Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Yet another great announcement for the classicists who love LEGO. The well-known Australian historical archivist Liam D. Jensen, AKA The Lego Classicist, is informing us about the revealing of the 100th entry in this rich and precious collection of classicists.

This time, the coveted acknowledgment will go to the world-famous British star Stephen Fry.

Fry has starred in theatre plays, full length pictures and TV series; besides, all throughout his career he's been a film director and scriptwriter, a TV host, a journalist and a book author.

An important part of his writing activities is indeed focused on the subject of mythology; we had the honour of interviewing Stephen Fry on this occasion.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

You wrote many books on the subject of myth. Where does this interest start, and what inspires you?

Mythology, but specifically Greek myth, gripped me from the first. I had liked fairy stories well enough when young, as most children do, but I sensed straight away that myths were somehow different, they came from a different place, they could be “taken to be true” in a certain kind of way that was stronger than fantasy. I think it was the personalities in Greek myth that so beguiled me. Without being conscious in any way of what myth is – where it comes from, who thought the stories up – I think it was clear to me that they had a truth and a depth too them that was more imperishable and somehow more important than, for example, Snow White and Rapunzel on the one hand, or the Hobbit and Narnia on the other. I have no wild objection to author-created fantasy worlds, but they could never reach me the way stories of myth could and still do.

What does it mean for Stephen Fry to popularize and/or retell a subject?

Goodness, I am not sure. I suppose in my wildest moments of self-belief and optimism I might hope that I combined enough of an ability to animate and entertain with enough authority and knowledge too - such a combination allowing people simultaneously to enjoy what I write but also to feel in some sense enriched by the confidence that they were (perhaps for the first time, or at least for a long time) drawing from the same narrative waters that so many generations of our ancestors had drawn. I get such pleasure when people tell me that they finally felt able to connect dots between — for example — Apollo and Hermes or the Titans and the Olympians, or that they feel familiar with characters whose names had often seemed remote and forbidding, Clytemnestra, say or Antigone. What once had been rather academic sounding names were at last knowable. Most of all, I hope to have taken away the scent of chalk dust and the stuffy school room...

 

The cover of the book Troy: Our Greatest Story Retold - Stephen Fry's Greek Myth, Penguin Books (2020)

How have your studies on English literature influenced your choices and your activities?

It’s impossible to say: I suspect that the traces of a lifetime’s love of reading will have left their mark in all kinds of ways that I cannot necessarily know or define. I think that a sense of irony (by which I mean something more than mocking irony, sarcasm or a sense of cosmic irony) is crucial to full human social development. An ironic mind is one that understand how to adopt another point of view, how to substitute (like a kind of social algebra) different ways of thinking, how to lay the patterns from one form of discourse on another (I know that doesn’t sound very clear, but I hope you get what I mean). The opposite of a ironising mind is a literalist mind, a dangerous and all too common presence in our world as larger and larger proportions of society rise in the world in new generations, sadly it seems unequipped with the ability to think ironically (such an ability presupposes the gift to think logically and imaginatively for you cannot be an ironist without a rigid sense of logic coupled with the ability to penetrate the knowledge and experience of others). My friend Matt D’Ancona put it very well when writing about another friend, the late Christopher Hitchens: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind … unlike rigid ideology and fundamentalism, irony – saying one thing while meaning another – helps us to recognise complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity.” And nothing, I would suggest, allows for this facility more than an exposure to literature and drama.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

In your book Heroes: Mortal and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, you wrote again about classical mythology, and of vices and virtues of the Gods. How do you imagine a fictitious Olympus?

Well, I am sorry to have to break it to you, but an Olympus peopled by quarrelling and fractious gods is a fiction. When you climb Mount Olympus in Greece you will find nothing but a very cold, damp, cloudy and rocky empty space. No gods there at all. The idea that there ever were gods there is … well, if not fictitious then mythical. We can think about what we mean by the difference. A fiction is fabricated by an individual mind, or occasionally a group of collaborating minds. A myth is fabricated by a whole society. Myths can be called, as Joseph Campbell did, “public dreams” or, if you prefer Carl Jung’s phrase, they are expressions of a “collective unconscious”. The collective unconscious of the Greeks, in my view, is so appealing because it understands that if the world is majestic, beautiful, awe-inspiring, noble and beautiful (as it clearly is) then the gods must be all those things …. BUT, the Greeks also knew that if the world is brutal, cruel, capricious, unjust, ugly and savage then the gods must be all those things too. Therefore, for the first time in human story-telling, the Greek pantheon is presented as one of personalities who are several things at once: mean but beautiful, cruel but fair, noble but capricious, etc etc etc. In other words, unlike so many other mythic cycles, the Greek one is filled with the ambiguities, inconsistencies and multiplicities of character that we find in our real lives. The very complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity that I mentioned earlier. They are the first mythic cycle in our human history to have been shaped and reshaped by poets and dramatists to become a perfect blend of the religious, the literary, the dramatic, the visionary, the comic and the symbolic. They are, I think one can say therefore, a work of art.

The cover of the book Heroes. The myths of the Ancient Greek heroes retold, by Stephen Fry, Penguin Books (2019)

Stephen Fry will be the 100th Lego Classicist, did you know the project already?

I had heard of it, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I might be the Lego Centenarian.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Liam D. Jensen and Alessandra Randazzo talking about the 100th LEGO Classicist

All Lego Classicist pictures courtesy Liam D. Jensen, The Lego Classicist.


An army of Lego Classicists is ready to conquer social networks

Adults and children alike, they know LEGO; however, the enthusiasts of the classical world in particular should take advantage of social networks and not lose sight of the LEGO CLASSICIST project. The project was conceived from an idea of Liam D. Jensen, aka The Lego Classicist, an Australian archivist. An army of classicists is now conquering the web and the scholars of the ancient world as well, thanks to a perfect mix of pop art and ancient history.

As revealed by Liam himself, everything started by chance. The idea of recreating the Classics via the LEGO bricks surpassed all expectations. It has been a celebration of the ancient world and, above all, of the work of many scholars that love their job and allow us to know history and archaeology as much as possible, even if they have been working for different organisations and in different fields. Liam uses social networks in an innovative and inclusive way, and announces a new member of the LEGO Classicist family from time to time.

Liam at work, creating one of his LCs. Photo © Liam D. Jensen

In a short time, and thanks to the crowd of people being intrigued by the initiative, the project has become an international one. The power of communication also goes through gaming and the capability of breaking down barriers, which is typical of the renowned LEGO figures: they have gained such a huge popularity worldwide because they are able to create scenarios and adventures that are always fresh and diverse. Many important public figures joined the LC family, among them there is Mary Beard, whose minifigure has become viral to the point that even the BBC talked about that, and she also appeared on the prestigious German archaeology journal Antike Welt, on SALON, the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and at the University of Cambridge. Mary Beard herself then used her minifigure during her tv show, Front Row Late.

Presently, Italy may boast three LEGO minifigures, based on important scholars: Alessandra Giovenco, an archivist from the British School at Rome, professor Massimo Osanna, archaeologist and general director at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, and professor Giacomo Pardini, an archaeologist and numismatist, professor at the University of Salerno. Therefore we asked Liam, so that he may tell us more about his project and on the subject of some of the most significant characters involved.

LEGO CLASSICIST
From left to right: Alessandra Giovenco, Massimo Osanna and Giacomo Pardini. Photo © Liam D. Jensen

When and how was the Lego Classicists Project conceived?

The first Lego figure that went on social media was on the 20thFebruary 2016, but it was not until there were over 3 figures that I came up with the name Lego Classicists and made a Facebook page for them. That was really when it was born.

How many classicists does it include? Are there various or unique types or scholarly specialisations being included?

There are now over 90 in the LC family and I mostly choose scholars directly in the classical discipline but I also like to push outside of these to other ancient world disciplines (such as Egyptian) and I include anyone whom I feel brings support to the study of history, such as Conservators, Librarians and Archivists.

Who was your first character?

Technically the first figure who was made almost by chance is Dr. Tom Hillard, who is a Roman historian and an old friend of the family. But the one who - for the first time - made me start creating them on purpose was Michael Turner, who was the curator and master-mind of the three famous Lego ancient world models that include Lego Pompeii and Lego Colosseum, so I consider Michael to be the first official figure, as he is the real inspiration for the Lego Classicists family.

Starting from Australia, you conquered the world of classicists. Would you have expected such a great interest?

I had absolutely no idea that it would reach the world like this as it really started as just gifts to my friends, but I am so pleased to be inspiring the whole world of Classics in this fun new way.

LEGO CLASSICIST

Italy is being represented by three characters. Could you please tell us about them?

Massimo Osanna and his LC alter ego

Prof. Massimo Osanna’s figure was a request by the Nicholson Museum, Sydney University, when they asked me to make a personal gift for Prof. Osanna and a second one to be placed into the Lego Pompeii model that is still in the Museum today. It was delivered to Prof. Osanna in person at Pompeii by two academics from the University of Sydney.

Alessandra Giovenco is the Archivist at the British School at Rome and I had the very great pleasure of meeting her in my role as an archivist when I delivered a collection to the BSR in 2016.  Our daily conversations together inspired me to bring her into the LC family and I asked the Director of the British School at Rome to give it to her in person on my behalf.

Giacomo Pardini and his LC

Professor Giacomo Pardini had tagged me into a photo with a Lego figure of himself made by his nephew with the words “Almost a Lego Classicist”. Since then we have had an ongoing communication related to Lego and Classics so I felt it was very important to have him join the family properly (although I still think his nephew’s figure is better than mine). I sent his figure to him by mail at the University of Salerno and he received it a few days ago.

All three have responded in the same way that cannot be expressed in words but it is in the looks on their faces that you can see in the photos they send me with their figures. They have all been delighted. Of course, the Romans played a huge role in the development of much of modern culture, so it’s only fitting that there should be many Italian members of the Lego Classicists family in the future.

What is the message that you are trying to convey with your project?

I hope that Lego Classicists gives everyone an excuse to celebrate the ancient world and its study. It aims to help to join the community of international classicists together, to further highlight their work and to make classics and the ancient world more accessible to a wider audience. The real message - I hope - is the idea of serious play and bringing playful yet dignified new perspectives to the study of classical history.

The first Lego Classicist for 2020 is professor Giacomo Pardini from the University of Salerno. Could you please tell us if any other Italian classicist is going to join this great family?

I am in communication with one Italian classicist now whom I hope will join the Lego Classicists family soon and I have another one or two more in mind which will be revealed later.

What is the International Lego Classicism Day and how can we be involved?

LEGO CLASSICIST

 International Lego Classicism Day is a social media event I have been running since 2017 on the 20th of February, which is the Anniversary of Lego Classicists, and I like to use this date as a way to encourage everyone to celebrate, engage, and play with ancient history through Lego bricks.