Jason and the Argonauts by Neil Smith
Jason and the Argonauts, retold by Neil Smith and illustrated by José Daniel Cabrera Peña, is one of a sequence of books in a new series by Osprey Adventures entitled MYTHS AND LEGENDS. It’s a pretty straightforward text, and serves as a solid introduction to the story beyond the highly abridged versions one gets in schoolbooks. One wishes, though, for a bit more verve in the storytelling itself.
The introduction is a very brief (one and a half pages) essay placing the story in historical context in terms of when it is assumed to be set, gives a little information on the two authors mostly credited for the versions of the story as we now think of it (Apollonius of Rhodes in the 3rd century B.C. and Gaius Valerius Flaccus in the 1st century A.D.) and on which this tale is mostly based. Finally, it mentions the tale’s connection to other adventures, such as the Arthurian cycle and Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS. The rest of the text, about 70 pages or so, is the tale itself, enhanced by illustrations and brief sidebar excursions into areas of interest.
As mentioned, we get much more detail regarding Jason’s adventures than usual, and my guess is that most readers will be pleasantly surprised by the number of adventures Jason and the Argonauts encounter, as well as how varied their exploits are, including navigating ocean dangers, fighting off harpies and giants, facing armies, and dealing also with the more mundane dangers of the world — wild boars, poisonous snakes, and the like. Those who have seen either the famed Harryhausen movie version or the less-famed made-for-TV one might recognize more of the adventures, but as both movies truncated the story and took creative liberties, Jason’s journey should still seem fresh. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the prose, which is always serviceable but never more than that. It’s a step above mere summary, but not much of a step, feeling like a student’s report for school, and one wishes for more originality and energy throughout.
The illustrations, however, go a good way toward making up for the text’s shortfalls. Peña’s artwork is powerfully evocative in full-color (including several full-spreads) and those not in color are also quite well done if lacking the same impact. Other illustrations pepper the tale — reproductions of classic paintings, stills from the two movie versions, Greek urn art — and serve to inform the reader, enhance the story, and heighten the energy level.
The story is also fleshed out with a few brief sidebars: Bronze Age ships, Bronze Age warfare, movie versions of the legend, a quick explanation of the origin of the Golden Fleece, a crew list of the Argo, and a few maps. The sections are concise yet informative and often interesting in their own right, and the same can be said of some of the longer illustration captions. Finally, at the end of the text is a selected bibliography.
To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed in Jason and the Argonauts, due solely to Smith’s flat retelling, which ably and concisely summarizes and that’s about it. Peña’s illustrations though, along with the sidebar information, save the book from the prose, salvaging what would have been a failed opportunity in solely textual form and making Jason and the Argonauts a worthwhile if unexciting read. I’d call it “informative” and “complete” more than exciting or entertaining. Something you might read or give to a student in tandem with a more energetic and creative storyteller-like retelling. Since other works in the series are handled by different authors, I’ll be interested to see if they take the same tack.