- 17 Nov 20
Rage, Goddess: The Redoubtable Stephen Fry Takes On The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Way back in the mists of time – not as far back as the action in this book, but far enough – I was a young undergraduate who had recently transferred from Economics, where I had lasted one full half hour, to Classics, which I thought might better suit my clothes. In the first class of ‘Greek and Latin Epic’, the lecturer, a possible Jesuit who sadly wasn’t long for this world, explained how, as a lad, he had read these glorious stories under the covers in his bed. We were lucky, he reckoned, to be studying something that wouldn’t feel like study at all. He was right too. While getting the head around the perfect proportions of Vitruvius would very nearly drive you back into the arms of Friedman and Keynes, Homer and, to a lesser extent, Virgil took you away to a time of Gods and heroes. The greatest stories ever told? Probably.
Polymath, gifted raconteur, and beloved all-round smart-arse; who better than Stephen Fry to retell these marvellous tales? Unless you’re a hopeless eejit altogether, you’ll have already got on the outside of his Mythos and Heroes, wherein he related, respectively, the fabled stories of the Greek Gods and Greek super men and super women of note, but he has saved the best for what is hopefully not his last foray into the classical world, the rise and fall of the city state of Troy.
Scholars and academics have long argued – and will doubtless continue to, in perpetuity – The Homeric Question; are The Iliad - the story of the Trojan war - and The Odyssey - clever-clogs Odysseus sails home from Troy but hits a few speed bumps - the work of one towering genius, or, as is more likely surely, the product of the oral tradition, passed from story teller to story teller, with each one adding their own contributions? It’s certainly an interesting head scratcher - and if you want more evidence on why you should give a monkey’s about the blind bard in the first place, may I point you towards Adam Nicholson’s Why Homer Matters - but it’s not a question that really needs addressing in the context of this book. It is the stories themselves that count for Fry, and, as we've already established, you’d be hard pressed to find a better man to tell them.
While Homer begins his relating in the midst of the battle for Troy, Fry goes much further back to detail how the city – located on what is now the Northern coast of Turkey – was founded. Prince Ilus, son of Tros, for whom the city would be named, and brother to Ganymede, who was taken by Zeus to be his “cup-bearer” because he was just too ridiculously good looking to be left where he was, wins a special cow in a wrestling match. An oracle tells him, “Wherever the cow lies down, there shall you build”, and that’s what he does. All reasonably plausible so far. As this construction is taking place, a four and a half foot carving of the Goddess Athena falls from the sky in answer to prayers offered, and this 'Palladium' – the luck of Troy - is placed in a temple at the centre of the city.
Ilus’s son Laomedon turns out to be a cheapskate and refuses to pay Poseidon and Apollo for a bit of building work. This, unsurprisingly, proves to be a bad move, and the perturbed Gods sent both plague and a sea monster, which gums up the economic works of the ascending city. The local holy men tell this spendthrift king that his daughter must be sacrificed to appease those upstairs. The great hero Heracles happens to be passing by, on the way back from labour #9, and dispatches the sea creature, but again, Laomedon puts on the poor mouth. Heracles promises, Arnie style, that he’ll be back.
True to his word, he returns to tear the place apart, killing all the royal family except for the daughter he had previously spared, Hesione. In addition, she buys the life of her brother, Podarces. As this young prince sets about rebuilding his ruined city he becomes known by the Trojan word for “the one who was bought”, Priam.
How Do You Like Them Apples?
As Fry himself points out, there’s no need to try and remember all the names, and this barrage of nomenclature certainly won’t stop you from being swept away by the thrilling narrative. Is it any wonder that our ancestors used to clear days from their schedules to sit around and hear the likes of Homer sing?
