Monday, June 23, 2014

Writing the Return – The Warrior’s Homecoming

I’m nearing the end of the first draft of Eagles and Dragons, Book III – Warriors of Epona.

This has been a very different book to write. The characters are farther along their path, and there are many new ones that have come onto the scene.

I’ve also left the marble of Rome, and the sands of North Africa behind for the fog-choked hills of Caledonia.

War has come.

My protagonist has fought a long hard campaign with his men, the most bloody and savage of his career. He’s been on campaign incessantly for about a year without the comforts of civilization or of Mediterranean warmth.

He faces an enemy that will not come out into the open most of the time, and supposed allies that he really cannot trust.

For him, life has been a constant cycle of fighting for survival. He has led his warriors, and killed for Rome, all for the purposes of advancing the Empire’s plans for conquest.

Modern Conflict
Indeed, one of the themes running through all books is that of the powerful few sending many to die on the battlefields of the Empire. The soldiers are at the whim of those roaming and ruling the corridors of power.

Sound familiar? My, how history does repeat itself.

Always at the back of my protagonist’s mind is the family that he misses. But if he thinks on them too much, if he loses his focus at any time, his enemies will tear him apart.

The warrior’s life has never been an easy one, especially when you have something to lose.

I find myself in an interesting position now, as I write the last few chapters of Warriors of Epona.

Homecoming Parade in the UK
It’s time, in a sense, for my protagonist to ‘come home’.

But how is that even possible after the life he has led? Can he really ‘come home’?

How have warriors, men and women, dealt with the aftermath of war?

In his book The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield asks a pertinent question:

“All of us know brothers and sisters who have fought with incredible courage on the battlefield, only to fall apart when they came home. Why? Is it easier to be a soldier than to be a civilian?”

In one way, perhaps life at war is more straightforward. Every day, every moment perhaps, your thoughts, your purpose, are focussed on the objective – take that position, hold that region, protect your brothers and sisters in arms, stay alive. In some cases, it’s kill or be killed.

Modern Conflict in Afghanistan
We’re back to primal instincts here.

Today, we have any number of soldier’s aid societies and government programs and guides that are intended to help veterans of wars reintegrate into society.

These groups do good work that is much-needed, but is it enough? How can non-combatants in civilian society understand the physical and emotional trauma that is experienced by warriors after the battle?

In the ancient and medieval worlds, there were no societies or organizations whose purpose was to help returning warriors reintegrate.

Spartan Warriors
Art by Peter Connolly
Granted, in warrior societies such as Sparta and Rome, the majority of warriors probably enjoyed the fighting.

Sparta, I should point out, is a unique example. All Spartan men were warriors. That was their purpose.

But in the Roman Empire, returning warriors would have had to reintegrate in a way similar to today, rather than ancient Sparta. Later Roman society valued not just fighting prowess, but also political acuity, the arts, rhetoric, skill at a trade, generally being a good citizen in society.

In some ways, the Roman Empire combined the best of both Spartan and Athenian societies.

Modern Warriors
However, going back to peace time in a civilian society after the straightforward survival life of a prolonged campaign on the battlefield would have been tough.

We read about legionaries coming back to Rome and getting into all sorts of trouble, their days and nights taken up with gambling, brawling, and whoring.

It’s no wonder that generals and emperors created coloniae of retired soldiers on the fringes of the Empire. In these places, veterans would not be able to cause trouble in Rome, but they would also be given the opportunity to have some land and make a life for themselves.

Family Reunion
In Warriors of Epona, my protagonist will soon be reunited with his family. He’ll be facing peace time.

How will he deal with this? How will his family deal with him?

War changes a person, whether it is in the past or the present day. It’s an experience unlike any other and I salute anyone who faces the conflict that comes with stepping from the world of war into the world of peace.

In the Roman Empire, they were two very different battlefields, as they are, I suspect, today.

How will my own character deal with the transition?

Only the next couple of chapters will be able to tell me.

Thank you for reading. 

Today, there are numerous organizations whose sole purpose is to help veterans, young and old, to make the transition from war zone to home front.

If you know someone returning from one of the many conflicts going on the world, here are a few resources:

US Department of Veterans’ Affairs guide to reintegration:

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America:

Soldiers’ Angels:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Argonautica - Part II – Heroes’ Deeds, Not Words

When Jason and the Argonauts left Lemnos, they were feeling pretty good.

