The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles
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The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles is a popular retelling of classic Greek myths by Irish folklorist Padraic Colum. First published in 1921, the collection includes illustrations by Willy Pogany. It won a Newbery Honor in 1922.
Though Colum died in 1972, his collection has been updated and republished many times, including a 2010 version with an introduction by Rick Riordan, who is the author of the famous Percy Jackson series based on Greek mythology. One of Colum’s best-known works, the legends, fairytales, and myths in Colum’s collection include stories about gods, mortals, and fantastic creatures. Themes include war, love, sacrifice, selfishness, honor, duty, and transformation, among others. While well-known characters such as Jason, the Argonauts, Zeus, Prometheus, and Circe flesh out the pages, lesser-known characters also get their due, including myths about the slaying of Apsyrtus, King Aetes, and the Lemnian Maidens. Though considered a children’s book, the stories, told with rich, poetic language, will appeal to young and old readers alike.
The book is broken up into three main parts, the catalog of stories centering on Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. The overarching story is that Jason and the Argonauts set off on a journey to find and bring back the mythical Golden Fleece for King Pelias. This arduous task is ordered by the King as a way to place Jason on the throne of Iolcus as its rightful ruler. King Pelias, however, has been warned about Jason and really wants him to travel far away from the kingdom. Nevertheless, with Medea’s help, Jason obtains the fleece. The rest of the myths in the collection relate to this central story in some way.
Part I stories include “The Golden Fleece,” “The Argo,” “King Pelias,” and “The Youth Jason,” among others. In “The Golden Fleece,” Jason learns of King Pelias’s scheme to have him seek out the Golden Fleece. Jason realizes that King Pelias really just wants Jason far away from the kingdom because he perceives him as a threat. King Pelias also knows that the task is so daunting that Jason might die, thus riding him of his worry (King Pelias had been warned by an oracle about Jason). Despite this knowledge, Jason accepts the task in the hope of winning a name for himself.
Part II stories include “Medea the Sorceress,” “The Carrying of the Argo,” “The Winning of the Golden Fleece,” “Medea Comes to Circe,” and others. In “The Winning of the Golden Fleece,” Jason and the Argonauts perform painstaking tasks that King Aeetes, the King of Colchis, asks of them in order to obtain the Golden Fleece. These three tasks include plowing a field with the help of terrifying, fire-breathing oxen, which Jason has to yoke; sowing dragon teeth into the field—teeth that then become an avenging army; and taming a serpent that guards the fleece. With Medea’s help (Medea is the daughter of King Aeetes, but the gods intervene, causing her to help Jason with his tasks), Jason performs all three tasks. Medea gives him a charm/ointment to protect him from the oxen; she instructs him to throw a large boulder at the army (the Earth-born men), which causes the army to fight amongst itself as it’s not bright enough to figure out where the rock came from; and she sings a magic song that causes the serpent to fall asleep.
Part III stories include “Atalanta the Huntress,” “Theseus and the Minotaur,” and “Jason and Medea.” In “Theseus and the Minotaur,” Theseus is assisted by Ariadne in defeating a horrible minotaur that resides in a labyrinth. He later goes on to figure in Herakles’s (Hercules) stories. “Atalanta and the Huntress” is a myth about a huntress who assists in tracking down a monstrous boar; the popular Herakles’s stories are about the near-impossible feats of Herakles.
In addition to being a folklorist, Padraic Colum was a poet, playwright, dramatist, and novelist. Considered one of the leading figures of the Irish Literary Revival, his notable works include the 1902 play, The Saxon Shillin’; and the 1916 children’s novel, The King of Ireland’s Son.
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