Pretend for a moment that you’ve been sent on “a cruel voyage” by an illegitimate king who not only wants you to fail, but hopes you die in the process. The mission instructs you procure a Golden Fleece guarded by a dragon, and in the possession of a tyrant named Aeetes. Before this however, you will need to confront razor-clawed harpies, death-crunching cliffs, fire-breathing bulls, and humanoid seed soldiers. It would take many miracles to survive such an undertaking, but luckily for you the Gods are on your side—most of them anyway.
Such are the difficulties faced by Jason, the hero in Apollonius of Rhodes’ only surviving work: Jason and the Argonauts (known formally as the Argonautica). Though often overshadowed by the Iliad and Odyssey, this epic poem is certainly not without merit and in some ways, is even more relatable to a contemporary audience. Compared to the demigod Achilles and master strategist Odysseus who star in the Homeric epics, Apollonius’ Jason is a common man. Frequently described as “resourceless,” and “at a loss”, it soon becomes apparent that our hero will need all the help he can get in order to succeed.
The one thing Jason is good at however, is recruiting talent. Much like the 1992 U.S Men’s Olympic Basketball “Dream Team”(which included the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson) is widely considered the greatest basketball team of all time, Jason’s 51 Argonauts are described as “the finest heroes to ever have sailed.” This description is well deserved, for about one forth of the crew are demigods and the rest possess unique skill sets (fighting, navigation etc.) making them far superior to normal men.
What makes this new Penguin Classics version of Jason and the Argonauts different from past translations, is that it’s written entirely in verse and not in the traditional prose format. In his introduction, translator Aaron Poochigian explains that he structured the lines in iambic pentameter because it “has the advantage of being familiar to the English ear, as dactylic hexameter, the meter of the original, was to the Ancient Greek one.” The result is a scholar and reader-friendly translation that brings out the beauty of Apollonius’ words likes never before. Take this description of when Medea (recently struck with Cupid’s arrow) sees Jason for the first time:
Soon he appeared. Her longing eyes perceived him
rising from the horizon, as the Dog Star,
Sirius, rises from the River Ocean—
mesmerizing, beautiful—to wreak
unspeakable destruction on the flocks.
Or the scene where Medea’s tyrant father King Aeetes learns of her daughter’s betrayal and in retaliation orders his soldiers to find her:
…Armed from head to foot,
they started swarming toward the Council House
as thickly as the dead leaves tumble earthward
out of a tree with many boughs in autumn
–who could count them? So they all came swarming
mad with clamor, down the riverbank.
Lines like these are only possible through the power of verse, and Poochigian deserves a great deal of credit for returning the music to this timeless classic. If you’re in the market for an ancient adventure story, and think Homer has hogged the spotlight for far too long, I strongly recommend you try Jason and the Argonauts: the other Greek epic.
Jason and the Argonauts is published by Penguin Books, and retails for $15.00.