Who wouldn’t after spending time on a beautiful island making love to women who hadn’t seen in man in years? The young heroes would have been feeling pretty positive as the Argo cut through the sea once more.

But, for men, happiness can be fleeting.

The Argo plies the sea through the Chersonesus and along the Dardanian coast. Again, Apollonius shows his knowledge of geography by detailing the many places and peoples that the Argonauts pass on their way through the Hellespont.

There are so many episodes along the way to Colchis that are ignored by modern productions. Of course, one film or two-part series can’t hope to capture them all. But they are wonderful and, I think, would make for a fantastic HBO series.

Six Arms Are Not Better Than Two

One such episode is when the Argonauts encounter the Doliones and their king, Cyzicus. The Doliones, descendants of Poseidon, are friendly and welcome the Argonauts with feasting and supplies. 
Jason builds an altar to Apollo on the beach, in thanks. The gods must be given their due.

The Earthborn
However, the Doliones’ neighbours, a vicious race of six-armed men, known as the Earthborn, seek to block the Argonauts’ way. Jason and most of the men are not there when the attack comes, but Herakles and a few others hold the Earthborn off with bows and spears until the others arrive. They slaughter the Earthborn on the beach.

When the Argo leaves the Doliones, great winds rise up and take them back to the island of the Doliones without them knowing it. This is where the tragic reality of Greek tales hits.

The Doliones take the returned Argonauts for Macrian enemies and soon a huge battle takes place between the two armies in which Jason kills King Cyzicus, his former host. Many Doliones die.

Both sides realize their error and they mourn and hold games for three days. Cleite, Cyzicus’ new young bride, hangs herself in her grief.

The Argonauts are held there for twelve days because of high winds and it is only after Mopsus, the crew’s seer, tells Jason that he must propitiate the great goddess that they are able to calm the winds.

They set sail, less happy than the last time they left the Doliones. The journey continues, and there are more storms, until they come to the land of the Mysians who welcome them with provisions, sheep and wine.

Dangerous Beauty

At this point we come to an episode that, I admit, I did not know was a part of the Argonautica. I’d known it from famous paintings, even recreations in movies such as Sirens. So, when I read this passage, I was pleasantly surprised, despite the tragedy it entails. Here's what happens.

During the storms, Herakles had broken his mighty oar, and so during the feasting he heads into the forest to look for a tree that will serve as a new oar.

While he is gone, his friend Hylas goes into another part of the wood to fill a pitcher with water so that he can prepare a meal. Hylas comes to the spring of Pegae where the nymphs are beginning their dances in honour of Artemis. The nymphs…

who held the mountain peaks or glens, all they were ranged far off guarding the woods; but one, a water-nymph was just rising from the fair-flowing spring; and the boy she perceived close at hand with the rosy flush of his beauty and sweet grace. For the full moon beaming from the sky smote him. And Cypris [Aphrodite] made her heart faint, and in her confusion she could scarcely gather her spirit back to her. But as soon as he dipped the pitcher in the stream, leaning to one side, and the brimming water rang loud as it poured against the sounding bronze, straightway she laid her left arm above upon his neck yearning to kiss his tender mouth; and with her right hand she drew down his elbow, and plunged him into the midst of the eddy. (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

Hylas and the Nymphs
Hylas cries out, but he is gone. Some of his comrades think a wild beast is attacking him and they go searching for him. While searching, they find Herakles who is overcome with wrath when he hears what has happened to his friend. The hero refuses to continue on the journey with the rest of the Argonauts, opting instead to remain in Mysia and search for Hylas whom he never finds.

Amidst much quarrelling, the Argo sails without its greatest hero.

This is certainly an interesting turn of events. In the Hallmark production, Herakles goes all the way to Colchis where he dies in battle, and in the Ray Harryhausen version, he stays to look for Hylas on the island of Thalos, who does not make an appearance in Argonautica until the homeward voyage.

We discover that it is the will of Zeus that Herakles not accompany the Argonauts to Colchis since he has yet to finish his Labours. As soon as the heroes discover this, their quarrelling ends and they press on. The Gods’ will must be respected.

Boxing the Bebrycians

The next part of their adventure is another that is often ignored, but I think it is a great part of the story that speaks to the power of youth and the Argonauts’ sense of adventure and optimism.