How about Peleus and Thetis, the nymph? Prometheus prophesied that the son of Thetis would surpass his father, but Peleus didn’t care, and married her anyway. Their wedding welcomed all the Gods except one, Eris, the Goddess of strife, but she turned up anyway, in a huff, throwing Zeus a golden apple with the inscription “to the most beautiful” on it. Naturally, Hera (his wife), Athena (his daughter), and Aphrodite (another daughter), all lay claim to this apple of discord. The father of the gods put, as every father to daughters has done at least once, his mighty head in his mighty hands.
Back to Troy, Priam and his wife Hecuba have another son, but Hecuba’s dreams have indicated that he is bad news for the city. The kindness of others spares him from a death sentence and he grows up an anonymous shepherd, out in the hills, named Paris from the Trojan word ‘Pera’, meaning the backpack he was stolen away in. The Gods test the honesty of the young man over a prized bull; he passes, and is therefore asked to select the winner of the golden apple. He gives it to Aphrodite, as she shows him the face of Helen. Hecuba’s dream edges closer to reality with every passing page.
Helen, another daughter of Zeus – the Gods liked to put it about a bit, disguised as a swan in this instance – and one of history’s great beauties, is a pain in the royal arse of her (human) father, Tyndareus, as her suitors are eating him out of house and home. He turns to the wily Odysseus, one of the foremost cunning bastards in world literature, who devises a lottery, where the price of the ticket is an oath to defend Helen in the future. Menelaus, brother of the soon-to-be-great warrior king Agamemnon, wins fair Helen’s hand.
Meanwhile, Thetis has mistakenly killed off six infant sons while trying to make them immortal. It could happen to anyone. She only succeeds in bestowing invulnerability on the last one by dipping him into the river Styx as she holds him by his heel. This young man grows up to be Achilles, the greatest of all the Greeks, Golden Achilles, as bright as the stars in the sky according to Homer, and “a mortal of greater glory than has ever been known” according to Fry.
Paris, back with his real family, lies to his father, diverting a rescue mission meant for Hesione to seduce/kidnap Helen away from Menelaus’ Sparta. Furious, as you might expect, Menelaus and Agamemnon call in the vows that the Achaean kings made at Odysseus’ prompting to protect Helen. They all sail for Troy and this is where we get to Homer. What do you mean you haven’t read him? Go and stand in the corner!
Sing, Goddess, Of The Anger Of Achilles
Fry – the tutor I wish I’d had back in my own day - takes us through The Iliad’s action; the cunning of Odysseus, the bravery of the Trojan Prince Hector, the interfering of the gods, the spoilt arseholeness of Paris, and the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon which nearly costs the Achaeans the war, averted only by the death of Achilles’ "pal", Patroclus. These stories, heard a thousand times and referred to in so many lesser works of art, are beyond riveting and Fry, with consummate skill, brings them alive again. He even skips the “boring” bits where Homer listed all those fighting on both sides, just as the table of nations ruined the “flow” of The Book Of Genesis in Christian mythology (direct all correspondence to the usual address, thanks). Where Homer stops – The Iliad ends with Hector’s funeral - Fry keeps going, so we get Odysseus' horse, Achilles’ heel coming back to haunt him, a suitable end for Paris, and Aeneas’ escape, because he had another destiny to fulfil.
My Jesuit professor was right. These stories – and let us make no bones about it, Homer’s work, whoever he was, is the foundation on which all of western literature was built – have achieved their own immortality because they have everything. There’s adventure, romance, intrigue, heroes, bastards, centaurs, pissed off rivers, and, most importantly of all, humanity with all its flaws, for the greatest stories always tell us something about ourselves. This book is an absolute joy. Buy it as a present – the hardback edition is a thing of beauty altogether – and be guaranteed a friend forever. Mind you, it is possible, like Helen, to have too many friends. Best to keep it for yourself.
As mentioned above, Aeneas – the Palladium under his oxter - escaped from Troy and made his way towards what we now call Italy, while Odysseus sailed home to Ithaca, although he would take a while getting there. That leaves both The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid for the talented Mr Fry to hopefully consult with the muses about next, if it pleases the Gods. It'll certainly please the rest of us.