November 13, 2014
(++++) GRAND ADVENTURES, ANCIENT AND MODERN
Jason and the Argonauts. By Apollonius of Rhodes. Translated by Aaron Poochigian. Penguin Classics. $15.
TodHunter Moon, Book One: PathFinder. By Angie Sage. Illustrations by Mark Zug. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99
The Magic Thief, Book Four: Home. By Sarah Prineas. Illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo. Harper. $17.99.
The roots of modern mythmaking run deep, eventually traveling all the way back in time to the epics of the ancient Greeks and Romans. And those epics can still thrill and even enthrall modern readers, as becomes clear in Aaron Poochigian’s first-rate new translation of Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes – a poet of the third century BCE of whom very little is known. The story of the Golden Fleece, told in many versions and with many variations, is familiar, however, and Apollonius’ epic poem is the primary source for much of that familiarity. By Homeric standards, it is a brief epic – fewer than 6,000 lines, compared with more than 15,000 in the Iliad. It is also a far more modern-seeming work than Homer’s, actually discarding many notions of heroism that were already considered old-fashioned in Apollonius’ time and instead presenting a conflicted, frequently weak and ambiguous character in Jason – and a story that turns not on manly deeds and martial homosexuality but on intense heterosexual love between Jason and Medea, princess of Colchis and a powerful sorceress. Indeed, it can be argued that Medea, more than Jason, is the central character of the work: it is her thinking, her emotion, her willingness to abandon her homeland and help Jason, that make the success of the quest possible. Poochigian does a fine job of retaining the ancient epic style, which includes numerous heroic similes – extended comparisons of one thing or emotion to another, woven in language that entwines the reader. For example, soon after Medea and Jason meet, Poochigian’s translation goes as follows: “As when a workwoman, a hireling drudge/ whose livelihood is spinning yarn from wool,/ piles kindling around a burning brand/ so that there might be light beneath the roof/ at night, since she has woken very early,/ and from that one small brand a fire spreads/ marvelously and eats up all the twigs,/ so all-consuming Eros curled around/ Medea’s heart and blazed there secretly.” This is a wonderful and in some ways very modern depiction of the internal heat generated by sexual and emotional passion, and is typical of Poochigian’s handling of Apollonius’ material. Jason and the Argonauts is in four books, the third and fourth focusing on the relationship between Medea and Jason and being more interesting to modern eyes than the first two – although the passage through the Clashing Rocks in the second book is one of the most famous scenes from the whole work. So effective are the poet’s depictions of characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, especially Medea’s, that Jason and the Argonauts at times reads like a prototype of a romance novel as well as a source for modern mythic fantasies. And Jason’s behavior, often “unmanly” by Homeric standards, also gives Jason and the Argonauts a distinctly modern tinge. For example, it is Medea (not Jason) who conquers (through enchantment) the Golden Fleece’s guardian serpent – “Jason, terrified, came on behind her” – and it is this that enables Jason at last to obtain the garment; and at this point, Apollonius compares Jason not to a figure such as Herakles (who appears several times in Jason and the Argonauts as an old-fashioned contrast to “modern” adventurers) but to a young woman: “Just as a maiden catches in a gauzy gown/ the shimmer of the full moon as it rises/ above her lofty chamber, and her heart/ rejoices as she looks upon the light,/ so, then, did Jason hold the great fleece up.” And, a few lines later, “He started with the fleece around his neck/ dangling from his shoulder to his ankles,/ then rolled it up and stroked it, fearing greatly/ some man or god would come and take it from him.” Jason and the Argonauts is a wonderful story, easier to read in Poochigian’s translation than in many earlier ones, and a delight to discover or rediscover as an ancestor of so many lesser, modern “epics.”
These days, with the exception of such epic fantasies for adults as those of J.R.R. Tolkien, the notion of heroic quests tends to take a back seat to matters of magic, psychology and personal relationships, in works as different from each other as those of Deborah Harkness, Lev Grossman and Kim Harrison. The heroic-quest model is more the province of books for young readers nowadays, examples being the Septimus Heap tales by Angie Sage and the Magic Thief sequence by Sarah Prineas. Both of those series have new entries now, and although neither is as fully satisfying as earlier books by Sage and Prineas, both will please readers ages 8-12 who enjoyed the earlier novels. PathFinder is the first book of a sequence spun off from the Septimus Heap tales, set seven years after the last of those books and focusing on a set of new characters plus a number from the earlier series – resulting in a book with rather too many characters and a work that, while it can be read on its own, will be much more interesting for readers who followed Septimus’ adventures. The main focus here is on Alice TodHunter Moon, nicknamed Tod, and her siblings, Oskar and Fergie. Tod’s mother is dead; her father disappears early in the book; and her aunt, who is supposed to take care of her, is abusive. The village where they live is in some sort of trouble: children keep disappearing – Fergie is gone one night, leaving Tod and Oskar to go on a rescue quest and uncover an evil plot. None of this is particularly original, and while there are some good action sequences here – and some intriguingly evil monsters – there are also distracting sections referring to the Septimus Heap books. PathFinder starts rather slowly and hits its narrative stride rather late, although, again, fans of Septimus will enjoy revisiting characters and events from the earlier series and will not find that matters drag or become confusing – as readers unfamiliar with the earlier books will. Sage’s style here is somewhat uneven: characters change disconcertingly (for instance, Oskar is sometimes impulsive and sometimes thoughtful, with no apparent reason for the difference), and adults in the story sometimes believe the kids but sometimes don’t. The book is a bit of a hodgepodge, becoming really interesting only when, later in the story, the action focuses more firmly on Tod and the references to the past diminish. This is a (+++) novel, clearly intended primarily for fans of Septimus who longed for a return to his world.
The Magic Thief: Home is also a (+++) book aimed at readers who want to revisit the fictional past – in this case, earlier Prineas books – and find out more about the story of Connwaer (Conn), the dragon Pip, and the city of Wellmet. In fact, this is what can best be regarded as the fourth book of a trilogy. It picks up where the third left off: Conn, Nevery, Benet, Rowan, Embre and Captain Kerrn are all here, as of course is Pip. The third book, Found, ended with Conn bringing a new, “younger” magic to Wellmet to supplement the older, weakening magic there, but in Home, the two magics are working poorly together and things are not going well. Rowan, ruling with resolve as duchess despite her youth, wants Conn to be the head wizard (known as the ducal magister) and solve the problem; Conn is not particularly interested; but then locus magicalicus stones are stolen and Conn is suspected of being the thief – putting him, in a sense, right back where he started. So he has to find the stones, clear his name, and figure out who has been taking them and why – and what that has to do with magic being in disarray. There is the same blend of magic, action, intrigue and politics here as in the first three books, marking Home as a continuation of what has come before rather than an extension of the story into new realms. The main benefit of Home, which eventually brings the series (now a quartet) to a satisfying conclusion, is that it ties up some loose ends. Conn has to grow into his personality, figuring out just who he is and where he belongs: he has always felt too much a gutterboy for the palace, too civilized for Twilight, and not respectable enough for the mages. Conn also finds out here that doing things entirely on his own, as he must in Home, is not as good an idea as he thought when he accepted the help of others only reluctantly in the earlier books. In other words, Conn matures here in a way that he did not in the earlier books, and for that alone, Home is worth reading for fans of the Magic Thief sequence. But it is only for such fans – it moves the tale beyond the earlier books but makes no attempt to recap them, so anyone interested in finding out the whole story needs to start with the first book (simply called The Magic Thief) and work through Lost and Found before getting to Home.