Ancient Boxers
When the winds die down, the Argo is forced to beach itself in the lands of Amycus, king of the Bebrycians. Amycus is a violent, arrogant man, and where the Argonauts have been well-received before, they now get anything but a warm welcome.

Amycus, a monster of a man according to Apollonius, tells the heroes that they will never be allowed to leave until one of them faces him in a boxing match.

Amycus is no slouch when it comes to fighting – he has killed many men with his challenge.
Polydeuces, the twin brother of Castor, and son of Zeus, steps forward to accept the challenge. He is young and powerful and known for his skill in boxing.

Amycus stands by, still and confident, watching the young Polydeuces step forward. Polydeuces carefully removes an ornate cloak that was given to him by one of the Lemnian maidens. He folds it, and begins warming up his body before tying the rawhide gauntlets to his fists.

The one seemed to be a monstrous son of baleful Typhoeus or of Earth herself, such as she brought forth aforetime, in her wrath against Zeus; but the other, the son of Tyndareus, was like a star of heaven, whose beams are fairest as it shines through the nightly sky at eventide. Such was the son of Zeus, the bloom of the first down still on his cheeks, still with the look of gladness in his eyes. But his might and fury waxed like a wild beast’s; and he poised his hands to see if they were pliant as before and were not altogether numbed by toil and rowing. (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

The two men begin to circle each other, Amycus taunting Polydeuces. But the latter does not give in to the taunts. Rather, he observes Amycus’ style, testing him, trading blow for blow.

Castor and Polydeuces
The youth is fast and gives as good as he gets before a break is called and the two step back. When they return to the ring, the fight is much more ferocious, and Polydeuces takes his chance to land a punishing blow on the side of Amycus’ head, crushing the side of the king’s skull and killing him instantly.

The Bebrycians rush to attack Polydeuces, but the Argonauts come to his aid, his brother Castor first, and they beat and kill many of the Bebrycians.

Another thing I noticed in this episode is that even though Argonautica is about Jason’s journey as a hero, to this point, he has not yet performed any great deeds. Though he has fought in battles and killed enemies, the king he did kill was his one-time friend and host, Cyzicus. It was a mistake. The glorious set pieces such as this fight with Amycus, are the deeds of others in his company.

Apollonius is building to something I think, by leaving Jason on the side. Perhaps the listener, or reader, is meant to begin doubting the youth as others do, the expectation built up?

But Jason’s time is coming.

Obeying the Gods

Another set piece that has received much attention in film and television is the Argonauts’ visit to Phineus, the blind prophet tormented by the Harpies. After leaving the land of the Bebrycians with spoils, the Argonauts come to the place where Phineus lives by the sea.

Jason and Phineus
Phineus was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo himself, but after he slighted Zeus by revealing too much to people, he was cursed with permanent old age and the loss of his eyes. He was also cursed with Harpies who would not let him eat anything.

When Jason arrives, we discover that Phineus is expecting him and knows of their mission for the Fleece. When they hear his tale, the young pity the old man and want to help him. In exchange, Phineus shares his wisdom.

When the Harpies come to attack, it is not Jason who attacks them, as in the Hallmark production, but rather fascinatingly, the sons of Boreas, Zetes and Calais, who take to the air to attack the Harpies. They come close to killing them, but Iris, a goddess of the sky and a messenger, as well as the Harpies’ sister, stops Boreas’ sons from carrying out the killings.

Iris swears on the waters of the Styx (the ‘water-tight’ oath feared even by the gods) that the Harpies will no longer bother Phineus. In the films, the Harpies are killed or caged.

The Boreads and the Harpies
The Argonauts make sacrifices to the gods and prepare a feast for the old man who devours enough food to sate his incredible hunger. Then it is time for him to tell Jason and his men what they can expect.

But he cannot tell them everything, having learned his lesson in revealing too much. To get to Colchis, he tells them that they must pass through the Cyanean Rocks, and how they can use a dove to help them get through. When they pass into Pontus, they are to keep Bythinia on their right. They must stop in the land of the Mariandyni.

This is where Apollonius continues to show off his geographical knowledge. Phineus goes through all the peoples and places they will see on their way – the land of the iron-working people, Amazons along the River Thermodon etc.

The Cyanean Rocks
They are to travel until they come to the River Phasis which will lead them to Aeetes’ capital in Colchis, and the Grove of Ares where a terrible dragon watches over the Golden Fleece where it hangs on an oak tree.

This impending danger strikes fear into the Argonauts’ hearts.

