“How lucky are we to be alive in the time of Stephen Fry!”
So went one of the live comments during Stephen Fry’s extended reading and question and answer session as part of the Hay Digital Festival. Declaration of interest : Stephen Fry ranks right up there as one of my all-time heroes, alongside the likes of Peter Ustinov, Clive James, Sandi Toksvig and Mary Beard. People who have read and studied across a broad range of subjects (they would have been labelled polymaths in the 19th century), and who have an uncanny ability to connect up all that learning and knowledge in a way that makes it accessible and relevant – whether is writing or in person.
I’m not even going to attempt to describe the energy and passion and sheer love of the subject matter that Fry invested in the reading from his new book Troy last night. Suffice to say that what was billed as a 35 minute broadcast from 9pm became – in a way that only Hay Festivals event can – a 90 minute tour de force that started 20 minutes late! You can watch a recording of the event here and I cannot recommend it enough – but be quick, it will be gone by tomorrow morning!
A couple of things really resonated with me from the session. The first question that Stephen addressed was whether or not teaching of Greek mythology should be compulsory in all schools. His answer was brilliantly balanced. Making anything compulsory in education (behind basic literacy and numeracy) is fraught with risk – mainly that being forced to learn something actually makes it into a chore rather than something to be cherished and enjoyed. But – and its a big but – so much of the whole canon of Western art, poetry, music and literature is directly or indirectly influenced by the Greek myths that NOT to have at least a basic understanding of and familiarity with them is a huge disadvantage in trying to fully understand and appreciate all later art forms. As someone who was exposed to no Greek mythology at all in formal education, I have always felt this huge gap. I have previously reviewed Fry’s Mythos on this blog, and I commend it to anyone who (like me) wants to fill a gap in their mythological education. I will be purchasing Heroes and Troy – the next instalments in the series – immediately after publishing this post.
The second thing that struck me was Fry’s incredibly sensitive and tender response to a question about the failings of Hollywood portrayals of Greek myths to properly represent the LGBTQ themes that are repeated throughout so many of the stories. Fry reflected both that those themes could be argued to be underplayed in many of the big-screen adaptations; but also made the point that the themes themselves were not actually made a great deal of in the myths themselves. This was probably because the ancient Greeks deemed all love – whether physical, homosexual or heterosexual, or platonic and philosophical – as being the most natural thing in the world. There was no need to overplay it because it was just what it was. The reason why LGBTQ activism is so necessary now is because somewhere along the line we lost sight of the beauty of love for its own sake, and persecuted those who didn’t conform with a much narrower definition of what was acceptable.
The third thing that really struck home was a question about how the Greeks would have interpreted coronavirus and which of the gods would have dealt with it best. This was a perfect cue for Fry to relate a tale of immortal revenge dished out by Apollo for a perceived slight of one of his followers. Apollo – the golden archer – had at his disposal plague arrows that would rain down illness and disease on individuals or cities that displeased him. In the particular account related by Fry last evening, Apollo chose not to directly infect a city, but rather to loose a plague arrow into the cows that provided milk and food for the inhabitants. It was through eating and drinking from the herd that the plague decimated the population. If you thought zoonosis was a new thing, then – as is so often the case – Greek mythology serves to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun!