At the outset let me start by saying that I really enjoyed reading Heroes. Stephen Fry is known for his wit and humour and he has made sure that the book has plenty of it as he navigates the very complicated world of Greek mythology. I wish I had started the audiobook version instead, because what’s better than a Stephen Fry book? It’s Stephen Fry narrating his own book! And Heroes would have been perfect for that. There is another reason why I mention the audio version would have been better – even though I loved the book and enjoyed all the anecdotes – I have retained very little. It has only been 30 mins since I finished reading Heroes and I can feel the information meeting the same end as Aigeas, the King of Athens, as he plummeted to his death in what is today known as the Aegean Sea. Excuse the very lose analogy, and be prepared for more such feeble attempts, since this is the only way I can seem to remember the bucket loads of information that was imparted in this book. Quite literally, it has been all Greek to me.
Earlier this year, I read Mythos and remember having a similar feeling of ineptitude. I had picked up the book expecting to learn 10-20 references to origins and meanings of present-day words. Instead, all I concluded was that Zeus was a total prick. I understand that Greek mythology is like Mahabharata, one can hardly compact a full encyclopaedia in a 300-page novel and expect to learn all of it in just 1 reading – How I wish I had an eidetic memory! Long story short, I was prepared for Heroes. And I enjoyed it. In fact, I found Heroes a better read than Mythos mostly because the former consists of sections dedicated to each character. It was interesting to follow the life of each hero from birth till death without getting pulled in different directions, which is what happened to me while reading Mythos. The overarching theme in both the books remain the same – Gods need to be pleased (pampered!), lust drives daily life and is responsible for breaking and making kingdoms, and almost everyone (unwillingly) gets sucked into Zeus and Hera’s domestic fights.
Stephen Fry in Heroes highlights 8 champions who have outshone their counterparts through sheer grit, courage, strength and ambition to emerge as prominent personalities. Their human qualities make them vulnerable which only adds on to their individual charm – Gods are impressed, myths are established and heroes are born. Greek mythology is akin to fantasy fiction, so it’s no surprise that one can find instances from back then that are closely related to today’s pop fiction. For eg. the story of Orpheus and Cerebus is similar to the scene with the three-headed dog in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. While all 8 stories are interesting, there were 2 that really stood out for me.
Heracles or Hercules was gifted in strength and agility. He was known to defect his enemies easily. Such was his strength that he supported the heavens on his shoulder for one entire day, giving Atlas a much needed break. Known for his brawn, it was widely misunderstood that Heracles lacked brains. Fry points that there is no reason why Heracles was considered dumb-witted when in fact on a number of occasions he showed complex and shrewd thinking in defeating his enemies. Not afraid of any monster, his foe was his temper. This hero should have known that with great power comes great responsibility, but alas! his strength worked against him and in a fit of rage he killed his wife and sons. What followed were the Twelve Labours of Heracles to repent and absolve himself from the crime of blood killing. From these labours we today have the term Herculean Task which means an extremely difficult undertaking.
Heard of the Oedipus Complex? It was a term coined by Sigmund Freud to describe a child’s feelings of desire for his or her opposite-sex parent and jealousy and anger towards his or her same-sex parent. So it’s strange that a ‘hero’s’ name is associated with this unnatural concept. Turns out, it is a classic case of Chinese whispers. Oedipus was born to Laius and Jacosta. An oracle proclaimed on his birth that Oedipus will kill his father and bed his mother. On hearing this, Laius made arrangements to abandon the infant. But destiny had something else in mind and Oedipus was adopted by a royal couple of a nearby town. He lived comfortably in the palace till the day he found out about the prophesy. Disgusted by the thought of bedding his own mother, Oedipus left town to find new pastures and ended up returning to his birthplace. There he fell in love with Jocasta and in an accident killed Laius. Oedipus did make love to his own mother, and killed his father (unknowingly). While Oedipus had good intentions, thanks to Freud, his name will forever be maligned.
Having read both Mythos and Heroes, I think I am done with my fascination of the Greek mythic world. I am left with a discomforting feeling, perhaps it is the excessive testosterone, pride and ego which casts a pall over all the heroic moments. In the book Heroes, out of 8 champions – 7 are men and 1 is a woman. I think Fry forced the story of Atlanta to keep some semblance of gender representation, but it was hardly enough. Not his fault obviously, perhaps even back then women were not recognised enough. I really tried to be interested in Atlanta’s story but it fell flat. All I remember of it is that Atlanta was an Amazon warrior and with that I have a mental image of a cross between Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) and Zafrina from the Twilight series.
I would recommend this book to those interested in Greek mythology. It’s a fun and light read, courtesy Stephen Fry.