Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry — Reread Review

Moab is My Washpot is one of those books I read once, as a teenager or young adult, found one quotation that really mattered to me and so decided that I must love. (I suspect Brideshead Revisited, which I will revisit, is another.) Rereading it, not only did I not remember vast swathes of the book, I also found myself not really enjoying much of it.

I am not actually sure that I am capable of thoughts, let alone feelings, except through language.

Moab is My Washpot, Stephen Fry

Perhaps this is jus because I don’t really get on with autobiography, but I just didn’t find it that interesting. Stephen Fry’s description of himself as a child is quite different to what I might have imagined, but his life is still fairly normal. There are a few funny incidents – though on this reread, I found the story of the mole rather too infused with artificial significance.

Stephen Fry’s tone seemed patronising to me, in a way it didn’t when I read Mythos and, presumably, in a way it didn’t when I was a young adult because more of the material was actually new to me then than it is now. There were passages and offhand references which seemed quite dismissive of certain groups of people – namely his fans and anyone who enjoys revising media multiple times.

And then I saw him and nothing was ever the same again.
The sky was never the same colour, the moon never the same shape: the air never smelt the same, food never tasted the same. Every word I knew changed its meaning, everything that once was stable and firm became as insubstantial as a puff of wind, and every puff of wind became a solid thing I could feel and touch.

Moab is My Washpot, Stephen Fry

In short, it was fine, particularly if you go in with measured expectations. It didn’t hold up to the memory I had of it as being in some way supremely insightful. Even the one quotation that I liked had no resonance for me now.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Mythos by Stephen Fry — Reread Review

I don’t remember how I got interested in Greek myths. It might have been Disney’s Hercules, though I feel like I already knew a bit about them by then. Maybe it was just absorbed knowledge of satyrs and fauns and centaurs from The Chronicles of Narnia. Either way, I like Greek mythology and I like Stephen Fry, so Mythos was very much a sure bet!

Stephen Fry modernises the language of the myths, without quite going so far as to refer to Cadmus as a ‘homie’. He manages to link some sections of myth together into overarching narratives, but some pieces still feel disconnected. I don’t think that’s any fault of the writing; it’s just the way the source material is.

The name [Electra] is interesting; it is the female form of ELECTRON, the Greek word for ‘amber’. The greeks noticed that if you rub amber vigorously with a cloth it magically attracts dust and fluff. They called this strange property ‘amberiness’, from which all our words ‘electric’, ‘electricity’, ‘electron’, ‘electronic’, and so on, ultimately derive.

Mythos, Stephen Fry

There’s an emphasis on places where our modern English words and idioms come from the names of gods or heroes, or the punishments enacted by one on the other. So Stephen Fry highlights that we still use ‘Sisyphean‘ to describe a futile task. But he also relates bits of the Sisyphus myth that I wasn’t previously aware of. The reason Sisyphus needed to be punished was that he’d cheated death twice, and even managed a ‘happily ever after’ the second time around!

Hera grasped the bird by the beak so that he could hardly breathe and was about to punish him in some strange and dreadful way that would forever have altered our conception of chaffinches, when his mate fluttered about her ears and hair bravely calling out.

Mythos, Stephen Fry

My favourite myths are the ones that resemble ‘Just So’ stories – that explain how the world came to be the way it is. There are plenty of these – more than I was previously aware of – but my favourite is still Arachne, who boasted of her spinning so much that Athena came down to challenge her. Only I didn’t know that, after losing, Arachne was so distraught at the thought of never weaving again that she hung herself. And so Athena transforming her into a spider could actually be seen as a merciful act.

Mythos does a good job of making the Greek myths as narratively satisfying as possible, and even somewhat relatable.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.