Jason and the Argonauts

Myths and Legends: Jason and the Argonauts
by Neil Smith
Illustrated by Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena

A bloody betrayal and a smuggled child lead to Jason returning to the home he never knew to claim the throne that should be his by right. The king agrees to step aside, but only if Jason will prove his worth by fetching the mythic Golden Fleece. And so Jason must gather a crew of heroes and sail the Argo to the end of the world, battling through ferocious monsters and sailing through incredible obstacles to reach his prize. Even once he has it, though, he must return home through a separate route even more dangerous.

I think I’m fairly normal when it comes to mythology: I like the ideas of mythology, but have rarely if ever really read the original stories. I’m content to get the stories through movies or modern remixes (a la Percy Jackson). So, when I heard of Osprey Adventures’ new series Myths and Legends and the first entry was Jason and the Argonauts, well, I signed up to take a look!

The back of the book promises:

Filled with magic, monsters, sword fights, and sacrifice, this ancient adventure story is given new life by Neil Smith, who also examines its historical context, its classical stories, and its enduring legacy.

All in all, a neat concept for a book. I remember getting a book in grade school that examined Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii. Every-other chapter focused on a slave girl in Pompeii the day that Mt. Vesuvius erupted. It showed her daily life and the chaos that ensued when the fury of the gods descended. The other chapters focused on modern day excavations around the old volcano. The book really affected me; it may have been the first story I read that had a sad ending. I really expected that slave girl to escape!

When I read the concept for this series, I thought it would be something similar. Let’s check it out!

This slim volume starts with an introduction outlining the main sources Smith used in his rewrite. Not exactly thrilling reading, but it makes sense to start there. The bulk of the rest of the book is a retelling of the legend. There are occasional sidebars that inform; for instance, one sidebar on “Bronze Age Warfare” proved very helpful in telling why Jason acted in certain ways. Other sidebars talk about Greek sailing practices, Jason as he appears in the movies, and other myths that inform and touch on Jason.

Smith’s writing felt more like a report about a legend than a dramatic restaging that captures the imagination. I hope Smith chose this method of writing because it hewed closer to the source material; if so, then props to him for giving the reader a feel of the original. If he chose to do this because it was the only way to compress the legend into the space of the book, I have a bone to pick with the editors. There was so much telling and so little showing that I never got a feel for the characters.

One of the problems presents itself in massive infodumps. The first paragraph of the story:

The story of how Jason and his Argonauts retrieved the Golden Fleece begins in the small kingdom of Iolcus in eastern Greece. It was here that Peias usurped the throne from his half-brother, Aeson, in a ruthless coup, and launched a reign of terror. An oracle had warned the new king that he would die at the hands of a decendent of Aeolus. Pelias therefore set about killing every Aeolian he could lay hands on, but spared Aeson for the sake of their mother. Aeson instead had to renounce his inheritance and remain a prisoner in Pelias’s palace. The king’s mercy did not extend to any child of Aeson’s, however; so when Aeson’s wife gave birth to a son, she and her midwives pretended he was stillborn. He was then smuggled out of the city to the safety of Mount Pelion where Cheiron the Centaur raised him as Jason. On reaching manhood, at the age of twenty, Jason set off for Iolcus to recover his rightful inheritance. Cheiron wished him well and waved goodbye, and, with that, Jason walked off to find his destiny.

I get we don’t want to spend scads of time on Jason’s childhood. I understand that the focus of the legend is Jason’s journey. However, who is Aeolus? In context, I understand he must be related to the rightful king and the usurper, but the relation isn’t clear. The writing holds little drama. I want to feel the danger here. We hear about a “reign of terror.” What did he do that made him such a bad king besides usurping the throne? Also, I love the simple, “Oh, yeah, he was raised by a centaur, and when it was time to leave, they said goodbye and parted ways.” Was it so matter-of-fact in the source material?

