Jason And The Argonauts, and more Greek myths

If Clash Of The TItans or Jason And The Argonauts are your thing, then a few book recommendations right here...

This month, with help from BookBeat – who we thank very much for their support – we’re trialling a book club series of features, where we look at books, how they translate to movies, how they work in audiobook form, and just generally chat about a certain title. You can get a free trial of BookBeat – a sort-of Netflix for audio books – right here. Den Of Geek readers get a full month free trial, as opposed to the usual two weeks. But you need to click on that link to get it! 

This week? We’re looking at Greek myths…

The 1963 film Jason And The Argonauts, directed by Don Chaffey, with a soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann and featuring the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen, was my introduction to the myths of Ancient Greece, and I’d argue there could hardly be a better one. Harryhausen’s creations seemed both real and astonishing; the moment when the giant statue of Talos turns its head to look at those who have been foolish enough to steal from it, remains one of my all-time favourite cinematic moments.

There are so many big screen versions of Greek legends to choose from, and the best of them understand the appeal of the grand spectacle of visual entertainment. Whichever version of Clash Of The Titans you watch, you’ll get the kraken to look upon, and Troy (2004) gives us some vast battle scenes. Then there are the animated versions that can work just as well with no words at all, relying on image alone; try the short film Ariadne’s Thread by Attila Bertóti, or Marcell Jankovich’s Sisyphus. Those ancient stories still offer the opportunity to create a visual feast, and that’s without even mentioning the versions that update to modern times. It strikes me that a lot of the superhero movies that offer a pantheon of characters attempting to work together – with all the special powers, squabbling and unwise behaviour that usually entails – owes a debt to Mount Olympus and the capricious personalities of the Greek gods.

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But to think of these myths only in visual terms is to forget how they originated. I suspect one of the reasons why they make such great cinema is precisely because of the fact that they began as an oral tradition, giving storytellers free reign to describe, to embellish, to shape the stories and go free within the imaginations of the listeners. Which made me wonder – could these stories still be best experienced as part of that oral tradition? Do they still offer much if we choose to listen to them rather than watch them?

BookBeat has a wide range of myths and legends to listen to, and I chose to begin with the Naxos Junior Classics recording, Tales From The Greek Legends (Written by Edward Ferrie and read by Benjamin Soames). This makes a strong starting point for those who might not be up to speed with their gods and goddesses; it begins with the Titans, and the creation of man, and then speeds through Prometheus and Pandora before slowing down and really getting stuck into some very evocative storytelling about Perseus. Although this is aimed at a younger audience and is generally a bit workmanlike in getting the story across, it has a beautiful use of language at times that really works when being read aloud. Here’s the moment where Perseus first sees the Gorgon:

“The Gorgon came bursting out of its cave, screeching and spitting, its head a mass of hissing vipers. In its taloned hand it held a human thigh bone, and blood dripped from its scabrous mouth.”

It’s the kind of language you can really get your teeth into, and narrator Benjamin Soames does just that.

From Perseus we move on to the Labours of Heracles, and then to Theseus and Jason, so there’s a good range of classic heroes and adventures to choose from. One element that really helped to keep my attention and focus my imagination was the use of well-chosen pieces of classical music, not only between the stories but during key moments. For instance, the whole thing kicks off with Mars from Holst’s Planets suite. What a good choice to get listeners geared up for the tales of the Titans, and Chronos eating his own offspring.

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Hopefully the extract above and the reminder about Chronos’ behaviour will bring to mind the fact that Greek myths really aren’t dry, safe territory. Some horrible things happen during these stories, and I think that is part of their enduring appeal – they are about big events and emotions, living and dying and struggling against the cruel whims of the Gods. The Naxos recording doesn’t sugar-coat these things, and I don’t think a younger audience would need that anyway. Like the description of the Gorgon, a bit of dripping blood should be par for the course. More Tales From The Greek Legends is also available as an audiobook, including stories such as Orpheus and Eurydice.

If you’re already well-versed in these stories and want something a bit more challenging, then the Naxos recordings of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are also available, translated by Ian Johnston and narrated by Anton Lesser, who reads in a very clean and controlled voice, making the poetry accessible. These are more of a challenge, but still work very well as audio books, and are very different as an experience from watching one of the many screen versions which condense the events down to a compilation of the most exciting moments. You need to be prepared to commit to over twenty hours of listening if you decide to do both, and the language requires concentration, but there’s no doubt that these are some of the most enthralling tales ever told and listening to them brings a greater feeling of involvement and understanding.

Finally, for those who have already fallen in love with Homer, there’s the non-fiction exploration of his poems The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, available fittingly as an audiobook. Narrated by Dugald Bruce Lockhart, this book looks into why Homer’s works have continued to appeal to us through the generations, and why the questions they raise will continue to be of importance to us all. There’s so much to learn here about Ancient Greece, and about the origins of storytelling, but it’s also a personal voyage of discovery for the writer, which makes perfect sense, given the subject.

There can’t really be a genuinely traditional approach to experiencing Greek myths and legends nowadays, I don’t think. Oral storytelling depended so much on the talent of the teller, who would improvise, weave widely about the subject, draw in local knowledge and current events. This is a rare skill that so few people get to practice in this age. But that does not mean these tales belong only to the visual nowadays; I think it’s worth listening to these versions and engaging our own imaginations to conjure up the kraken and others. Why leave it all to the film-makers to do it for us, when nothing can rival the scope and wonder we can create in our minds?

Well, nothing but Ray Harryhausen’s Talos, maybe. I’ll love Talos forever.

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Audiobooks mentioned (available through BookBeat):

Tales From The Greek Legends by Edward FerrieMore Tales From The Greek Legends by Edward FerrieThe Iliad by HomerThe Odyssey by HomerThe Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson