Who knew this classic tale would excite me so? Who knew that an epic poem could grip my attention for the majority of its length? I didn’t expected this story to be as interesting as it was and I’m glad I read it.
Jason and the Argonauts, also called Argonautica, by Apollonius of Rhodes is an epic poem that tells the adventures of Jason and his companions as they sail to fetch the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes of Colchis.
Jason’s uncle, the Greek King Pelias, contrived the plan when he saw Jason at his banquet. An oracle had told him that someone wearing a single sandal would kill him and Jason had shown up wearing one sandal (he lost the other in some mud when he carried an old woman (Hera in disguise) across a river). To get rid of Jason, Pelias sends him on the impossible mission to get the Golden Fleece.
There is much more backstory to this tale, but Apollonius’s poem begins with Pelias sending Jason to fetch the Fleece. To aid him on his mission, Jason calls upon heroes far and wide. Among those who join him are the mighty Heracules, sweet-voiced Orpheus, Polydeuces and Castor (twin sons of Zeus commonly called the Dioscuri), and Zetes and Calais (a.k.a. the Boreads, sons of the north wind Boreas). Aiding the heroes on their mission are the goddesses Hera, the mastermind behind this tale, and Athena.
The heroes encounter many dangerous situations on their adventure that are overcome by their brawn, Jason’s caution, or one of the goddesses’ interference. Their adventures include visiting the island of Lemnos, which is populated only by women (they had killed all the men because the lusted after other women), chasing off some harpies so a man can eat (the harpies kept despoiling his food), and sailing through Clashing Rocks. And that’s just half the journey. At Colchis, Jason has to bear Aeëtes’s bad mood and complete a labor — harness two “bronze-footed,” fire-breathing oxen, plow and sow the fields with fangs from a serpent, and defeat the “armed and armored” warriors that sprout.
Luckily for Jason, Hera had conspired with Aphrodite to have Medea, Aeëtes’s daughter, fall in love with him. Medea, who’s experienced in the dark arts of Hecate, offer to use her talents to help him complete the labor and overcome the dragon that guards the Golden Fleece. Jason promises to marry her in return for her help. The plan goes well and the Argonauts sail from Colchis with Medea and the Golden Fleece. They have a few more adventures before they get back to King Pelias’s land, where they face other difficulties not discussed in this poem.
That was hard to summarize. It will be even harder for me to communicate my thoughts, which is why I’ve taken so long to write this review. This will be long so if you want to read the short of my thoughts, jump to the Overall section below. Note: In the quotes, I’ll indicate where the line breaks in the text.
Let me start with why I chose to read this poem.
Prior to reading this, I was somewhat familiar with the story of Jason and Medea. I read Apollonius’s poem to find out for myself why Medea killed her babies. In one of the sources I read (I can’t recall which), the author said it’s because Jason had cheated on her so she became enraged. If so, then Medea got a bad deal. Would any of this have happened if the gods hadn’t meddled in her life and made her fall in love with Jason? I’m not looking to absolve Medea of her crime, I just wanted to know the story and prove myself right that Jason is to blame as well and is not a great guy.
I was a bit disappointed at first that this was not the story I sought, but I’m glad that I enjoyed what I read. Apparently, I’ll have to check Euripides for the story of Medea killing her babes.
On the translation and its components:
The poem is translated by Aaron Poochigian. In his note on the text and translation, Poochigian said that he wanted to create “the most engaging and readable translation of the poem,” and I believe he succeeded in doing so. I thought the poem was accessible and the story enjoyable. For the majority of it, I was hooked because of all the crazy adventures.
However, easy as it was to read, I needed the assistance of the endnotes to clarify certain things that weren’t clear or familiar to me. So I read the poem and its endnotes at the same time to make sure that I understood what was going on. I suggest the same to others interested in reading it. Plus, the endnotes present facts from other myths that aren’t included in this one but help to clarify it. And it has other tidbits (historical facts and such) that are useful and fun to know.
The story told is quite fast paced but there are some slow parts, which made me break from the story. The slowest sections were when Medea falls in love with Jason and we had to read about her anguished thoughts on loving him and deceiving her father. As for the mechanics of the poem — the rhythm and such — I can’t speak on them because I suck at those things. However, there were times when I would notice the rhythm and I would reread the section aloud so I could hear how it flows. Otherwise, I admired how the poem is written and the images the descriptions created in my head.
