Everybody has heard of the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, and yet its poet is obscure. If Apollonius, the third-century BCE Alexandrian author of the Argonautika, could boast one reader today for every thousand who have read the Iliad or the Odyssey, he would have to count himself lucky. One of the aims of Professor Peter Green’s new translation is to adjust this imbalance.
Have previous translators served up Apollonius cold? Or does the problem lie with the original product? It would be hard to maintain that Apollonius lacked talent as a poet: every page of his poem gives evidence of a sparkling verbal genius. His visual effects are especially impressive. Here is his account of the departure of Jason and his comrades in search of the fleece from the Argo’s home port on the mountain-ringed Pagasaean Gulf:
As the ship moved…
…the long wake shone ever white behind them, like some
track seen dwindling away across the green savannah.
On that day all the gods looked out from heaven
at the ship and this race of demigods, valiantly steering
over the deep. On the topmost peaks of Pelion,
the nymphs gazed in amazement as they witnessed
Athena of Iton’s handiwork, and the heroes themselves,
fists gripping and plying the oars. From his mountain summit
Cheiron, Philyra’s son, came down to the seashore,
and where the waves break brine-gray, in the shallows
splashed fetlock-deep…waving them on their way….1
Elements of this have Homeric an-tecedents, but it was a brilliant, innovative idea to exploit the bay’s amphitheater-like shape to depict, on physical grades of elevation, the various stages ascending from the human to the divine, and so to capture them all in a single and unified picture.
Another trait that might have been expected to win Apollonius a wider readership is his interest in sex, an interest which Homer, if he has it at all, keeps well under control. It is a subject matter that combines nicely with Apollonius’ visual knack. In the third book (of four) of the Argonautika, the witch-princess Medea, wracked by an unsatisfied and illicit passion, goes to meet her beloved, and takes a dozen handmaidens along with her. Two of these join her in her little cart, while the other ten, “holding on to the carriage from behind, canter/ down the broad road, raising up as they run/their gauzy fine skirts to their white upper-thighs” (3.873–875, my translation). Homer gives us a delightful description of the nubile princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens playing ball on the beach (Odyssey 6.99– 109), but he never smacks his lips quite like this.
Occasionally Apollonius goes straight over the top, and achieves a certain lurid magnificence in doing so. When the Argo is forced to pass through the dangerous Wandering Rocks, the well-disposed Hera summons Thetis and her forty-nine sister-nymphs, the Nereids; their arrival is compared, in its appearance and its effect upon the anxious sailors, to the frolicking of dolphins around a ship. At the crucial moment they emerge from the water, and Apollonius deploys them to create an Esther Williams spectacular; an accompanying simile serves to remind us of Nausicaa and, with her, of Homer’s greater restraint:
Quickly hoisting their skirts by the hem to their white knees, high on the very reefs among
the pounding breakers they ran ahead, left and right, in separate groups…
…just as girls on some sandy secluded beach,
kilting their skirts up, tucking them into their waistbands,
will play with a nice round ball, each one of them in turn
catching it from another, and passing it on again
with a high toss in midair, so it never hits the ground—so
the Nereids passed the swift ship in turn to one another,
skimming it over the wavetops, always taking care to
keep it clear of the rocks, as the roaring tide seethed around them.
Obviously, there is something miraculous about the Nereids’ ability to toss a large ship around as if it were “a nice round ball.” Homer as a rule shuns miracles; the lighter-hearted Apollonius, on the other hand, likes the pictorial possibilities of the supernatural, especially when it enables him to give his audience a moment of soft-core aesthetic bliss.
Not all of Apollonius’ successes are salacious. Sometimes he inserts glimpses of human tenderness into unexpected contexts. At the beginning of the final book, Jason and Medea set out in the night to seize the fleece; they proceed to the grove where a fearsome dragon guards it. The stupefying hiss this creature emits at their approach is so loud—again the poet flirts with the miraculous—that it is heard at the farthest reaches of the kingdom, where
Fear [strikes] at newly delivered mothers, and around their tiny infants, still sleeping in
their embrace, they [tighten] agonized arms, as the hiss [leaves] the babes atremble.
