Stephen Fry: The Waterstones Interview

Stephen Fry: The Waterstones Interview


Stephen, thank you so much for give us
some time to talk to you. Will, a real pleasure. I had a very warm feeling of recognition when I started reading your book; on the first page you talked about encountering a
book of Greek myths when you were younger and I remember that same
moment for myself and I suppose more importantly for my sister, because she
became obsessed with them, absolutely obsessed them but I wonder if
you could talk about that moment, what was it about those Greek myths that
really hooked you? It is one of those childhood things where something about this world that its detail I think children respond immensely to a
detailed world that they can enter and discover, I guess it’s one of the secrets
behind Harry Potter and J.R.R. Tolkein and George R. R. Martin and all those kinds of writers who create a fully realized, peopled world and the Greeks did it, but not from a single author but from a whole kind of you know mythology and
unlike almost any other mythology I’ve ever come across it has a timeline,
you know, it begins with the creation of the universe and and it goes through
these rather elemental, primordial deities and slowly they acquire color
and character and absolute definition. I compare it a bit to the early days of
video gaming when you had Pong you know a little black and white screen on an
old television and an oblong going up and down and a square ball going [great Pong impression] like that. That’s all it was and that’s like the early gods you know they don’t really
have much you know they’re called Ouranos, which to this day – Uranus/Ouranos is the
Greek word for sky. And Gaia – Earth And so they were sort of principles
of what they stood for but slowly by the third generation when you have Zeus and
Hera and Poseidon and Hades and Demeter and then Apollo and all the others,
they take on absolute, full, rounded character and you know them and you know
what they stand for, what their job is, you know each God has a
sort of portfolio if you like, and each God represents a side of us. These
are stories about us rather than aliens or you know these gods are not distant, they are just facets of our own character People will read them and in
fact as you have done with the book here by retelling those stories will find
ways in which they are absolutely applicable to the world we live in. I absolutely agree, I was thinking of one quite recently I begin the book with the creation of the universe according to Greek myth and the
first generations of gods and then after the Olympic deities, the twelve gods
under Zeus you know the famous ones, Apollo and so on, Poseidon, they create
man and Prometheus the Titan, who’s a great friend of Zeus, creates these little
creatures that are like the gods but they have certain things that they are
not allowed to have, Zeus won’t let them have fire and Prometheus steals fire from
heaven to give to man because he loves mankind and Zeus, part of Zeus’s
punishment, it gets even bloodier but his original punishment, he’s so furious, and this is where the Greeks are wonderful because they realized if there were gods
the gods were jealous of us they didn’t like the fact that we were so close to
them that we shared their curiosity, creativity, their difference from the
other animals. We, like the gods had this fire, this inner fire as well as the
actual fire that makes you know metal and the rest of it. So part of Zeus’s punishment was to create this all gifted creature who was a woman, the first woman, so it’s bit
like the Eve myth, you know, only she’s given all these gifts, all the various
gods give them you know so she’s given the poise of Hera and the command of
Hera and the you know the intelligence of Athena and all these other things and
the beauty of Aphrodite the goddess of love and beauty and she sent down with this
box that Zeus gives her. It’s actually a jar but it’s become a box in modern parlance
and her name is Pandora which means ‘all gifted’. She arrives and she marries Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother and she puts the box at the end of the bed and she can’t bear it and she
buries it in the garden and eventually one night when Epimetheus is out
with friends or something she can’t help herself she digs it up and she opens the
lid. Now, this is what I was thinking of How extraordinarily like the internet
Pandora is. That when the internet arrived I embraced it with such fervor
and optimism I I thought it was the all gifted thing that man had invented it
had all the gifts. It had art, science, knowledge, communication, technology. It had so much going for it and I thought this is going to melt down the barriers
between human beings, it’s gonna be an end of tribalism and, you know,
nationalism and nativism and rivalry and hatred. Suddenly people will understand
each other, will communicate with each other, no tyrant will be able to flourish
because truth will out they won’t be able to lie to us anymore,
everything will be fabulous. And similarly Pandora, how perfect she was,
but when she opened the box out came disaster of every kind: war, lies, murder,
theft, pain, starvation, hardship, disease, all the ills of the world
flew out of the box like this buzzing leathery-winged, scaly creatures and she
slammed the lid down terrified and the one little creature left inside to beat
its wings against the sides of the box was Elpis: Hope. And that’s, isn’t it,
there was the internet and it was this Pandora’s box but suddenly with social
media when thinking this was going to be the most perfect thing that would end tyranny and dissolve barriers Out came the trolls, out came the abusers and
the thieves and the tricksters and the bullies and everything seemed to go
wrong and it is you know you could not find a better analogy for the dark side
of what happened with the wonderful gift of the internet than Pandora’s box.
And similarly Prometheus you know it’s no accident Mary Shelley called
Frankenstein the modern Prometheus because it was
creating a new life-form and we’re about to do that by the end of the century we
will be intelligent designers who have made our own species of robotic,
augmented, intelligent creatures. It’s a weird thought. And I think Greek myth is probably
teaching us more about that than any system since I just wondered whether there were
any stories that you had found personally, particularly helpful in
providing comfort or instruction at a difficult time in life perhaps, or when you just needed something that said it just right? Well you know there’s no
question that some of the psychological insights of the stories, there’s a group of stories that I’ve put together, but I’m hardly the
first to do it the best-known version is the Roman poet
