Epic Overreach

Jason and Medeia

by John Gardner
Knopf, 354 pp., $7.95

A verse epic in twenty-four books complete with a council in heaven and a catalogue of heroes, the cast featuring a blind seer, Harpies and Sirens, an enchanted ship, and fire-breathing bulls. A mythological quest poem (the quest of the Golden Fleece) and a romantic tragedy rolled into one. Jason and Medeia, John Gardner’s latest work, attempts nothing less. If the thing is to be more than an archaeological exercise, the claim must be, as Time’s reviewer put it, that this is “not just…a tour de force but…an act of profoundly contemporary writing.” Somehow, Mr. Gardner must have made his old argument new.

The challenge of the story of the Argonauts’ voyage in search of the Fleece is that, although famous and sufficiently archetypal, it has never in its entirety received a supreme treatment. In ancient times Pindar, weaving with points of gold, drew on it glancingly for his fourth Pythian ode. The Alexandrian poet Apollonius of Rhodes made a picturesque if hardly a great poem out of it, the Argonautica. The story interested Roman poets; it kept its hold on the Western imagination, and Jason makes a brief, unforgettable appearance in the Inferno, antique magnanimity in ruin. Renaissance painters found it quite to their taste; individual episodes ministered to a variety of allegorical interpretation.

William Morris’s beautiful, passionless tapestry of a tale, The Life and Death of Jason, brought the saga to England: the nerve of heroic enterprise transformed into threads of bright pre-Raphaelite color; ancient adventure, bathed in the nostalgic light of distance, meandering through thousands of curiously enjambed couplets. More briskly, in Hercules, My Shipmate, Robert Graves turned it into a witty historical novel with much insider’s lore on cult and ritual.

And now John Gardner, having tried his hand at a brief rifacimento of heroic myth in Grendel (Beowulf retold from the monster’s point of view), brings Jason to these shores. Grendel he wrote in prose; Gardner is a novelist and prose is his medium. Jason and Medeia is in verse, not, as Time’s critic believed, in blank verse but in the freely syllabled six-beaters which Richmond Lattimore used to translate Homer. A shambling, ungainly measure at best, it yields in Mr. Gardner’s hands some thirteen thousand lines not one of which is so worded or cadenced that it gives pleasure on first encounter or remains in the memory afterward. The decision to cast his narrative in verse may be in large part responsible for what I take to be a full-scale literary disaster.

Gardner sets his scene in Corinth where Jason, his travels over, has come with Medea in search of a new kingdom, and a new wife—the king’s daughter. There he relates the story of the quest, the poem’s principal action, to the notables of Corinth. This serves to put a critical perspective on the quest story since they are skeptical of his motives, past and present. A further perspective is supplied by the intermittently intrusive author, “a poet from the world’s last…

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