The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles

by Padraic Colum

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Themes and Characters

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Colum's task in retelling the story of the Golden Fleece was to make Jason, Heracles, Medea, and the other familiar figures in the tale credible. The most interesting figure is Jason, whom Colum portrays as hungry for glory but easily distracted, especially by offers of pleasure and comfort. Essentially weak, Jason is often driven by fear—an emotion rarely displayed by heroes in classical literature. When his uncle Pelias indirectly challenges Jason to bring back the Golden Fleece—the most treasured possession of Aeetes, the king of faraway Colchis—Jason sets forth on the Argo with a band of fellow heroes and explorers, primary among them the legendary strongman, Heracles (Hercules).
Colum's portrait of Heracles is convincing, especially when viewed against the weakness of Jason. A man of superhuman strength, Heracles demonstrates remarkable constancy and singleness of purpose. Colum's female characterizations are uneven; the sorceress Medea is far more engaging than Queen Hypsipyle of Lemnos, who never fully comes to life. The daughter of King Aeetes, Medea risks all to help Jason obtain her father's treasured Golden Fleece. With Medea, Colum portrays an essentially evil woman who, through lust for power and ill-considered love for an unworthy man, ruins her life and the lives of many others.

It is our doom that we must never cease from labor and that we must very quickly grow old.
By titling his work The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles, Colum shifts the emphasis of his tale away from Jason and toward the concept of heroes in general. The first Greeks to record their culture's legends for posterity believed that there had been a heroic age in Greek history, an era that boasted the likes of Jason and his companions on the Argo. These heroes lived for the sake of action—in this case, synonymous with fighting— and honor. Would-be heroes believed it better to live a short, glorious life than a long, uneventful life that would soon be forgotten. In keeping with this mentality, Jason realizes that he is unlikely to survive the quest for the Golden Fleece but, nonetheless, feels compelled to make the attempt.

Heroes were expected to respect their superiors and elders; to treat their guests with hospitality, their inferiors with kindness, and their prisoners with compassion. But occasionally, social expectations came into direct conflict with the quest for personal glory. Such conflict serves as the key by which Colum unlocks Jason's complex personality and, in the process, examines the true nature of heroism.

Early in their journey, the Argonauts land on Lemnos, an island inhabited solely by women. Jason and his companions intend to rest only briefly on the island, but the women welcome them and take several of the men as their consorts. Jason, however, abandons Queen Hypsipyle, leaving her pregnant. To her tearful objections he responds, "On the Quest of the Golden Fleece our lives and our honors depend. To Colchis— to Colchis must we go!" Jason's actions on Lemnos are symptomatic of a general flaw in his character. Later in the book he is again guilty of faithlessness when he spurns Medea—whom he has made his queen—for Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth. Medea's revenge is drastic; she casts foam from the jaws of a dragon upon Glauce, who dies in Jason's arms.

Colum also turns an eye to the relationship between gods and mortals, a common theme in Greek mythology. The Olympian gods and goddesses were stronger, wiser, and more beautiful than mere humans, but they were infamous for their extreme wrath when crossed. Attempting to place oneself on a level with the gods made a person guilty of hubris, the worst of all crimes. The story of Prometheus, sentenced to eternal punishment for bringing fire to humankind against the express wishes of Zeus, illustrates the dire consequences that awaited those who defied the gods.

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