The jump cut from the nocturnal grove, with its monster, the marauding hero, and his more than slightly sinister girlfriend, to the briefly threatened warmth and security of the mother and child in bed is startling and moving.
These small-scale effects are highly enjoyable. But are they enough? At 5,800 lines the Argonautika is very long. Homer’s poems, on the other hand, are longer still. They succeed because Homer had an exceptional understanding of plot: everything in the Iliad builds up to the confrontation between Achilles and Hector in Book 22, as everything in the Odyssey builds up to the confrontation between Odysseus and the suitors, also in Book 22. After these climaxes the poems are quickly brought to an end. Their greatness as poems is founded on the bedrock of their greatness as stories, and consequently much of that greatness can come across in translation.
Peter Green’s new and lavishly produced version of Apollonius seems designed to persuade readers that here in the Argonautika they will find another great story like those of Homer—“a gripping and unforgettable narrative,” as the dust jacket blurb proclaims. They won’t. In spite of Green’s strenuous efforts in his introduction to argue otherwise, Apollonius did not share Homer’s aims, and did not seek Homer’s wide public audience.
Apollonius was an academic. He was the head of the famous library of the Ptolemies in Hellenistic Alexandria, a position comparable to that of the warden of All Souls, or the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies.2 He was not, in short, a “citizen-poet” like Aeschylus or Sophocles in classical Athens two centuries before, but a subsidized and ink-stained scholar, and his poem is a highly erudite and scholarly affair. He and his learned peers, notably Callimachus of Cyrene, another vastly learned scholar-poet enjoying Ptolemaic patronage, appear to have had severe doubts about the desirability, for poets of their era, of the Aristotelian/Homeric model for writing long poems. Callimachus’ masterpiece, the Aetia (“Causes” or “Origins”), not much shorter than the Argonautika, had no overall plot: it was a loosely linked collection of brilliant set pieces (much like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written two and a half centuries later in imitation of it). The only thing that held it together, as far as we can tell, was the rather abstract theme (“origins”—of various customs and rituals and the like), and, more importantly, the spectacular wit, learning, and verbal dexterity of the author.
Green thinks Apollonius followed the Homeric rather than the Callimachean model in composing his poem, and he takes a curious route to his conclusion: instead of examining the Argonautika itself—to see whether or not, for example, it exhibits a plot centered on a single and unified action—he turns to the meager and unreliable biographical traditions about Callimachus and Apollonius. He demonstrates to his own satisfaction that Apollonius quarreled with Callimachus, and that the Argonautika was not initially a success in Alexandria. From this he infers that Apollonius disdained Callimachean poetics, and set out to write an old-fashioned throwback of a poem on the Homeric model; it was this that led to the rejection of the poem by the Alexandrian smart set, and to Apollonius’ flight in disgrace to Rhodes, as is recorded in the ancient biographies.
Green’s argument from Alexandrian poetic fashions is all rather a priori. He should have looked at the Argonautika itself—for example, compared the materials of the earlier Argonautic tradition, as they are thought to have reached Apollonius, with Apollonius’ disposition of them in his own poem. That tradition goes something like this:
In the northern Greek kingdom of Thessaly, Phrixus and Helle, King Athamas’ children, are persecuted by their stepmother. A flying ram with a golden fleece comes to their rescue and spirits them away. In mid-flight Helle falls off into the sea between Europe and Asia (hence, the Hellespont), but her brother Phrixus makes it safely to Colchis, on the far southeastern coast of the Black Sea. Later, back in Greece, a young hero, Jason, reasserts his branch of the family’s claim to the throne, against the current occupant, his uncle Pelias. Pelias diverts Jason by sending him on a quest to recover the fleece of the ram, now dead, like Phrixus himself.
Pelias hopes that Jason will die on the quest. With the help of Athena and Hera, the young hero builds a ship (the Argo), assembles a crew of heroes, and sets off on the journey, encountering many interesting obstacles and dangers on the way. When they arrive at Colchis, where the fleece is guarded by a dragon, the local king, Aeëtes, imposes even more fearsome tasks, but Jason is helped by the King’s daughter Medea, a magician who has fallen in love with him. Medea makes him invulnerable, which enables him to yoke the fire-breathing, brazen-footed oxen, and to slay the army of Sown-Men, as Aeëtes requires. After performing these challenging tasks, the hero and princess drug the dragon and seize the fleece. They escape with the ship and crew. In the course of their flight they deliberately kill Medea’s brother. They elude the pursuing Colchians. An arduous voyage brings them home to Thessaly, where Medea engineers the grisly death of Pelias. Eventually, as Euripides’ Medea relates, Jason leaves Medea for another woman, and Medea exacts her revenge by killing her children by Jason.
