Tuesday night, November 28th, our fantasy raading group, the "Burrahobbits", met at the home of Fr. Peter Schuessler. Peter provided a very congenial meeting place with yummy snacks and drinks, and we had a good session of cheery chat before settling down to discuss the evening's book, "Hercules, My Shipmate," by Robert Graves. Graves is best known as the author of "I, Claudius," but has written many other books of non-fiction, poetry, and other fiction applying his unique blend of historical research and invented interpolation. "Hercules, My Shipmate," (1945) is his retelling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. We found the book very interesting but not without problems. The book begins with a lengthy exposition of the religio-political history leading up to the events, particularly focusing on the struggle between the supposed indigenous Goddess religion and the patriarchal institutions of the Achean invaders who came to dominate the Greek peninsula. Interesting, but not exactly a swift start to a novel. The title character, Hercules, does not appear until the eighth chapter, but he is not really the protagonist anyway, that being of course Jason.
The book is a sometimes unwieldly mix of realism and the fantastic. The gods intervene in the affairs of men (although ambiguously, in dreams), there are apparently ghosts, Medea can do real magic, and of course Hercules has his miraculous strength. On the other hand, Graves (sometimes cleverly) demythologizes the Clashing Rocks, the Harpies, and the myth of Sysiphus. Centaurs are men with a Horse totem, and there is no unsleeping dragon guarding the Fleece, although there are guardians to outwit.
Graves' quest story seems influenced by both Sindbad the sailor and Hans Christian Anderson's "The Tinderbox", as the various members of the Argo's crew get to show off their skills in furtherance of the quest. The reading is rather dense, and one does feel that we would not have had to have every landfall and overnight stop recounted.
On the other hand, the wealth of detail does sometimes fascinate, and you end up with a feeling that you know a lot about the mythic-period cultures of the Black Sea and the Aegean, and Graves does succeed in making many of the Argo's crew inidividuals, with particular emphasis on Jason and the tragic Hercules, "whom all men admire, but none envy."