The Golden Fleece (1944), also sometimes known as Hercules, My Shipmate, was Robert Graves’s attempt to create a unified, mostly realistic version of the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the titular fleece. He incorporated a variety of ancient sources, some of them contradictory, some of them fragmentary, keeping the elements he thought made the most sense and assembling them into a single narrative. The result is this novel, which has been nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2020.
Graves wrote The Golden Fleece in an intentionally old-fashioned style. He explains in his introduction that he couldn’t hope to write it in the style of the Argonauts’ own time, but disliked the idea of writing it from a wholly modern perspective, and so took up a position “not later than … 146 B.C.” and narrates as though he is an ancient writer looking back on an even more archaic time.
This is successful — I frequently forgot I wasn’t reading a translation of a primary source — but it does mean that The Golden Fleece doesn’t read like a present-day novel. The prose can ring as dry to our ears; the story is dense with incident but lacks the deep-dive characterization that modern readers likely expect. Characters are sketched in broad strokes, each having one or two salient traits that get them into and out of trouble throughout the journey: Hercules is strong — to the point of frequently killing people by accident — and a drunk. Butes is obsessed with honey. Jason isn’t particularly good at anything, really, but he’s irresistible to the ladies. And so on.
Graves’s personal theories about ancient religion play a large role in the novel. Graves believed in a rather sadistic matriarchal cult, an idea he would later develop further in The White Goddess. He got his ideas about this cult partly from research, but also from his own imagination and his complicated feelings about his former mistress. The proposed conflict between this matriarchy and the upstart patriarchal cult of the Olympian gods is a major driving force in the plot. So, too, is the battle of the sexes in general — a battle that the men are winning on the global scale, but in which the women often get the upper hand in the day-to-day. Matriarchy vs. patriarchy is well-trodden ground for fantasy at this point, but it was pretty radical when Graves was writing it; in fact, he was one of the first to popularize the idea.
I mentioned that The Golden Fleece can be dry, but it’s not without its standout moments. It can be quite funny at times, and beautiful at others. Graves includes Orpheus in the voyage (after explaining in the introduction why he decided to do so, when the ancient sources differ on the subject), and having a poet on board allows Graves, himself a poet, to flex his versifying muscles. I especially liked his composition on Theseus and Ariadne.
In a book of this age, one expects some racial weirdness, and there is a bit of that here. There’s a cringey scene, for example, in which Jason is reassured that the Princess Medea is white and blonde, unlike the rest of the Colchians. Then again, Medea goes on to do some Very Bad Things, and there are other writers of this period who probably would have made her dark-skinned and then blamed her crimes on that fact, so maybe this golden-haired Medea is not the worst-case scenario.
I appreciated The Golden Fleece as an accomplishment more than I was entertained by it as a story. It is an accomplishment, though, and worthy of consideration for the Retro Hugo. But readers used to SFF novels should be aware that it doesn’t really read like a SFF novel; for one, it doesn’t read like a present-day novel at all, and secondly, Graves rationalizes away a lot of the fantastical elements. It’s a dense adventure tale, though, and remarkable for Graves’s stylistic choices, for his synthesis of disparate sources, and his early exploration of the Goddess/matriarchy theme.