Troy: Our Greatest Story Retold
By Stephen Fry
He might be better known for his appearances in television series (Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder) and in films (Sherlock Holmes: The Game of Shadows) and also as the voice of the Harry Potter audiobook series, but Stephen Fry is also a very able author. And of late, he has been writing about Greek mythology, trying to make it more accessible and interesting to readers who might not be very familiar with them. He began with a basic primer in Mythos, moved up to more popular tales in Heroes, and now he gets into perhaps one of the greatest battles that literature has known.
When it comes to epic battles, the battle of Troy between the Greeks and Trojans has a place of its own, with a number of plots and subplots and a character cast that spans god, mortals and nearly gods. The battle is the subject of one of the greatest works of classic literature, Homer’s Illiad, and has also been given silver screen treatment (most recently by Oliver Stone). And now Fry tries to give us a more mainstream look at the battle, with his own little flashes of humour. Does he succeed?
Well, truth be told, the starting of the book is a little confusing. No, Fry does not get right into the action with Paris kidnapping Helen but instead gives us some background. Make that a LOT of background. There is a lot of space given to the birth of Troy and its king at the time of the main event of the book, the siege of Troy, and the birth of Achilles and much more. It can be fascinating if you are genuinely interested in Greek mythology and have a bit of a background in it, but otherwise it can get a little…well, tiresome. Not least because the names are so unlike the ones you encounter in everyday life.
To be fair to him, Fry does try to correlate everything that happens. But it is still rather complicated. For instance, you get to know of the story behind Paris’ being chosen to decide who is the fairest of the three Greek Godesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. And how Aphrodite’s decision to show him a picture of Helen (in a mollusc, no less) sways him to favour her. And how this in turn dooms Troy. Mind you, it had been already predicted at Paris’ birth that he would be a cause for the destruction of the city. Because of which he was sent to be executed at birth. But the person in charge of the task changes his mind. And later on, Paris ends up competing with his brothers at a sporting event to commemorate his own death, which actually had not happened…
And all this when we have not even got to Paris meeting Helen and taking her away to Sparta. Not yet. Even Achilles has just been about born and we are already more than fifty pages through.
Things do pick up speed the moment the main characters of the war come on the screen. Paris’ elopement (or was it kidnapping? Fry is not clear on the matter) with Helen is covered in barely a couple of pages and there is hardly any description of any interaction between the two characters whose decision led to the battle for Troy. And for some reason, in spite of all of Fry’s attempts at wry humour, the book does not really hit the sort of heights we expected.
There is heroism, cowardice and cunning right through, but well, we suspect that Fry tries too hard to cover all bases, and the consequence is that there are too many characters, too many incidents, and far too much action, happening. The whole siege of Troy at times seems to get lost in all the action and even the clash between Achilles and Hector, which is the highlight of the entire conflict, does not really thrill the senses. And to be honest, neither does the episode of the famous horse.
This is not to say that Troy is not an interesting read. It does have its moments of flair, and in particular when Fry gets into his trademark tongue in cheek narration (such as Apollo telling Ares “Off your arse and into battle.”) Fry also adds some neat touches like explaining the origin of terms – “Paris” actually comes from the Greek word for bag. There is a lot of detail, and often very interesting, but it is not tied together too well.
This is Stephen Fry, all right, as you can detect from the twinkling prose from time to time, but not quiet the Fry we saw in Mythos and Heroes. Troy is more like a collection of tasty snacks rather than a fulfilling meal. Which is how we recommend you read it – in small delicious morsels, rather than long sittings. But read it you must if you have an interest in Greek mythology. Just remember to be a little patient if you do not know too much Greek mythology, to cope with all those names at the beginning.
We so hope Fry will be back to his best for the Odyssey, which is sure to follow. For, few authors have made mythology as accessible and fun, as he has. Even Troy is a decent read, we would say, but just a little off Stephen Fry’s normal standards.
Or should we say: this is a classic, half-Fryed?
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