, predictable and vulgar.  This tendency surfaces from time to time in Heroes and some of the narration is hopelessly over-acted, but for the most part, it’s a fairly lacklustre retelling of the Greek myths and legends that we read as children.

I don’t remember what edition I read in childhood, but it was probably Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green, which was first published in the UK in 1958.  I bought a Puffin edition for The Offspring for Christmas 1980.  In this retelling, there is great dignity in the way that Prometheus meets his fate, after Zeus discovers that he has taught men the uses of fire.  The words of Roger Lancelyn Green are poetry in prose:

…Zeus, as soon as he became aware that his command had been disobeyed, and the gift which he withheld had been stolen and given to men, summoned Prometheus before him.

‘Titan!’ he cried fiercely. ‘You have disobeyed me! What is there to prevent me from casting you down into Tartarus with your brethren, and destroying these vile insects, these men, to whom you have given gifts reserved for the Immortals alone?’

‘Lord Zeus,’ answered Prometheus quietly, ‘I know what is to come, and how cruelly you will punish me for all I have done.  But there are two things you cannot do: no Immortal may take away the gift an Immortal has once given — so you will not deprive men of fire now that I have made it theirs.  And I am certain that you will not destroy mankind, when I tell you that a man — your son, born of a mortal woman — will save you and all of you who dwell in Olympus on that future day when Earth will bring forth all the Giants meaning to be revenged for the overthrow of the Titans.  This I tell you, and you know that my words are true: no Immortal can slay a Giant, but a Man can slay them, if he be strong and brave enough.  And I will tell you this also: at a certain time in the future you will fall as your father fell.’

Then the wrath of Zeus was terrible.  In a voice of thunder he bade his son Hephaestus, the Immortal whose skill was in the working of metals, take Prometheus and bind him with fetters of brass to the great mountain of Caucasus on the eastern edge of the world.

‘There you shall lie,’ he cried in his cruel rage, ‘for ever and ever as a punishment for your daring and disobedience.’ (Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green, Puffin Books, 1958, 1975 reprint, p. 35)

And as we all know, when Prometheus wouldn’t reveal how Zeus could avert his doom, Zeus sent an eagle to pluck out his liver, an agony to be repeated every day because his liver grew back again.

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens c.1611-12 (Wikipedia)

In the print edition of Heroes, (which we happen to have as well because The Spouse bought it), there are colour illustration inserts, which include a reproduction of ‘Prometheus Bound’ by Peter Paul Rubens.  This magnificent painting, with the eagle’s claw pinning the head of Prometheus to the rock as it does its cruel work, depicts that agony described by Green, his screams echoing over the haunted cliffs and chasms of Caucasus, so that none dared approach.  Yet Fry tells the story of his release in banal language utterly unworthy of this moment in classical myth:

Heracles knew who this figure chained to the rocks was, of course.  Everybody did.  But only Heracles dared to raise his bow and shoot down Zeus’s avenging eagle as it soared out of the sun towards them.

‘I can’t pretend that I am sorry to see him go,’ said Prometheus watching it plunge to its death.  ‘He was only doing the Sky Father’s bidding, but I have to confess I had learned to hate that bird.’

I rest my case.

Image credit:

Author & narrator: Stephen Fry
Title: Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, originally published as Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined.
Publisher: Penguin, 2018
ISBN: 9781405940566, 15 CDs, running time 15 hours.
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. I think this could be a good book to fall asleep by. I listen to audible books all the time at night. I prefer to listen to first l person and diaries when using audible. Too much dialogue and I can get confused by who is talking. I prefer to read that. I go hot and cold with Stephen Fry. He can be funny in very small doses but he seems to try too hard to be clever and funny and it doesn’t always work. 🤠⚘🐧

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    • Yes, I think you’re right about that. Good point about the single narrator being a plus for bedtime purposes!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lisa

    I have read, in printed book form, both of Stephen Fry’s accounts of the classics. Mythos and Heroes, and while I think that I understand your perspective, I would argue that Fry is writing for an audience that is less well versed in the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome than you and I, and more like the QI audience. Of course we will find much of his expression trite and glib and certainly lacking in poetry, the sad fact is that most of his intended audience will not have read Roger Lancelyn Green, let alone Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths. H A Guerber’s The Myths of Greece and Rome or C W Ceram’s Gods Graves and Scholars, all of which were books that I read and cherished as a teenager.

    I do think that Fry’s Mythos is somewhat better than Heroes, and yes, I too began to tire of his lack-lustre style towards the end of Heroes. Of all the versions I have mentioned, my favourite is Guerber’s book. One of the pleasant surprises of life was to recently discover that we had two copies in the house, as “The Spouse”, to steal your lovely label, also has a copy which she too enjoyed as a teenager.
    The joy of books.
    Best wishes
    Chris

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    • You may indeed be right about the intended audience, but how sad it is that people will be fobbed off with this inane introduction to the classics when mere *children* were able to read and enjoy Green’s version. It’s like those babyfied versions of Shakespeare that they are fed at school now, travesties of the originals that we read as teenagers. There was nothing special about the classes I was in when we read Shakespeare, just ordinary kids well taught by teachers who had high expectations and the kids lived up to them. I think it’s really sad.

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  3. Ugh. I have both Mythos and Heroes waiting to be read and at least one of them also in audio. It sounds like I will get more enjoyment from looking at the illustrations.

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  4. I’m sad I didn’t read Green as a child, it sounds wonderful! I’ll see if I can find a copy for my nieces.

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    • I must check to see if my great nieces and nephews have a copy…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fry is an amazing writer, and probably one of the few authors I’d like to hear read his own books.

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  6. I have this on my fairy tale and mythology shelf – so many books to read, I’ll have to get to it!

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    • Ah… what else do you have there?
      I find that I buy books in this category with good intentions, and then I always seem to find a novel I’d rather read!

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      • Lots of books of various fairy tale collections from around the world! And Kate Forsyth’s Rapunzel thesis!

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        • When I did my postgrad stuff in Children’s Lit, we studied ancient tales that have been reworked for children and that was fabulous (pardon the pun). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Beowulf became favourites of my Y5&6 classes, in a suitably abridged version by Michael Morpurgo, of course! We used to have great discussions about the ethics of revenge and excluding the Other in Beowulf, and which of the 7 Knightly Virtues from Gawain still applied today.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh that sounds like fun! I loved my literature courses at uni.

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            • We also did the emergence of books specifically for children, from the C19th to School Stories…

              Liked by 1 person

              • I also did Children’s Literature – such a fun subject!

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  7. I listened to Mythos last year. It was ok. Luckily, probably, I didn’t know who Stephen Fry was. My childhood Greek legends was The Realms of Gold by Georg Baker (1954). I check the index -how many books for ten year olds have an index? – Prometheus is only mentioned as one of the stories the author has not retold.

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    • Goodreads seems to suggest that Mythos is better than Heroes…
      I just checked the Vic readers V & VI with which you would also be familiar: they have a ToC and an extensive Notes and Comments sections at the back, but no, you’re right, no index.
      Green has an Author’s Note, a list of the gods and goddesses with the corresponding Greek and Latin names, and a map.

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