The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles

by Padraic Colum

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Setting

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It is impossible to place the myths contained in The Golden Fleece within an accurate time frame. The events take place before recorded history and were already ancient when Homer composed his Trojan War epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in the eighth century B.C. Whereas archaeological discoveries have determined that some mythological stories—such as that of the Trojan War—are grounded in historical fact, the tale of Jason and The Golden Fleece belongs with certainty neither to the world of fantasy nor to that of reality.

The social environment depicted in The Golden Fleece is typical of a period known as the Greek Dark Ages, a sort of "vacant" space in Greek history between the fall of great cities such as Mycenae about 1200 B.C., and the reflowering of advanced civilization several hundred years later. People live in relatively small groups, completely dependent upon a king—a term often applied to the leader of the community—and fellow townspeople for security. The exterior world is viewed as hostile; any place beyond the boundaries of town is a potential battlefield, and any stranger represents a threat.

The route of Jason's travels can, with the exception of a few excursions into imaginary territory, be traced on a real map. Jason hails from a region of central Greece known as Thessaly, and his quest to find The Golden Fleece involves a voyage across the Aegean Sea. In the course of its journey, the Argo touches down at real islands, such as Lemnos, and then passes through the narrow straits that lead into the Black Sea. Throughout the tale, the physical setting is one of high mountains, dangerous beaches, dark forests, and seas alternately calm and stormy.

Literary Qualities

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Most young adults will probably find Colum's version of The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles uneven in quality; some passages are vividly and dramatically presented, while others seem lifeless. By their nature, epic stories demand a departure from the everyday idiom, and even Homer used a "literary" or elevated version of the Greek language to relate his epics. Colum too uses formal and dignified language, but some of his sentences depart so far from ordinary English speech that they are difficult to read. Colum's style may be explained, in part, by the fact that The Golden Fleece was written almost seventy years ago—a time when formality pervaded almost every aspect of life. Colum may also have felt hampered by the discrepancy between the age of his intended audience and the adult subject matter with which he was dealing. For example, in the 1920s a writer would have been reluctant to mention that Jason left Hypsipyle pregnant, although this is common fare in soap operas of today.

Social Sensitivity

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To the Greeks, a hero was a warrior, and the ideal state of heroism was a state of war. Wars were fought not to restore peace but to win glory. If a warrior desired glory and no war were at hand, he would often instigate some sort of skirmish—a situation that recalls Jason's decision to sail to Colchis and retrieve the Golden Fleece. The dire results of Jason's selfishness and fickleness stand without comment; clearly, the call to glory that distracts many a hero from fulfilling social obligations often brings forth disastrous consequences. The Golden Fleece may stimulate student discussion about the changing criteria for the "hero" in ancient and modern civilizations.

For Further Reference

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Bowen, Zack. Padraic Colum: A Biographical- Critical Introduction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970. Bowen was a friend of Colum's as well as a student of his work, and Colum helped prepare this study. It contains an account of Colum's life and separate chapters describing and evaluating his poetry, drama, fiction, biographies, and essays.

Bowra, C. M. Heroic Poetry. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964. Bowra discusses epic poetry, which is derived from myth, and examines some of the heroic ideas that pervade the story of Jason.

Bulfinch, Thomas. Mythology: The Age of Fable. Bergenfield, NJ: New American Library, 1962. The first volume of a famous and highly respected multi-volume work. Contains other versions of the same myths re-told by Colum in The Golden Fleece.

Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: W. W. Norton, 1932. Written by the outstanding Greek scholar of this century, this book describes the values by which the ancient Greeks lived.

Mythology. New York: W. W. Norton, 1965. A readable introduction to the myths of ancient Greece and other cultures.

Hook, Sydney. The Hero in History. New York: John Day, 1943. This academically challenging book examines the nature of heroism.

Sternlicht, Sanford. Padraic Colum. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This book, like Bowen's, is a comprehensive account of Colum's life and work. It includes a useful bibliography of works by and about Colum.

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