There’s a lot here, and it would be an incautious poet who tried to tell it all, in sequential order. The Trojan War from start to finish took up ten years; it was Homer’s stroke of genius to occupy the Iliad with only a few weeks of it, and to include key episodes from the rest via flashbacks and foreshadowing. The greatest of the Greek lyric poets, Pindar (circa 520–450 BCE), when he came to compose an Argonautika,3 simply cut a lot out, and rearranged much of the rest. He saw, for example, that to create dramatic tension the expedition must have a meaningful motive; he therefore devotes considerable space to depicting negotiations between Jason and the perfidious Pelias. Then he pursues the quest story until the climactic moment when Jason takes the fleece into his hands—at which point the narrative is abruptly cut off: “The journey back is too long a road for me to travel,” Pindar declares; “time constrains, and besides, I know a shortcut.” He wraps up the whole account in the next fifteen lines.[4 ]
This decision not to narrate the voyage back is notable: many of the most famous traditional adventures belong here (some of which are shared by the Odyssey). But if winning the fleece is the climax, a lengthy voyage home will be a deflating distraction.5
Now let us consider what Apollonius does. An eighteen-line prelude provides some background: Pelias had heard a prophecy that he would die at the hands of a one-sandaled man; a little later, Jason appeared wearing one sandal; Pelias recognized in him the man of the prophecy, “and devised him a trial of most perilous seamanship, that in deep waters or away among foreign folk he might lose his homecoming.”
So much for background. Immediately, the narrator declares that while previous poets have told the story of the building of the ship Argo, he himself prefers to enumerate the Argonauts, and so embarks on a detailed Who’s Who listing of all fifty of them, covering 210 lines in all, and creating a formidable barrier between the reader and the rest of the poem—an especially discouraging obstacle for undergraduates, who often simply give up after about fifty lines of it.
Within not many lines of the catalog’s finish the crew has been gathered on the beach, Jason formally elected leader, and the Argo itself launched. At this point the reader of the poem may start wondering about the purpose of this impressive expedition; the prelude briefly told us what Pelias’ motive was in devising it, but why has Jason accepted the job? We have not heard of any dynastic or personal relationship between him and Pelias, nor have we been given any account of the fleece itself. At a few later points in the poem some brief hints about these issues are dropped, but the casualness of the references only reinforces our sense that the poet has no interest whatsoever in plot or motivation.
What then is he interested in? The quick answer is: travelogues. Of the poem’s 5,800 lines, at least 3,200 are devoted to the voyages out and back. Odysseus’ sea wanderings in the Odyssey, by way of comparison, take up four books out of twenty-four, tucked discreetly in the middle (Books 9–12). The story of Jason and Medea’s escape from the pursuing Colchians is decisively settled a third of the way through the fourth book. Whatever climax this resolution can be claimed to achieve (very little) is pretty well dissipated by a subsequent 1,000 lines of further voyaging; but, lest any plot development (the murder of Pelias, Jason and Medea’s marriage, etc.) distract from the travelogue, Apollonius ends the poem the moment the Argo touches the Thessalian shore.
What happens in all this voyaging? We are treated to a series of encounters with frightening or otherwise memorable peoples or creatures or landscapes. Things happen to or are done by various members of the crew. Local customs are described and their origins explained. The individual episodes are often rendered with breathtaking beauty, but they are rarely more than free-standing set pieces. There is little suspense, and very little sense that a plot is being advanced. Characters do not evolve, which in hindsight is unsurprising, given that almost nothing has been done to establish them in the first place. Changing the order of episodes around could often be done without much impact on the whole. In short, Apollonius has found in or made out of the traditional materials of the fleece story just the kind of loose, commodious, episodic structure that Aristotle condemned and his own contemporary Callimachus embraced, using it for his own long poem the Aetia.
It follows that Green’s argument is wrong. The essential design of Apollonius’ poem is not Homeric, but, to use the term Green argues against, Callimachean. And this is not simply a matter of the plot, the deficiencies of which in Aristotelian terms will be evident to anyone who reads the poem whole. The entire texture of the Argonautika is Alexandrian through and through: allusive, pictorial, erudite, intricate, and ironical. It is in particular the stylized and ironical approach to the mythological and heroic tradition that distinguishes Apollonius from Homer, above all. To try to take the Argonautika straight, as a sort of Boy’s Own Paper adventure story, necessarily entails severe, and occasionally laughable, distortions of this texture.
Let us consider, for example, a passage having to do with Herakles, one of the great traditional heroes participating in the expedition. As the Argo approaches Mysia, a friendly rivalry grows up among the crew to see who will be able to continue rowing the longest. Naturally, Herakles wins, all the others giving up from exhaustion. Apollonius does not help us to understand how a ship that is being propelled by one oar, on one side, could proceed forward. That is characteristic: we are left to remark and infer the absurdity on our own, without any nudges from the narrator, who here maintains a somewhat obtuse and latently comic pompous dignity. As the ship approaches the Mysian Coast, by this strange lopsided progress, Herakles,
churning the furrows of the troubled sea,
fractured his oar at the middle.
Both his hands held on to the one end,
as the sea with its backwash
swept off the other, and he himself pitched down sideways.
Then, slowly, in silence, he sat up,
glowering all around: for his hands had no habit of idling.6
We are pushed to laugh by a narrator who does not laugh himself, who appears not to notice that the mighty hero’s plight is funny, but instead keeps his unblinking gaze focused on the important ethical lesson to be drawn from this heroic event: Herakles is distressed, not because of the farcical indignity he has suffered, as might be assumed, but for the impressively laudable reason that he cannot bear to be idle.
What attitude toward the heroic is being displayed here? Green has a comment:
[Herakles] is presented as a hulking monster: at once obstinate, egomaniac, and (not least when his gigantic efforts break his oar) ridiculous. Ap. mounts a deconstruction campaign here. Musclebound and mindless, Herakles is proving himself an embarrassment and anachronism…. It is ironic that the uncontrolled violence that breaks his oar should lead, step by step, to his loss of Hylas and his severance from the expedition.
“Monster”? “Uncontrolled violence”? For this harmlessly enthusiastic rowing? Green’s reading is itself at such violent variance with the lovingly light effect of the passage as to be inexplicable—until we realize that he is once again at the mercy of a theory, in this case a theory about Apollonius’ conception of the heroic. There have been many such, and they are congenial to Green because they mostly proceed from an assumption that an epic must be concerned, as Homeric epic is, with the depiction of heroic character.
But the Argonautika is not. The problem is Apollonius’ Jason. It is not that he does not have the character of an Achilles or an Odysseus. He has no character at all. Like every other member of the cast, with the intermittent exception of Medea and a few cartoonish villains, Jason is quite blank, a stick figure. From the Aristotelian point of view, this looks like a failure on the poet’s part, and so, for those who wish Apollonius to be a success on Aristotelian terms, which require a hero, a salvage operation is called for. Various saving theories have been proposed: Jason is an antihero, or he is an Everyman. Jason’s lack of heroic character mirrors the author’s unheroic era. More recently, the theory embraced by Green has claimed that Jason is a new kind of hero—a hero of cooperative values. The quest is a group mission. Groups depend on cooperation for their success. Jason is the leader of this cooperative group. Therefore he is a new-style hero of cooperative values.7 Herakles, on the other hand, represents the old-style virtuoso approach to heroism, and so he must be ridiculed and expelled.
It is hard to see, however, how the Argonaut expedition surpasses other joint undertakings in degree of cooperativeness. Armies, for example, are, after all, groups. Certainly the great heroes of earlier Greek epic like to arrange matters so that they are themselves given maximum opportunity to excel, but at the end of the day they come back to the group council and discuss group policy, and the alienation from the group of a figure like Achilles, in the Iliad, is acknowledged by all to represent a disastrous breakdown of the system. Even more damaging to the theory is that, in the end, it is precisely a virtuoso display of solo superhero strength and skill in the Argonautika (the yoking of the fire-breathing bulls, etc.) that carries the day—a feat that would have suited Herakles right down to the ground.