Thankfully, such infodumps are relatively rare, but they’re all toward the front of the book – a bad place to lose interest, you know? We get a nice list of the heroes that join Jason and become the Argonauts, but we’re told very little besides their special set of abilities.

Also, I’m pretty sure there’s not a single set of quotations marks in the whole book. Here’s a good  example of the prose:

The Argonauts sailed until they beached for the night on land belonging to Amycus, the arrogant king of the Bebryicans. Amycus believed that no one could beat him at boxing, and had decreed that anyone attempting to leave his lands must fight him first. The king’s many victories over his neighbors led him to believe that these newcomers would prove equally weak, and he set off down to the beach to confront the Argonauts. Jason’s crew grew steadily angrier as they listened to Amycus’s challenge. Polydeuces in particular became incensed, and he stepped forward to champion the Argonauts. Amycus glared like a cornered lion while Polydeuces took off his fine cloak, a present from a Lemnian woman. The king’s cloak was of much rougher cloth, like the man himself, and he threw it down in contempt.

Smith’s narration is top-notch when it comes to describing action and tense situations. When it comes to speaking parts, though, the prose stumbles mightily.

Much of the epic focuses on action, though, and Smith does very well there. Descriptions of the Argonauts battling harpies or walking across a desert bring all the danger to life. He gives us the shape of the legend in grand fashion, taking us from episode to episode on the epic.

And the illustrations! Pena does a masterful job with lush paintings. I’d be happy to hang his illustration of Talos the Bronze Man on my wall. It tickles the imagination just right!

I wish you could see this in the book — the digital image doesn’t do the print edition justice. It’s gorgeous!

The editors (possibly Pena in his role as illustrator?) also add in pictures of classic depictions of Jason and his adventures. And here I’m confused. The book itself is short; only 80 pages. It’s 8.5×11 inch paper, though, so it’s not as tiny as you might think. I felt this book was aimed at mid- to upper-grade school. However, many of the classic illustrations depict Jason as naked, in all his glory. I get that it’s classical art, and this is hardly sexual (in fact, the book does a good job of not shying away from sexual content in the adventures without making anything explicit). Yet, I remember being a grade school boy. At that age, any depiction of naked isn’t art; it’s an excuse to snicker.

[edit: I have since found out that Osprey, in general, publishes historical handbooks of this size clearly aimed at adults who want to get into the nitty-gritty of history. I scanned some of their selections, and (no surprise!) Osprey knows its audience. I’m going to alter my original review a bit at the bottom based on this new information.]

And again, the style of the prose. I kept returning to the thought that this was a report about Jason, and not a dramatic retelling. Did Smith make a conscious decision based on the source material, as I already posited? Did he have a word-count limit, forcing him to compress? I don’t know. I can say that this book suffered due to the prose style.

In the end, I enjoyed the book and would love to see a true retelling of Jason and the Argonauts. I found my imagination fired and would love something deeper; that appreciation of the legend might not exist if I hadn’t read the book. However, if I wasn’t reading this for review, I’d have a very hard time making it through the opening sections with their thick infodumps. On the other hand, the dazzling art might have pulled me through to the more exciting parts. [But see my added notes below for more on my verdict.]

I’ve got one more book in the series to read, graciously supplied by Osprey Adventures for my review. I’m hoping the next one overcomes the issues I had with Jason!

[edit: Having learned some of the purposes of this book, I’m changing my final verdict a little. I did some searching online, and found that many people seemed to be using this as a plotline for roleplaying games. Used for that purpose, this book is amazing. It outlines the episodes in the overall adventure, showing what would be necessary to defeat each obstacle in the journey. I still stand by my review for just plain reading, but for some of its more intended purposes — plain information regarding history and an outline for a role playing game? Yes. Excellent. Go for it!] 

Legal nuts and bolts: I received Jason and the Argonauts from Osprey Publishing for the purpose of this review.

Harpies!
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