Saturday, 18 February 2012

A word about sources...

The advantages of  a fantasy wargame setting are that no historical research is, of course, needed.  The tale of Jason, however, shares with more recent fantasy stories like the Lord of the Rings, a literary source and, of course, cinematic interpretations.  Where the Argonauts story is different is that there are different versions of the story which do not necessarily share the same elements.  This is because the ultimate source of the legend of the Golden Fleece is based on an older oral tradition not one definitive text.  It is also likely, over time that some of the leements of the Argonauts quest have been brought in from other, either earlier or later stories.  

In his fascinating look at the history of eighth century Greek sailors' voyages around the Mediterranean, Travelling Heroes, Robin Lane Fox reports that Homer included in his Odyssey elements that other authors attribute to the voyage of Jason (which as Homer said, was an old story at the time he was writing).  The two great trans-Mediterranean quest myths of Ancient Greece may well have been elided in places, therefore.  For this reason I feel quite happy in having my Argonauts come across the great Cyclops, Polyphemus.

So, in the case of the Quest for the Golden fleece we can pick and choose any of those elements that take our fancy.  Research is needed (and is a large part of what I find interesting about wargaming anyway) but the research just leads to a series of options not a set path.

The sources I am going to use for my quest are a mixture of old and new, not just in their origin, but in my knowledge of them.

The main source for the story is, of course, the Argonautika of Appolonius of Rhodes, who wrote his story in the third century BC, well after Homer.  It is a dense and difficult poem in the original Greek (it is the only extant example of Greek epic poetry that survives from the time between Homer and late antiquity) and prose translations inevitably miss much of the context of the original.  My Ancient Greek is even more limited than my Latin (which used to be better than it now is) so we will stick to the fine translation by Richard Hunter published in 1993.  Both Catullus and Virgil were influenced by the Argonautika and, given the comments about the Odyssey above, sections of the Aeneid show clear parallels with the earlier work: for example the characters of Dido and Medea.

Outside childrens' literature, not nearly as many adaptions of the story of Jason have been made as that of the Trojan War.  The very best of these is Robert Graves' 1943 novel The Golden Fleece (sometimes known as Hercules, My Shipmate in the US).  Graves treats the voyage of Jason as if it were a true piece of history, like the siege of Troy.  His approach has several singular elements that make it controversial but don't damage it as a fine re-telling of the story.  His is an early Greece on the crux of the change from the Bronze to the Iron Age.  It should be remembered that the entirely artificial delineation of ancient history into stone, bronze and iron ages is comparatively recent.  It is not something that Greek, Roman or even Renaissance scholars would have understood.  The classification was invented by Christian Thomsen in 1816 when he set to work cataloguing pre-historic relics for the planned Danish National Museum which opened in 1819 and, for the first time, divided up historical artefacts into those three periods.

We will return to Graves' novel another time but it posits a Greece where the bronze age original inhabitants have been conquered by iron-equipped invaders from the north who gradually replace the locals' triple goddess matriarchal pantheon with one headed up by a male god, Zeus.  The gods are ever present in the novel as motivators and causes of incidents but, critically, they only exist in the minds of men; which doesn't diminish their effect on the action, however.  Creatures such as Centaurs are just men who have domesticated horses for riding and nymphs are ordinary women who reject marriage in favour of free love tribes (there is quite a lot of free love in Graves' ancient Greece).  In fact, tribal and religious affiliation, often in the form of animal totems are important in this society.  The major criticisms of Graves' approach from historians is that he puts forward these ideas as historical fact, rather than just an interpretation of how the myths could have been explained by the more mundane (such as the centaurs).

My third "literary" source is the fine cartoon strip which appeared in Look & Learn magazine in early 1970. Illustrated in spare but elegant style by Franco Caprioli it featured pretty authentic bronze age dress, an excellent rendering of the Argo and seductive nymphs (for a childrens' magazine).

The Jason Voyage by Tim Severin (whose Viking novels I really enoyed) describes his attempt to recreate the Argo and then track the Argonaut's course through the Mediterranean and beyond.

The quest for the Golden Fleece is just one of four myths dealt with in this book but it is an interesting look at the peoples of the regions Jason and his crew would have visited and provides an explanation for some parts of the myth.

Last, but by no means least, are the two screen versions of the legend.  Firstly, of course is Don Chaffey's (who later went on to direct One Million Years BC) Jason and the Argonauts (1963) which I first saw on my uncle's colour TV in the late sixties or early seventies one Christmas (I think).  Ray Harryhausen's skeleton fight remains one of the best remembered action sequences from any fantasy film, quite rightly.  Filmed in Southern Italy rather than Greece, due to the better technical back up from the Italian film industry, it still feels gorgeously sunny and authentic.  Some of the acting is wooden but a (dubbed) Nancy Kovack flashes fire and (also dubbed) Todd Armstrong looks appropriately heroic, if too old for Jason.  A pre-Goldfinger Honor Blackman as Hera steals every scene.

Last, but by no means least, is the Hallmark Entertainment version of Jason and the Argonauts (2000).  Not nearly as bad as many reviewers make out, it has some great neo-Bronze Age production design.  It misses some elements of the story appearing in the Harryhausen production (such as Talos) but includes others (such as Hypsipyle and the women of Lemnos).

Anyway, these are quite enough alternative versions to generate some scenarios!  Now I need to get some more  figures painted!