Speaking of descriptions, I love the long similes, though sometimes I got lost in them. Some of them go on for several lines but here’s a short one:
“Her heart was fitful, restless in the way / a sunbeam, when reflected off the water / swirling out of a pail or pitcher, dances / upon the walls — yes, that was how her heart / was quivering.”
Sometimes authors use similes that I don’t immediately understand because I don’t see the connection between the two things being compared, but I quickly understood what Apollonius was getting at with his similes. Every time I read one, it’s like he drew a picture of what he’s describing in my mind and when done, inserted the character whose actions are being described. Even when I get lost in the length of a simile, by its end I understand the description.
One of my favorite things about myths is that they are used to explain why things occur or why a place has a certain name. They help to tell the history of a people. A lot of such tellings are, of course, included in Argonautica and I enjoyed reading them. My favorite is how an island came to be called Epiphany.
“They also coined / a title there, Apollo God of Radiance, / because his beams were radiant, and they named / that barren isle Epiphany because / the god revealed it to them, like a vision, / when they were sunk in fear.”
A bit on the characters:
The story is plot driven so there’s not much character development. Because of that, I didn’t connect or sympathize with any of the characters. I was more interested in learning what would happen next.
Still, I liked Jason’s personality because it’s different from what’s expected of heroes in myths. He has doubts, he is not a hot head, and he is more likely to take the diplomatic route than challenge someone to a fight. He’s very low-key and I think that’s why we are able to notice the other heroes who accompany him on his quest. Jason doesn’t dominate the story. And I really like that he doubts himself sometimes because it makes him relatable and familiar to the heroes I read about in fantasy books today.
“In rough spots words have often smoothed the way / and won what valor only could have won / with toil and sweat.”
As for Medea, in my opinion, she is also a hero (and a bad ass) because she devised the plan to get the Fleece. It’s hard to tell if she’s a good or bad person in this story because she seems to act on external motivations though love is an internal thing. I consider the love in this story external because she was forced to fall hopelessly in love with Jason. As such, she acted in accordance to the force of that love. Would she have done the same if Eros hadn’t shot her? I don’t agree with her actions because some are harsh but I think she was dealt a bad fate.
“He deftly strung his little bow / and from the quiver chose a virgin arrow / laden with future groans.”
What I liked and was reminded of:
Being a fan of fantasy novels, I guess it’s not surprising that I enjoyed Argonautica. There are adventures, monsters, gods, and battles. There are moments of intense infatuation, fear, and despair. My favorite parts are when the heroes face a challenge of some sort that leaves them cowering in their boots — or sandals, I don’t think they wore boots — and they supplicate themselves to the gods for safety. By the way, it’s mostly the goddesses and other female deities who help them.
Also, I couldn’t help thinking of Rick Riordan’s books as I read. Jason reminds me of Jason in the Heroes of Olympus series because of his indecisiveness. There are other things I noticed but what stuck out the most was Aeolus, god of the winds. In the Heroes of Olympus series (I think), he’s is half-crazed and over worked and I can see why that is plausible after reading this book.
Great story and maybe great poem but I can’t tell. If you love reading fantasy novels, then it’s basically guaranteed that you’ll enjoy Argonautica. I recommend this translation by Aaron Poochigian because it’s easy to read and understand, but I recommend reading the endnotes for clarification as you go along.
I initially gave this book 3 stars but bumped it up to 4 because I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I was done. Now that I’ve reread a few sections, I’m going to add it to my list of favorite books. I wouldn’t mind rereading it and I believe I would like it as much as I do now if I did.
Quotes from the book:
“Sudden are the woes / that gods allot to mortals. Strive to bear / your portion of them, though it pains your heart.”
“Mortals can never sidestep fate; the cosmic / net is extended round us everywhere.”
“Nothing harder can befall a man / than dire necessity.”
“…silence held the blackening gloom.”
“In counsel many men outdistance one.”
Interesting related posts:
- Jason and the Argonauts Skeleton (stinkycrayons.wordpress.com)
- Memories of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) (falconmovies.wordpress.com)
- Creature Feature: Ray Harryhausen’s Mythical Menagerie (wendylovesjesus.wordpress.com)
- Behind the Book: Setting Sail on the Argo (tammiepainter.com)