If you like Greek myth, adventure and the classics, you're not likely to dislike this one. Graves, a renowned poet and classicist (and rather eccentric iconoclast) here retells the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, bringing these rather rambunctious fellows to life in a manner which is surprising, yet wholly consistent with the original material. Putting his own gloss on the mythic times celebrated afterwards in classical Greece and Rome, Graves posits a culture of ancient origin in the Mediteranean, totemic and cult-like, onto which the pantheon of the sky gods of the invading Greek tribes was subsequently grafted. To Graves, the myths handed down to the classical writers (and which they preserved and elaborated on, and then handed on to us) reflected the clash of these two religious views. The mythic creatures we came to know as centaurs and nymphs, for instance, would, on his telling, have been people not unlike ourselves, but affiliated with one or another of the ancient cults (rooted in belief in the divinity of the ancient "triple goddess").
Like primitive tribesmen in many societies, these folk built their lives around their ritualistic practices and fetishes. The centaurs are called such, for instance, because they live in fraternal clans in semi-primitive conditions revering the centaur totem and mating with this or that college of nymphs, as the need arises and in accordance with the ritualistic requirements of the times. The institution of marriage (considered in this telling an affront to the "triple goddess") is brought in by the sky peoples from the north -- those who would later become the Greeks known to classical antiquity, after these had supplanted and absorbed the older peoples they found in the territory they conquered.
So this tale is set in the time when these two peoples were first encountering one another and is presented as a conflict which grew out of the tension between the differing religious views and backgrounds. In this context, the story tracks Jason as he raises a crew to reclaim a fleece trimmed with gold which was sacred to the new sky god, Zeus, but which had apparently been spirited away by adherents of the triple goddess. Jason, rather unprepossessing as a hero though a remarkably handsome fellow, pulls into his orbit many of the great heroes and most accomplished adventurers of his day, including the mighty Hercules -- a rather likeable, if brutish, lout who gets by on his prodigious strength and amazing good luck.
But Hercules doesn't make it through the entire voyage (his attention span is not overly long it seems) and he becomes sidetracked in a search for Hylas, his adopted son (taken after he killed the boy's parents), when Hylas makes his getaway. (Hercules seems to have had a more than fatherly interest in the boy, which doesn't sit well with Hylas when he discovers the beauteous possibilities to be had in a local college of nymphs.) Even without the redoubtable Hercules however, the Argonauts press on (in fact they have conspired to abandon him in order to save themselves from his clumsy and dangerous excesses), and navigate the Black Sea to the land of Colchis where the fleece, object of their quest, is kept.
There they engage in all the appropriate deceptions in order to steal the prize from under the unwitting eyes of the Colchians (aided by the Colchian king's daughter, Medea, who is quite smitten with the handsome, if inconstant, Jason). The rest of the tale recounts their escape and the killings they must involve themselves in to make good their theft, and the ritualized atonements they must undertake thereafter.
Graves manages to convey a sense of the magical and mysterious without resort to the clumsy mythological creatures of ancient Greek tale, by relying on the mystic elements of the ancient religions his characters practiced (whether of the old or new variety). No one gets turned into a beast except metaphorically, and perhaps in spirit, and the biggest monster seems to be an overy large Python which the Colchians keep to guard the purloined fleece -- or perhaps the biggest monster is really Hercules himself.
Even the Hellenes are presented in a fetchingly realistic manner when we see these blonde, blue-eyed men painting their bodies and doing a sort of war dance on the beach before they embark on the first leg of their journey, or when we watch them posturing and posing like so many primitives in the flush of battle. Women get treated rather well in this context since the older society is matriarchal in nature and dominated by various powerful priestesses and nymphs.
The tale is driven as much by the interplay of the many fascinating characters (Orpheus the clever musician and adept of the triple goddess, Atalanta the virgin warrior and her various suitors, on board the Argo and off) as by the adventure of the quest itself. And the end takes the surviving players through to their respective fates, always consistent with the characters they have shown themselves in the course of their adventures to be. It may seem overly long to the contemporary reader in some parts and somewhat episodic, but it takes us back to a time which might really have been and gives us a slant on things which we don't ordinarily get from a straight reading of the classics.
SWM author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky (swmirsky)
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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