Stephen Fry's "Mythos", Gaiman's "Norse Mythology" and Various "The Sagas of the Icelanders"

CTRandall

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This is a triple review–a Mexican standoff, if you will–between Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman and a Viking horde (backed up by nearly a dozen translators). I’ll give you one guess who wins.

In the first corner, we’ve got Hollywood heavyweight (he played Sherlock Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft, in recent films) Stephen Fry with Mythos, a modern retelling of Greek myth. In the second corner, we’ve got everyone’s sci-fi flavour of the decade, Neil Gaiman, with a modern retelling of Norse Mythology. And in the third corner (I’ve had a triangular ring specially built for this review), we’ve got 800-year-old Sagas of the Icelanders, translated into English by roughly a dozen modern scholars. Now that we’ve had our introductions, let’s get the action started and see who comes out on top!

Stephen Fry comes into the ring dancing like a butterfly and stinging like a bee–if the butterfly had a brain the size of a planet, that is, and the bee said “sorry” and made a slightly naughty joke every time it stung someone. Fry’s knowledge of Greek myth is, frankly, astounding and he fills Mythos with an enormous amount of detail. Some readers might find Fry’s delving into the minutae, such as the lineages of even minor figures, to be a step or two too far. I, however, found this aspect of the book quite interesting. Fry brings together huge numbers of titans, gods, demigods, nymphs, mortals and monsters and tells their stories with a clarity born of love. He loves these myths and he wants you to love them, too.

My problem with Mythos–and it is a big problem–lies in the lightly humourous, school-teacher tone adopted by Fry throughout. On QI (a BBC television programme for you non-Brits), that tone fit perfectly. In Mythos, however, it comes across as patronizing. Worse, it destroys most of the drama of the stories, reducing almost all of the characters to Punch and Judy caricatures. The gods and heroes are presented with little depth. They most often come across as one-dimensional, usually venal and self-serving, creatures with little of the complexity and pathos that is their due. Ancient Greece was, arguably, the birthplace of Western drama. You’d never know it from this book.

On to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Screw butterflies and bees, Gaiman has Thor on his side and he comes out swinging a magic, giant-killing hammer. Now that’s gotta pack a whollop, right? We’re set up for big characters and bigger stories right from the get-go and, in the hands of the man who wrote American Gods, what could possibly go wrong?

Almost everything, unfortunately. Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is like Fry’s Mythos on steroids, if steroids sucked every last scrap of drama from a story and turned characters into utterly forgettable cardboard cut-outs that went soggy when my dog peed on them. In Gaiman’s version, pretty much all of the Norse gods are bumbling, over-powered idiots who can’t think past what they want to eat, who they want to screw and who they get to kill (not have to kill–they enjoy killing too much to say that) in order to back to eating and screwing. If the book didn’t contain a couple of mild sex scenes, I would say it had been written as a collection of humourous children’s stories. Even then, I think most kids would tire of Thor and Odin, however fantastical their adventures might be.

And now, our final contender: The Sagas of the Icelanders, preface by Jane Smiley and translated from Icelandic by a cast of scholars. This tome (it is pretty hefty) has a few distinct disadvantages against Fry and Gaiman. First, it isn’t really mythology. It is, to some degree, a history of ordinary people living in Iceland from roughly the 9th through 11th centuries. There aren’t any gods battling giants here, nor are there any magic weapons. This is just average people living out their not-so-average lives. Second, the age of the sagas means they are written in a style very different from modern stories. This is most obvious in the lack of an internal voice for the characters, i.e. there is nothing that tells us how someone feels or what they are thinking. We are only told what characters do. As a result, characters in the sagas can seem distant or lacking in emotion, making it difficult for some readers to connect with the characters.

And yet, for me, the sagas pack far more punch than either of Fry’s or Gaiman’s attempted updates to mythology. The characters here are strong-willed, sometimes desparate, sometimes devious, sometimes foolish, sometimes wise, sometimes wanting nothing more than to live out their lives in peace, sometimes wanting more than their fair share and sometimes–scratch that–always bound by their fates. There are magical and fanciful tales here, for instance in the saga of Ref the Sly, but the best stories are epics–and they are epic!–about everyday folk. Gudrun Osvifsdottir is, if I may misuse a phrase, the mother of all matriarchs, a tragic heroine who is also the original mold for every scheming, soap-opera diva that has ever graced your television screen. Once Gudrun appeared on the page, Fry and Gaiman didn’t stand a chance. Pow! Splat! One-two-three-they’re out! Victory to the Vikings!

So, if you’re in the mood for something ancient, skip the modern “retellings” by Fry and Gaiman. Go for the real drama, go for the smell of salt in the air, the scent of burning in the wind, the sound of steel ringing on steel and the taste of blood on your lip. Ship with Erik the Red on his way to Vinland; watch Gudrun wreak bloody vengeance on her own husband; stand with Gisli Sursson as he meets his final fate. It will be a different read, but one well worth it.
 

Mouse

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My partner bought me the Gaiman one last Christmas and I've not got round to reading it yet. Think I'll make a start on it now based on that review!
 

Venusian Broon

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I've read Fry's Mythos and I sort of agree with your negative points. He's given them a modern spin and gloss, which can come across a bit odd in places.

However I think for someone with little or no background in reading classical texts, my guess is that they will be very accessible.

And I think some of the asides, explaining the myths and how they related to the ancient Greek people are good and insightful.

I remember him saying that he has very fond memories of reading a book of Greek Myths as a child and I think that's really what he's made here. An introduction to Greek Myth that today's yoof can easily digest.
 

Elckerlyc

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I've read Fry's Mythos and I sort of agree with your negative points. He's given them a modern spin and gloss, which can come across a bit odd in places.

However I think for someone with little or no background in reading classical texts, my guess is that they will be very accessible.

And I think some of the asides, explaining the myths and how they related to the ancient Greek people are good and insightful.

I remember him saying that he has very fond memories of reading a book of Greek Myths as a child and I think that's really what he's made here. An introduction to Greek Myth that today's yoof can easily digest.
Yep, that's what I was thinking. I enjoyed Mythos a lot, because it was so accessible. Call it an introduction, if you will. For many (and I think it was written for the 'many'), that's all they want.
 

CTRandall

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@Elckerlyc and @Venusian Broon I take your points about accessibility and I do admire both the depth and breadth of Fry's work. I found myself torn as I read it, at times enjoying the stories and then being let down by his slightly jokey style. Despite Fry's obvious love for the subject, at times it almost felt like he was poking fun at the myths. I came away frustrated but I can see how others might enjoy it.

@Mouse I hope you enjoy the Gaiman more than I did. In retrospect, I may have gone into it with the wrong expectations. Given that Gaiman does most things with his tongue placed firmly in his cheek, I was probably mistaken to hope for a proper introduction to Norse mythology. There are some good stories in there--the chaining of Fenrir, in particular, stuck in my mind.

@Stephen Palmer Part of the fascination for me was the blend of history, myth and storytelling that pervades the sagas. Whether it is the historical significance of reaching North America, reading a first-hand account of the Icelandic parliament as it was a thousand years ago or, through the travels and exploits of the characters, getting a real sense of how deeply Viking culture is embedded into England, Scotland and Ireland as well as the traditionally Scandinavian countries, the sagas say as much about the modern world as they do about the past.
 

Elckerlyc

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There's also the difference in source to consider. Where sagas have their base in historical persons and events, and therefor are about real people, mythology stems from people trying to explain the world and therefor about unreal people and events.
This would make a difference in how you experience the reading.

Greek mythology has been used countless times by poets and novelists as material for their writing. Some more serious as others. I don't think Fry or Gaiman could be expected to be the more serious type.
 

Hugh

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On to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Screw butterflies and bees, Gaiman has Thor on his side and he comes out swinging a magic, giant-killing hammer. Now that’s gotta pack a whollop, right? We’re set up for big characters and bigger stories right from the get-go and, in the hands of the man who wrote American Gods, what could possibly go wrong?

I know it was a "labour of love" (supposedly) but I'm surprised Gaiman did this. For me, Kevin Crossley's "The Norse Myths" (1980) is much better.

And now, our final contender: The Sagas of the Icelanders, preface by Jane Smiley and translated from Icelandic by a cast of scholars. This tome (it is pretty hefty) has a few distinct disadvantages against Fry and Gaiman. First, it isn’t really mythology. It is, to some degree, a history of ordinary people living in Iceland from roughly the 9th through 11th centuries. There aren’t any gods battling giants here, nor are there any magic weapons. This is just average people living out their not-so-average lives. Second, the age of the sagas means they are written in a style very different from modern stories. This is most obvious in the lack of an internal voice for the characters, i.e. there is nothing that tells us how someone feels or what they are thinking. We are only told what characters do. As a result, characters in the sagas can seem distant or lacking in emotion, making it difficult for some readers to connect with the characters.

Thank you for the reference/review, I may well get round to reading it in the next year.
 

svalbard

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First off that was an excellent review. I have not read Fry's book however I have Gaiman's and I concur with your assessment. The Sagas sound like a must read.

Have you read Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders? It is a stunning piece of HF and although I hate the phrase I would go as far as to say it is a must read for those interested in that era.
 

althea

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I totally agree with CT Randall concerning Mythos by Stephen Fry.I love most of Fry's books,but found his tone embarrassing in Mythos.
I think he may have been trying to make the old Greek myths more accessible to some of his younger readers.
It did not sit well with me. It never works when one "dumbs down" to suit some of your readers.
 

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