Ovid who took the Greek myths that are about transformations and the Greek for
transformation is metamorphosis and so they’re called the Metamorphoses or
Metamorphoses of Ovid and these are the stories of young girls or boys who die or are killed and turned into flowers or you know like Adonis for example, whom Aphrodite falls in love with, Shakespeare
wrote about that and there’s you know smaller ones like Crocus and Smilax,
we know what Crocus was turned into and Apollo and Daphne, Daphne was
turned into a laurel but you know the one that most people know and I think is
perhaps most interesting in our own time is that of the very, very beautiful youth
Narcissus. A nymph had been cursed by Hera because she lied to Hera.
She’d been cursed to have her voice taken away so she could only speak the last
words said to her. Sees Narcissus and falls passionately in love with him
because he’s so beautiful but he can’t bear this because all his life he’s had
people paying attention to him. He once had a youth hang himself outside his window on
a pear tree because this youth was so in love with him and he just hated
the fact everyone stared at him. You can imagine that – I mean for me it would have
to be imagination – but if you were so beautiful that people just constantly
stared at you and wanted to be with you and felt that you were
the one and you would feel it if only you knew them better.
You’d just get very distrustful. So he rejects her but then what happened to Narcissus was that finally, having got rid of this nymph he thinks
he’ll you know strip off and swim in the stream. And he
looks into the stream and he sees the most beautiful face he’s ever seen in his
life, he’s astounded, he falls completely in love with this youth that he sees in
the water, he’s never seen anything like it he leans forward to kiss it and the
youth leans up to kiss him, and they get closer and closer and just as they kiss
it all breaks up his image disappears into a thousand rippling pieces and the
boy seems to be inside the water and Narcissus looks at him and calls to him
and at the same time this youth calls at him. And of course, you and I know what he’s looking at is his reflection but he’s
insanely in love with the sight of himself and he stays there and he doesn’t eat and he fades away and the Gods take pity on
him and turn him into the flower that bears his name, narcissus, the daffodil.
And what is so interesting is that over the last year there have been so many
articles in newspapers questioning whether or not Donald Trump has
narcissistic personality disorder because it has entered the language;
narcissism, this vanity of seeing yourself reflected and falling in love
with it and having no time for anything else, is a very interesting, and it’s
never been better expressed and of course there’s a Dali painting and a
Waterstone painting Those sort of things really,
they still resonate incredibly and obviously the Oedipus Complex is very
well known one as well, Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother.
They tapped into something so absolutely primal about us but also the
Greeks being the kind of people they were at this particular time, they
thought if there are gods then those gods are no better than
us you know because look what they’ve done with the world, they’ve screwed it up
you know they make things bad for us and they’re jealous of us because we
are gods in our world you know we have faults, we’re terrible, we
can be cruel, we have wars but we’re different from animals,
you know it doesn’t matter how much of an animal lover you are and I’m a great animal lover, we recognize that we have some element of consciousness,
curiosity, creativity, that is different from that of animals. Animals don’t make
films about us; they don’t gather around and stare at us, they don’t put us in a
zoo to look at us and find out – they don’t say wow what is it, look at those
humans, have you seen them, they’re amazing – they just run like hell when
they see us, for very good reason because we’re dangerous but we are, you know, look at Blue Planet II, we spend years studying these beautiful things,
animals, and yet although we know we’re an animal we know we’ve got DNA as they
have, we know we’re also different, that something happened in our brain
that gave us this thing we call consciousness. In the Hebrew myth it’s of
course the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that gives
man this sense of moral something awareness and a difference and a guilt
and shame, suddenly thinking it’s naked. But the Greek one I think is more
convincing to me, which is that the gods made us and Prometheus who
actually modelled us and who loved us more than the gods did, disobeyed the
gods and stole fire from heaven and gave it to us and gave us this fire which is
both a physical fire that burns furnaces and forges steel and iron, but also the
inner, divine fire that we have that makes us separate.And it’s not
divine in the sense that it’s perfect like a Christian God, it’s divine in the
sense that it’s flawed and jealous and capricious and wicked and lustful and
treacherous and all the other things that gods are and humans are. I could literally talk to you about this all day unfortunately I can’t, but I think
that your knowledge and your passion shines through not only in this
conversation but through the book and makes it a joy to read so Stephen, thank you so much for your time It’s been a real pleasure Will, thank you so much.

17 thoughts on “Stephen Fry: The Waterstones Interview”

  1. Great interview – Stephen's passion certainly does shine through. I'm listening to the audiobook at the moment and loving it. Trying to take it slowly and savour it, though; I don't want it to end!

  2. 12 minutes just is not enough time. I wanted it to keep going on. I really could've sat listening to Stephen Fry talking about this for ages. As the other guy mentioned that he too felt like it too, I bet that many of you guys out there watching it also feels something similar, right ?
    Anyway, thanks for posting this.
    The book, Mythos, is fantastic. I listened to the audio book, read by Stephen Fry, and it's brilliant, truly. I'd highly recommend it.

  3. Stephen,…the way you mentioned Donald Trump….you reminded me of Greek god,….well goddess actually….

    PHEME (also known as OSSA) was the goddess or personified spirit (daimona) of rumour, report and gossip. She was also by extension the spirit of fame and good repute in a positive sense and infamy and scandal in the bad.

  4. Truly love how Stephen gives such energetic, detailed, logical, passionate and entertaining answers to the briefest of questions.

  5. To interview Stephen Fry, basically all you have to do is say "mmm" occasionally.

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