This week, back to the classics.  One of my all time favourite Fantasy films is `Jason and the Argonauts’ which came out in 1963. Ray Harryhausen’s famous stopmotion animation sequences – such as the fighting skeletons or the bronze giant – thrilled me as a child and they’re still pretty impressive. If you’ve never seen `Jason and the Argonauts’ get hold of a copy at once. Out this week is the film of Rick Riordan’s `Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters’ which also draws on the myth of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. Ever wondered about the original story? Step forward Apollonius of Rhodes, who wrote the most detailed account we have. Apollonius lived in the 3rd century BCE.  He was Director of the great Library of Alexandria, by far the best library in the Ancient World, so Apollonius was a man who knew all there was to know about Greek myth. However, his first version of the Jason story apparently got such bad reviews that he completely revised it. Scholars are sniffy about the second version too, but I think that there is a lot in it for modern readers to enjoy.

Bear with me while I try to recommend a prose translation of this epic poem. It’s complicated because this is a work known under several different names, such as `The Argonautica’ (sometimes spelled Argonautika) or `The Voyage of Argo’.  A very old-fashioned translation by R.C.Seaton is available as a cheap ebook under the title `The Voyage of the Argo: The Argonautica’. This has some nice illustrations but no notes. The reliable Penguin Classics translation by E.V.Rieu is called `The Voyage of Argo’ and has lots of maps and a really useful  Who’s Who of Greek myth. I think the most attractive translation is a recent one by Richard Hunter.  Called `Jason and the Golden Fleece’ it is part of the Oxford World’s Classics series and you can get it in paperback or as an ebook. There are helpful notes but no glossary.

So – the prologue.  A Greek prince and princess are threatened by their wicked stepmother. A god sends a golden flying ram to carry the children far away. The princess falls off and is drowned but Prince Phrixus is brought across the Black Sea to the distant land of Colchis. After the ram is sacrificed, Phrixus gives its Golden Fleece to Aeetes, the fearsome King of Colchis. Aeetes hides the magical fleece inside a sacred grove and sets a terrible serpent to guard it. Many years later, a young man named Jason arrives in the Greek kingdom of Iolcus, having lost a sandal along the way. An oracle has warned Pelias, the usurper King of Iolcus, that he will meet a horrible fate because of a man with one bare foot. In order to escape this fate, Pelias sends Jason on what he believes will be an impossible quest to win the fabled Golden Fleece. Pelias has offended, Hera, the Queen of the Gods, so she and the goddess of Wisdom, Athena, help Jason to build a wonderful ship called the Argo. Heroes from all over Greece, including Herakles (Hercules) and Orpheus, flock to join the Argo’s crew for this great adventure. As they sail into unknown waters they meet many perils and the death-toll mounts. When the Argonauts finally reach Colchis, King Aeetes sets Jason a series of terrifying challenges. Jason’s only hope of survival is to win the help of Aeetes’ daughter, the sorceress Medea…

I’m not going to pretend that all of Apollonius is an easy read. Like other Classical writers, he slots in lists of heroes, complete with details about the doings of their ancestors or descendants. This is the ancient equivalent of product placement. The long list of Argonauts at the start of `Jason and the Golden Fleece’ ensured that wherever a reader lived in the Greek world, one of their local heroes was involved in the story. You might want to skip straight to the bit where Jason is trying to say goodbye to his distraught mother. Once the voyage is underway there are plenty of vividly described action scenes as the Argonauts encounter massive waves, six-armed monsters, a brutal boxer, a monstrous wild boar, hideous stinking Harpies and the famous Clashing Rocks. There is also a surprising amount of humour. When Jason and the other Argonauts are distracted from their mission by the seductive women of Lemnos, Herakles has to remind them that `Fleeces do not come to people of their own accord’. In a charming episode, the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) is sarcastic to Hera and Athena who want her to use her influence over her son, Eros (Cupid). She points out that, being a typical teenage boy, Eros always does the opposite of what his mother says.  He is so naughty that Aphrodite has `half a mind to break his bow and wicked arrows’.  Eros has to be bribed with a new toy to carry out the godesses’ wishes and make Princess Medea fall in love with Jason, so that she will help him to win the Golden Fleece.

Jason is portrayed as a handsome hunk with minimal leadership skills but Apollonius seems to have real empathy with Medea. Indeed, his epic is so full of strong and clever women, it’s almost like a feminist reading of the myth. In the early chapters, we meet the women of Lemnos who have murdered all the men on the island and are getting on fine without them. The women only decide to sleep with the Argonauts in order to have children to support them in their old age. The Argonauts themselves fight well but they also bicker and sulk and manage to mislay the mighty Herakles, while Jason’s response to a crisis is often to sit down and cry. Throughout the story, Jason relies on female help, whether it is from interfering goddesses, passing nymphs, wise queens, or the sorceresses, Circe and Medea. By the time Apollonius wrote his epic, Medea was established as the great villainess of Greek myth – a jealous murderess familiar with all kinds of dark arts. Yet Apollonius chose to imagine what Medea might have been like as an innocent young girl and he fully enters into her thoughts and feelings.  In his version, Medea is a sweet, golden-haired princess who is compelled to betray her family and country because of her sudden, overpowering love for Jason. The agonies and embarrassments of first love are delightfully described, which makes it all the more shocking when Jason and Medea collude in a particularly cruel murder in order to escape from Colchis. Medea is full of remorse but after such an act there can ultimately be no happy ending for this golden couple.

Apollonius ends his epic on the high point of Jason’s happy return to Greece. His first readers would have known that Jason and Medea will go on to be responsible for more horrible deaths. I suspect that Apollonius stopped where he did, because he was mainly interested in the period during which Medea and Jason make the choices that will shape the rest of thier lives. This epic constantly asks questions about how much of a person’s life, and death, is predestined. Some of the characters in the story try to avoid their fate – as King Pelias unsucessfully does. Others, such as the Argonaut Idmon who foretells his own death, bravely make the best of the time they have left. The blind prophet Phineus has been cursed by the gods for revealing too much of their `sacred purposes’ for peoples’ lives, but he also tells stories which suggest that a bad fate can sometimes be changed by good actions.  Whether we see our fate as being dictated by gods or genes, the limit to our freedom of choice is still the big issue. So, why not give old Apollonius a try? He might surprise you. Until next week….