Sunday, February 05, 2012

My Library: The Voyage of the Argo

The Voyage of the Argo, or Argonautica, by Appolonius of Rhodes.

This was another on my wall of shame, at least until I read it in anticipation of writing this. This, as is not infrequently the case, was a book assigned for a class back in college. Specifically, it was for a class on Greek literature. I loved the class, not least because the professor was awesome. He was a Brit with that particularly fabulous British humor. Like Chris Hitchens, only discussing ancient Greek literature rather than how religion poisons everything*.

I think it's somewhat unfortunate that this translation is fifty years old (forty when I took the class), because from the first word the turn of the century attitudes of the translator cover everything. He talks about how it wasn't assigned to him to read when he was in school (in the original Greek) at the beginning of the twentieth century, and rather laments the fact. The translation was published in 1959, and it breathes stodginess.

It also breathes apologetics. As most apologists do (I'm thinking Christian apologists here), he's willing to forgive, explain, and defend everything about the poem in his introduction. For example, astronomy and geography: errors either weren't actually errors (the original Greek didn't say that Ursa Major set [which it wouldn't have back then, not in the view of Rhodes or Alexandria], but that it lay on the horizon), are excusable poetic license (particularly when he bows to Homeric tradition), are perfectly correct (in the locating of Elba off Italy's coast though not, admittedly, Sicily), or are acceptable ignorance (for a guy living in Rhodes and Alexandria, he actually knew a surprising amount about the geography of Germany and Switzerland, so the complete bolloxing of the Rhine and the Rhone is actually ok!). That the translator is unapologetically in love with the poem he's translating bodes ill and well. Passion for your work is good, but how much of his own interpretation and opinions made it into the work? It's bad enough that he transformed it from a poem into a novel (~200 pages).

Still and all, how accurate does it need to be? Even without reading the poem, I know everything there is to know about Jason and the Argonauts: He was a hero looking for a golden fleece (sheep's wool, unwoven) so he could marry a king's daughter, his ship (Argo) could sail itself... um, they had to carry it. He married Medea. He cheated on her. She killed his kids. Only in some ways the myth is told (damn the Greeks and their love of playing with a well-known story!) Medea wasn't an infanticidal mad-woman, but an incredibly devoted mother who sacrificed herself to save her kids. Maybe.

Okay, I don't actually know much about Jason and the Argonauts. However, I have to get points for knowing something about them from the age of 11, thanks to They Might Be Giants.

Apparently the epic poem had gone out of favor at the time Appolonius was composing this, and I think it really shows. I'd say we were thrown in in media res, but the story clearly starts at the beginning. It's just very abrupt. Very abrupt. It essentially begins, "Jason showed up with only one sandal so he got sent on a quest by this guy and these people went with him: [INSERT LONG LIST OF PEOPLE]."

And the story continues that way. "This guy started a fight! He's a jerk! Then they went HERE. They did stuff! Then they went HERE! And killed stuff! Then they went HERE! And left Heracles behind even though the story made a big deal about him being on the ship. Also some other guy. Then they went HERE."

Perhaps I'm being too hard on Appolonius; it might be the translation, but I really, really prefer the Odyssey. However, even then, that might be because I had an erudite and amusing Englishman to give me bountiful insights on many things. Still and all, I'm looking forward to when I get to the H's of my library.

All that said, it's an old poem that I think deserves to have survived, and it shows even through the prose translation (which, come to think of it, might have been done to save paper; a cost thing), and despite its brevity it's easy enough to follow, though a touch more difficult to get into. Perhaps my other problems are that I'm not particularly familiar with the wealth of Greek myths; perhaps, like Norse kenning, you have to be familiar with the broad** scope of myth and history here. It's like trying to do a crossword not knowing the four letter word for "1996 Tony Award Winner". Heracles showing up at the beginning of the story (because he has to, because Appolonius is putting his own spin on an old tale) and leaving when he has too is just understood, and his presence is sort of like Superman's in The Dark Knight Returns; you know who he is, so you don't need to know any more about him. He's larger than the story he's contained in.

Still and all, I do wish Appolonius had had the stones to write the poem the way it should have been. Good and long, with all the stupid details he wanted (even the excessive analogizing the translator occasionally cut out).

I'm glad to have this off of my wall of shame.

And now, They Might Be Giants.

Next: Four Plays by Aristophanes

* Classics 211, The Greek Experience, with this guy. What's amazing isn't that he's still teaching. What's amazing is that I was able to find out who he was. You can look forward to more books from his class (a lot of plays, an epic, maybe two, and a history book).

** Seriously, like wow.
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