Apollonius himself completely undercuts any glory Jason might claim for these magnificent deeds by making it clear that all credit for them goes to Medea’s magic potions. When in Book One the crew first assembles and Jason tells them they must choose a leader, all eyes instantly turn to Herakles. This delectably embarrassing moment passes only when Herakles declines the job, on the grounds that the person who organized the expedition should lead it. You would think that this act alone proved Herakles himself to be a hero of cooperation, but for adherents of the theory Herakles must be discredited so that Jason can be elevated in contrast to him. The strategy doesn’t work, for Apollonius not only fails to give Jason much in the way of heroic virtuosity (not to mention personality or character), he positively revels in applying to him forms of the word amechania, “distressed helplessness”: Jason sat mute, helpless with distress. Jason was gripped by helplessness. Stunned by amechania, Jason knew not what to do, etc, etc.
In the end, all that can be said about Jason is that he is weak and women fall in love with him. Within days of the mission’s start the Argo lands on Lemnos, where the women some time ago killed all the men. The Lemnians recognize that they need to reproduce, so they invite the Argonauts into their beds. The queen, Hypsipyle, pairs off with Jason, who shows up at the palace wearing a brilliantly embroidered cloak (he has a very good wardrobe). Jason enjoys this arrangement, and completely forgets about the fleece, until Herakles ferociously calls the crew’s attention back to it. Hypsipyle by then is pregnant, and she is heartbroken to lose her lover; Jason displays no emotion at all, as usual. Later, of course, Medea also falls in love with him. The depictions of her torment are Apollonius’ one extended attempt at the rendering of psychology (an instance of the Hellenistic fascination with abnormal states), and the reader is made to believe in and empathize with her passion, operatic though it is. Jason’s emotions are left underdescribed, though he is clearly delighted to have Medea’s magical powers put at his disposal. Green condemns Herakles as an egotist, but if Jason has any personality at all, it is that of the narcissist.
Why does Apollonius make his hero such a cipher—at best a foppish figure like Homer’s Trojan Prince Paris, whom Helen loved? The temptation to regard him as deliberately antiheroic—a satirical subversion—may persist. But that is to ascribe to Apollonius seriousness about matters to which he is completely indifferent. He has no interest in satire, in debunking heroic myths. Why should he? He is enchanted by them, and by the fun he can have with them, revealed in all their rich and exotic variation by the resources of the great library of Alexandria—the first great library in Western history—of which he was himself the head. He does not regard mythical tales as “good to think with,” or as a way to explore great moral issues, but as an infinitely luxuriant garden to play in, providing him with the stuff with which to make pretty, or prettily gruesome, pictures.
Green’s translation is lively and readable. A distracting stylistic tic, appearing as early as the prelude, is the stacking of verbs or verb phrases on top of one another without any connectives or conjunctions:
fording on foot the Anauros’s wintry waters,
saved from the mud one sandal, but left the other
stuck fast in the flooded estuary, pressed straight on…
This mannerism, which seems part of an effort to create a nervous heroic diction, is reminiscent of Hopkins and early Pound, who began his own epic with a free translation of a Latin version of Odyssey Book 11:
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also….
In keeping with his interpretative theories, Green’s translation keeps pushing Apollonius in directions he does not want to go. Sometimes it is hard to know whether he is deliberately altering the tone or has just lost control. Shifts from a high style to a lower one occur without discernible motive. For example, Herakles hears the summons to Jason’s adventure:
At the time he got the news of the heroes’ mustering
he’d passed Lyrkeian Argos on his way from Arkadia,
bringing a wild boar, live, that had browsed in Lampeia’s
thickets, beside the great marsh of Erymanthos,
and at the very entrance to the Mykenian assembly
had dumped it, wrapped in chains, from off his great shoulders….
It would take a poet of genius to come up with a word more gauchely inimical to the ultrarefined diction of Apollonius than “dumped.” (The Greek says “shook off.”) But Green uses “dump” elsewhere, again and again.8
These missteps sometimes take on lives of their own. Consider how Green renders Chiron’s farewell, in the passage quoted at the beginning of this review. Here is the full version:
Cheiron, Philyra’s son, came down to the seashore,
and where the waves break brine-gray, in the shallows
splashed fetlock-deep, great forehoof waving them on their way….
