Epic and Romance in the ‘Argonautica’ of Apollonius (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale IL; 1982) 191pp. with a forward by John Gardner
The brilliant novelist and critic John Gardner recruited me to write this book for a series he created called “Literary Structures.” One of the more enduring memories of this association is the exchange of letters with Gardner after he had read the manuscript. At first he vehemently if not brutally castigated me for the dullish academic prose in which I had timidly dressed the subject matter. Suddenly I had permission, indeed was encouraged, to discard the prose style into which I had been inculcated from graduate school days right on into submissions of articles to learned journals. My previous books had escaped this fate because I had thought of them as being read by cultured, educated learned non-academics. This book was the first that I thought would have a more specialized audience--I mean, who read Apollonius? But Gardner wanted his series to serve some literary community he had as his ideal, not a group of scholars. By his inspiration I proceeded then and thereafter to write exactly the way I chose. Beyond that cavil his objection to some of my ideas, his encouragement in expanding others, his careful attention to my language-- all this in letters hand typed late at night or so he claimed, and when he had enough to drink to make him drunk another claim offered, I presume, as an ironic disclaimer to the seriousness of the letter’s contents-were delivered in strong, clear, precise prose that made me tingle at the thrill of reading it.
I first read the Loeb translation of the Argonautica when I was traveling around the Greek islands on the Olivia James Traveling Fellowship in autumn 1963. Having spent my graduate years studying the Homeric poems, I was naturally curious about a poem which the handbooks claimed was in the epic tradition. It seemed like an easy read for traveling. But I was surprised--rather repelled actually--at the strange shocks of language, of style, of narrative development that I confronted in line after line of the poem. So this, I said to myself, is what Hellenistic literature is all about, and put the book aside. It wasn’t until I was working on The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Epic Tradition that I gave it another look, since I was obliged to say something about it as a major feature of the epic tradition. In fact I did not say much; the second read left me confounded. Still I was intrigued, maybe slightly thrilled at the way Jason seemed to me to be mocked by the narrator. Could I be right in reading the poem this way? was the question I kept asking myself. The only way to find out was to study the poem, and for this I decided to give a seminar for my brightest undergraduate majors. Around 1970 Boston University’s classics department had an exceptional group of youngsters studying the classics. Ricardo Elia, Michael Fiveash, Leah Rissman, and Danny (later Blaise) Staples were the core four: their capacity for reading Greek was exceptional, their wit was rapid and constant, their English language style was first-rate, their imagination and originality always evident. As we worked through the first book of the poem I timidly suggested places where the narrator seemed to be deliberately funny in mocking the epic manner, the epic notion of a hero, and as I did so the core four would burst into laughter, again and again arguing that I was not going far enough, themselves finding extensions of what had seemed amusing to me. They were the perfect audience and as much the author of this book as myself. But several years later, when I gave this same seminar at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens to some graduate students of exceptional abilities and professional development there stood out in that group a certain Mary Margolies (later Deforest) whose extraordinary intelligence and originality inspired her to go beyond my ideas to argue for a vital connection between Apollonius and Callimachus that is the essential story line’s subtext throughout the Argonautica. Years later she realized these ideas in a book of her own entitled Apollonius’ Argonautica: A Callimachean Epic.
There are so many perspectives from which the Argonautica fascinates. Perhaps Apollonius’ single most daring maneuver is the addition of Medea as a strong figure in the narrative. She starts out as the traditional female helper figure combined with the virgin to be snatched away. Then as she becomes more significant in the story line, the reader is encouraged to assimilate her to the image of the traditional side kick in a traveling man’s story or the junior partner in a buddy bonding scenario until finally by her daring, courage, and magical power she becomes the centerpiece, the major hero in a male’s epic story. The displacing of Jason is the most daring assault on the primacy of masculinity in all of ancient literature, surely all the more shocking because it occurs in the genre which more than any other is devoted to the valorization of males. Equally interesting is to consider how Jason is the ancestor of the insecure, depressed Aeneas whom Virgil gives us glimpses of while setting him on the world stage as civilization’s hero and savior.