Jason asks if they will see Hellas again, and Phineus replies that they will, but with the help of many guides.

He does give one striking piece of advice. Phineus tells Jason that he must heed Aphrodite’s aid most of all, since the success of their entire quest depends on her!

This is where the Argonautica stands apart from all other stories, indeed it breaks new ground.

The theme of Love, and the romantic treatment of Love, was new to epics when Apollonius of Rhodes composed the Argonautica.

As we shall see in Part III of this series, Love will play a major role in the development of Jason as a hero.

Thank you for reading.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Argonautica - Part I - Epic Storytelling in the Age of Heroes

Beginning with thee, O Phoebus, I will recount the famous deeds of men of old, who, at the behest of King Pelias, down through the mouth of Pontus and between the Cyanean rocks, sped well-benched Argo in quest of the golden fleece. (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

Thus begins one of the most famous and influential stories to come out of ancient Greece. The story of Jason and the Argonauts has captured peoples’ imaginations for ages, and to this day it is held up as the supreme example of ancient epic.

Today, the story has been retold in cartoons, comics, movies, and television adaptations. Its grip on the popular psyche is firm, and its archetypes reverberate throughout western culture.

The Argonautica isn’t just another fanciful story, it’s a well thought-out tale, carefully crafted, enriched with geographic, ethnographic, and religious details that other ancient stories lack.

And to the ancient world, this WAS history! The lines of this tale are a who’s who of gods, goddesses and heroes whom the reader (or listener) meets in unusually candid moments.

Before I go any further, I have a confession to make.

Until just a few weeks ago, I had never read the text of the Argonautica.

Like most people, I suspect, my knowledge of the tale of Jason and the Argonauts came from popular movies, mainly the Ray Harryhausen and Hallmark productions of Jason and the Argonauts. Those two film and television movies were fantastically entertaining and I highly recommend them both.

However, they differ from the original text in many ways.

In this series of blog posts, I’m going to talk a bit about my experience reading the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, what elements stand out for me, and how it differs from the popular image of the story.

Before we get started, who was Apollonius of Rhodes?

A Hellenistic Bestseller

Apollonius was actually born in Ptolemaic Alexandria sometime between 296 and 260 B.C. He was a student of Callimachus, a famed poet and scholar at the Library of Alexandria.

Alexandria, during the Hellenistic age, was the centre of the world as far as education, research and the scholarly pursuits. Anyone who was anyone wanted to be there.

Apollonius composed and recited the Argonautica when he was a youth in Alexandria. Unfortunately, the poem was condemned on the Alexandrian scene, and some say that Callimachus was one of its slanderers, for he and his student, Apollonius, had a massive falling out.

Alexandria's Canopic Way
In Alexandria, it seemed that poetics was much more highly regarded than epics, which is what the Argonautica is. Kind of like the battle today between literary and genre fiction. Apollonius probably couldn’t stand his academic critics any longer, and so he moved to Rhodes where the Argonautica received much acclamation.

From then on, Apollonius considered himself a Rhodian.

Some other sources say that later in life, he returned to Alexandria where the poem received the credit it deserved, and that he even became head of the Alexandrian Library.

Like many writers, Apollonius had his own sources, oral and written, for his story. It seems that he may have drawn mainly on Pindar’s fourth Pythian Ode. But that is a much shorter work than the Argonautica.

Being from a more academic school, Apollonius did a lot of research and indeed he had access to a lot of sources in Alexandria.

When I set out to read the Argonautica, my main question was this: How does it differ from the modern film and television interpretations that had captivated me so?

I had my answer almost right away. It’s quite different.

Pelias in the Wings

The movies (film and TV) make much of the murder of Jason’s father, his fostering with Chiron the centaur, and of his return to Thessalian Iolclus to reclaim his birthright from his treacherous uncle, Pelias. He shows up at Pelias’ court wearing one sandal, fulfilling the prophecy Pelias so fears.

Argonautica makes very little of these things. There is only passing reference. The same is true of Pelias’ obsession with the Golden Fleece; in the Argonautica the search for the Fleece is more of an impossible task that Pelias hopes will end in Jason’s death, so that he never comes back to Iolclus.

Pelias’ real motive is to destroy Jason, not to obtain the Golden Fleece.

