By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #15 (Part Two) – Troy by Stephen Fry

Trojan War, Part Two: What's Stephen Fry's retelling like? Read on if you want to know!

Did you know “January” was based on the Latin god Janus? He is the god of beginnings, endings, time, and transitions. Usually he is depicted with two faces, one observing the past, and one the future. Inspired by this god, I will write all my January posts about three books that do exactly this: retelling an ancient story, namely the Iliad, but with a voice of the future. Last time I analysed a feminist retelling. Up next: Stephen Fry’s Troy.

Whenever I read something by Stephen Fry, I read it in his voice. It’s a calm, intelligent, soothing, very British voice, and to be honest, I could listen to him read the phone book. His latest book, Troy, is his version of Homer’s Iliad, and just like his other novels, I could hear him while reading. It’s the Trojan War, the Fry way. 

Stephen Fry, above all else, is a lifelong lover of Greek mythology. Reading Troy reads a bit like this: “Oh, Greek Mythology! You’ve given us great and generous gods, gorgeous and glamorous goddesses, and have described, in detail, the daring deeds and fatal flaws of heroic humans”. These are not his own words, but only my feeble imitation of his style; he writes lovingly, passionately about mythology, and it is obvious that his love for these stories is paralleled by his love for the act of writing. Troy is his love letter, his ode, to literature, and the Iliad is his Muse.

You must have had one: a teacher that was so in love with their work that they kept talking about their favourite scientific formula, or poem, or historical event. It made some teachers the most boring creatures in the world, while others managed to inspire you. Fry, thankfully, is the latter. He tells the story, but also really wants everyone to understand what he’s talking about. He describes how the war started, how the Greeks joined forces, and how war was waged in that time. But he also takes his time to describe the loss and sorrow that comes with it. That way, the book becomes more than a simple history lesson. For a brief period of time, Fry actually was a teacher – and I would have loved to be ones of his students. He’s clear, he’s interesting, and he knows what he’s talking about. 

Before Stephen Fry became a teacher, he studied English at Cambridge. He learned how to analyse literature, and how to interpret sources, and how to write about it in a scholarly way. He has applied this knowledge in Troy – in a way. Many academics make use of footnotes, in which they add extra information that would not fit within the narrative. These footnotes can be quite boring and technical, but Fry made sure they were the absolute opposite of that; he vents his frustration about all these heroes who share the same name, he discusses inconsistencies or confusing events, and he adds alternative sources he finds interesting. But he especially loves adding funny sidenotes or personal anecdotes about himself or people he knows. It shows that the Iliad is not just an ancient work of literature, but remains relevant to this day, and it makes Troy both an academic and a personal retelling.

After finishing Cambridge, Stephen Fry became a comedian. You might know him from shows such as Blackadder, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and QI. What I like best about him is his hilarious eloquence; he has a way with words, and is not afraid to use it. While Troy follows the original source quite closely, Fry does allow himself some poetic license, and it’s in the dialogues that he is at his best; Homer could not have made a sassier Hermes, a cleverer Odysseus, and a more vainglorious Agamemnon. Each character comes to life in these dialogues; you come to love them, and it becomes all the more heartbreaking when some of them die – even though we already knew they would. After all, the story itself is thousands of years old.

Homer, and neither would any of the ancient poets, has not come up with the story himself. He was visited by Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry. She inspired him with her story (literally: breathing it in), and he wrote it down. Fry, keeping up to this tradition, was also inspired by the muses, although something happened that she might not have foreseen. Fry, unlike Homer, wasn’t only visited by Caliope, but also by Melpomene and Thalia – the Muses of Tragedy and Comedy. The result is Troy, a combination of fact and fiction, of the Iliad as we know it, and a highly personal retelling. Consider it an act of rebellion, or a sign of the times. Whatever you want to call it, I’m sure Fry’s version, Fry’s voice, will breathe new life into this story, thereby inspiring countless other writers to pen down their own retelling of the Trojan War – thus effectively making Fry the modern equivalent of the ancient muses. I bet he’d like that.

What did you think of Troy? Do you think that stories tell us a lot about their authors? Let me know in the comments! Also don’t forget to follow me for more book musings. Up next: a novel about the notion of ownership.

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