Author Peter Fiennes spoke with The National Herald about his latest book, A Thing of Beauty: Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece, which chronicles his journeys around Greece in search of beauty and hope, inspired by the sites of some of the most resonant Greek myths, visiting exquisite beaches, mountains, forests and archaeological wonders, while trying to shake off a feeling of ecological doom.
Fiennes is the author of the critically acclaimed Footnotes, Oak and Ash and Thorn, and To War with God. As the publisher for Time Out, he nurtured a lifelong obsession with old guidebooks, creating award-winning city guides, walking books and titles about Britain’s countryside and seaside. He lives in south-west London.
TNH: What inspired you to write A Thing of Beauty: Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece at this particular moment?
Peter Fiennes: Like so many people, I have found myself becoming increasingly upset by the incessant bad news: climate chaos, mass extinctions, pollution, the flooding and the fires of Siberia, California, and Greece. Sorry, that’s not a very cheerful start! But I started to wonder if the ancient Greeks might have had something to say about the many crises we face. They seemed to have an answer to just about everything else. And in particular I wanted to know if there was anything in their stories and myths that could help us face and perhaps address these problems. Or at the very least be a bit more philosophical about them…
So I went to Greece on the trail of the myths, and also looking for beauty and hope. Pandora’s Hope! It was a strange time to visit, towards the end of 2020, between lockdowns. There were very few other tourists, but Greece was as beautiful and uplifting as ever.
And it is extraordinary to walk in the places where the myths emerged. To stand in Epidavros, or Mycenae, and modern day Athens, and think about what happened there thousands of years earlier is exhilarating. Eleusis and Delphi were as resonant as you might expect (more so, with the tourist numbers down), but it was just as moving to stand in some of the slightly less well known places, like Troezen or Nekromanteion, or in the waters of the river Acheron, and to try and bring something of the past into our present lives.
TNH: How long did the process take from idea to publication?
PF: I’ve been reading the myths all my life, but I had the idea for the book almost two years before I was able to get to Greece. I then wrote the book fast (I’d had so much more time than I expected to do the research) and finished it in the spring of 2021.
TNH: What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of writing the book?
PF: I learned that you can still consult the Oracle at Delphi, although not officially… and that there are flamingoes in the Ambracian Gulf. That was an unforgettable day, in the wetlands, seeing flamingoes, and dolphins, egrets, Dalmatian pelicans and kingfishers.
TNH: What are you working on next?
PF: I’m an ambassador for something called the Western Front Way, which is a new 1000km walking route that traces the route of the trenches in World War I, from the Swiss border to the English Channel. I’d like to write about that. There’s a lot of very moving history, but we are also seeing a rebirth of nature. I’m writing about hope again…
A Thing of Beauty: Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece by Peter Fiennes, published by Oneworld Publications, is due out November 30, and is available for pre-order online.