A Ship Full of Heroes

As with most ancient and medieval heroic epics, there is a list of the men involved at the beginning of the Argonautica. But this is no ordinary list of heroes, and Apollonius gives not just the names of the men, but also their lineage and deeds.
Some of the Argonauts

I won’t go through all fifty-odd names but there are some you might recognize…

First mentioned is Orpheus, the son of the Muse, Calliope. There is Polyphemus who had fought bravely in the war between the Lapiths and Centaurs, and Erytus and Echion the sons of Hermes. Mopsus is there to play a role, as he learned augury from Apollo himself.

Peleus, the father of Achilles, is a part of the crew, as well as Telamon and Argus, the ship builder whom the Argo is named after and who received help from the goddess Athena in building it.

Phlias the son of Dionysus is there, and Nauplius, Erginus, and Ancaeus, all three the sons of Poseidon.

Brian Thompson as Hercules
Hallmark production
Most famously of all perhaps, is that Herakles is a part of the crew. He is accompanied by his good friend and bow-carrier, Hylas. Other sons of Zeus that are there include Polydeuces and Castor from Sparta; they are the Dioscouri, or the Gemini, who were later remembered in the stars. Their mother is Leda.

Augeias, the son of Helios, Lernus, the son of Hephaestus, and Zetes and Calais, the sons of the wind Boreas, are all a part of the crew too. Jason is also joined by Acastus, the son of Pelias. Much is made of the latter in the movies, but in the Argonautica he is one of the lesser characters.

These are just a few of the heroes who make up the crew of the Argo. You can see that their lineage is nothing to spit at, and it’s no wonder the people of Iolclus (modern-day Volos) are in awe of them as they assemble on the strand beside Argo where they “shone like gleaming stars among the clouds”.

Iolclus - modern Volos, Greece
This is a story of the glory of youth, and of valour. When these heroes are setting out, there is a sense of excitement, anticipation, and of danger. The men are keen, but the women of Iolclus are weeping and praying to the gods, foreshadowing the potential doom.

The thing that really strikes me, and perhaps this is the genius of it, is that among all these heroes who are proven in battle and skill, divine descendants or not, Jason seems to be the only one (apart from Acastus) with no deeds to his name.

Jason is youth. Though he is surrounded by proven men, Argonautica, to my mind, is mainly about his own personal hero’s journey.

When all the supplies are loaded and the expedition is ready to sail, Jason turns to the men and says that all that remains is to choose a leader:

…and the young heroes turned their eyes towards bold Herakles sitting in their midst, and with one shout they all enjoined upon him to be their leader; but he, from the place where he sat, stretched forth his right hand and said: “Let no one offer this honour to me. For I will not consent, and I will forbid any other to stand up. Let the hero who brought us together, himself be the leader of the host.” Thus he spake with high thoughts, and they assented, as Herakles bade; and warlike Jason himself rose up, glad at heart… (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

As is common throughout the tale, the heroes pay their respects to the gods, in this case Apollo, by sacrificing and building an altar before finally leaving the land of Hellas behind.

Lemnian Women are Lovely

Apollonius displays his knowledge of geography, detailing the sights that the crew sees as they sail east, past the peninsula of Athos and the Thracian coast on the way to their first port – Lemnos. 

The episode on Lemnos is one that popular retellings often include. It is the island of Queen Hypsipyle who, along with all her female subjects, has killed all the men. But that is where the commonalities between the Argonautica and Hollywood end.

In popular culture, Hypsipyle and her women are demonized, portrayed as savage man-haters who seek to trick and kill the Argonauts.

However, Apollonius portrays the Lemnian women as more sympathetic. Turns out they killed their war-mongering husbands who shunned them all in favour of the slaves they had taken on raids. The Lemnian women live in fear of retribution if word should get out as to what happened to their men – they do all the work required to live, including ploughing the fields.

When the Argonauts arrive, Hypsipyle welcomes them, offering food and supplies so that they can leave the island. They have no wish to kill the Argonauts. Hypsipyle falls in love with Jason and wonders if she could get him and his crew to stay so that they could have children again, and be protected against the Thracians.

The Argonauts linger for a time until Herakles chides them for hanging about with women instead of pursuing their quest. Jason decides they should leave and tells Hypsipyle that should she have a son by him, she should send him to Iolclus to be raised by his own parents, both of whom are still alive.

It’s actually a touching parting, without animosity, and the Argonauts set sail once more.

Stay tuned for the next post as we continue our epic journey through the Argonautica.

Thank you for reading.