Pandora’s Jar, by Natalie Haynes; Heroes, and Troy, by Stephen Fry

Summary: beware gift books bearing Greeks

In 1955 Robert Graves published The Greek Myths, a compendium of these stories from creation to the return of Odysseus. Graves’ dark vision bears the mark of the trenches, as he recounts the stories of Theseus, Heracles and the others as descents into atrocity and trauma.

More recently Pat Barker, with her exquisite retelling of the Iliad, The Silence of the Girls, and Natalie Haynes, with A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta and now Pandora’s Jar, have brought a feminist perspective to bear on these stories, finding new focus on the consequences of war for women and children as the “heroes” pursue their dreams of martial glory.

The unsettling insights of these writers seems to have passed Stephen Fry completely. He presents instead a more “jolly hockey sticks” version of these myths. The murders, tortures and general mayhem that his “heroes” indulge in is treated as light comedy, and the rapes are excised almost completely. There is, of course, the unavoidable figure of Helen of Sparta who cannot ever be ignored. So, as if to give some excuse to Theseus for abducting and raping her, Fry states this happened when Helen was 12 rather than as a 7 year old to which, as Natalie Haynes points out, many ancient writers attest.

Hayne’s discusses Helen alongside other of the key female figures of the Greek myths in Pandora’s Jar. Her insights are always entertaining and frequently arresting. Medusa, for example, is remembered now as a monster with serpent tresses whose gaze turned mortals to stone. But before that she was a young woman with beautiful hair who was raped by Poseidon in a temple of Athena, who cursed her rather than her rapist. Poor Medusa then hid some place where she couldn’t hurt anyone until Perseus, egged on again by Athena, showed up to murder her while she slept. Or the fearsome Medea, the beautiful, green-eyed girl without whose courage and learning Jason would never have laid a hand on the golden fleece. She is remembered now principally as the murderess of her own children. But were her achievements and transgressions any better or worse than those other child murderers Theseus, Heracles, and, according to Graves, Odysseus? At least Medea had the honesty not to blame her butchery on Hera or Poseidon, as her male counterparts did.

He murdered her, and their children

Fry’s stories are certainly entertaining. But they are also deeply problematic. Perhaps he lacks the splinter of ice in his heart necessary to look clearly at his protagonists. But he does seem to believe that the serial rapist Theseus and the mass murderer Heracles should be regarded as some sort of exemplars for our contemporary world. Heracles, for example, did show considerable fortitude in bearing the guilt of murdering his wife and children… though that didn’t stop him murdering just about everyone else who ever slightly upset him.

It is only when he discusses the fall of Troy that the scale of the horror he is recounting seems to dawn on Fry. It is, of course, really only at this point, the point when myth begins to collide with history, that the murdered and the raped of these stories were allowed to voice their own hopes and fears. So here it is more difficult to ignore the humanity of, for example, Priam and Cassandra, compared to, say, the cartoonish villains and nameless foot soldiers that Heracles slaughtered in his boneheaded, bloody career.

In her work, Natalie Haynes shows not just erudition, but also empathy for her subjects. Consequently, Pandora’s Jar, and her other books, encourage her readers to think critically about both that mythic and our contemporary world. Fry, drawing on exactly the same sources, offers only an opiate for the masses.