Waving his “great forehoof?” This is not, mercifully, in the Greek, which simply says “hand” (cheir—probably the root of the very name Chiron). Waving is of course a difficult action for a quadruped, but Chiron is a centaur; he has anthropoid arms and hands, well suited for waving. What was the point of introducing this strange image?
Green’s commentary is useful, and, with the rich glossary, provides enlightening and interesting information, as do the maps,9 though a desire to explain everything on the basis of historical “facts” sometimes combines with Green’s unsureness of taste to produce some arresting excursions. Apollonius says that the women of Lemnos killed their men because Aphrodite made the latter take up with Thracian women. Green is not satisfied:
According to [an ancient source], the reason why the men of Lemnos became disaffected with their womenfolk was that, since the latter ignored the ritual honors due to Aphrodite, the goddess, by way of revenge, afflicted them with dysosmia, unpleasant bodily odors (halitosis? rank armpits? vaginal yeast infection? all of these?), something Ap., decorous as always, refrains from telling us. There is also the unconsidered problem of just when, and how, the ladies ceased to be malodorous, since Jason and his crew clearly have no qualms about taking them to bed?
Apollonius did not address this “unconsidered problem” because in his version the unpleasant bodily odors don’t exist. Poets, after all, are free to choose or make up whatever version of a given myth they want. For the reader, assessing how much a new version “includes” or refers to older ones is a tricky business. Green simply assumes that there lies behind Apollonius’ retelling a “real story,” probably discreditable or unsavory, which the poet, “decorous as always,” tries to suppress—futilely, of course, when Green is on the case.
A translation is an attempt to extend readership, and is therefore an intrinsically generous-spirited and democratic thing. Who could be so coldly elitist as to object to it on principle? Apollonius’ poem is very little concerned with plot, the most translatable of literary functions; it is all about texture and allusion, the least translatable. Michael W. Haslam, one of Apollonius’ shrewdest students, and one of the most learned and astute Hellenists of our day, once remarked that “for a proper appreciation of Apollonius”—and he meant in Greek—“it is necessary to know Homer”—again in Greek—“off by heart, inside out and back to front.” He then instantly added: “I do not lay claim to a proper appreciation of Apollonius.”10 In a backhanded sort of way Green’s book concedes Haslam’s point: the interpretation on which the translation is founded simply gives up on the poem Haslam speaks of, which is the poem Apollonius wrote, and substitutes for it an oddly misshapen adventure story. Let the reader beware.
July 19, 2001
Green’s translation, slightly modified. All other translations are Green’s, except where otherwise noted. ↩
We know little about Apollonius’ life, and Hellenistic chronology is treacherous; the least risky way to date him is to say that he belongs to the mid-third century BCE. ↩
The Fourth Pythian Ode (462 BCE), his longest surviving poem by far (299 lines). ↩
It is of interest that Pindar’s decision to end here was reproduced in the popular retelling of the story by the Victorian man of letters Andrew Lang. Lang’s version is cited by Green in his preface as having exercised a formative influence upon him (p. xiv), and he seems sometimes to interpret Apollonius’ poem as if it were Lang’s adventure story. (Green refers to the English edition of Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece (London: Longman’s, 1907); the American edition (New York: Longman’s, 1907) did not include the Argonaut story, which had been published separately in this country a few years earlier, in a slightly different form (The Story of the Golden Fleece [H. Altemans, 1903]). ↩
My translation. ↩
J. Clauss, The Best of the Argonauts (University of California Press, 1993). ↩
See 1. 532, 956. In the passage quoted above in the text Green also misconstrues the syntax and so misrepresents the sequence of events. ↩
The maps, however, show signs of carelessness: in Map 1 the island of Salamis, off the coast of Attica, has been incorporated into the Megarian mainland; the name “Salamis” has consequently been moved south to accompany the island of Aegina, and the name “Aegina” has gone further south to the island of Calauria (itself now according to the map part of the Argolid mainland). ↩
M.W. Haslam, “Apollonius and the Papyri,” Illinois Classical Studies 3 (1978), p. 61. ↩