Jason and the Argonauts: Through The Years


by Mark Lieberman



    The story of Jason and the Argonauts is a classic myth that was written by Apollonius of Rhodes in the third century BC.  He was not the first to tell the story, but his version is the best known today.  The story has been depicted in a variety of ways over the years.  Yet, despite the fact that Apollonius’ story has often been adapted to better suit the times, the original version was so strong that the newer versions do not vary greatly from the original. Numerous authors have translated it for modern audiences.   William Morris’ 1867 novel The Life and Death of Jason is based on Apollonius’ story but features several notables differences.  There have been two separate movies based on the story as well.  The 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts offers an abbreviated version of the ancient myth.  In 2000, NBC aired a four-hour miniseries adaptation of the classic story.  Both films relied heavily on special effects, and the 1963 film was praised for featuring effects that were considered ahead of its time.  This paper will first examine the classic myth and then note the different ways that the story has been told in books and films.  There will also be an analysis of possible reasons for changing certain details in each of the versions.


·        Apollonius’ ancient story

    Though there are differences that will be noted in film and book versions, the basic storyline remains the same as told by Apollonius. Jason is the son of Aison, the former king of Iolcus.  The kingship is then taken over by the power-hungry Pelias. Aison’s relation to Pelias differs in some versions of the story, but most accounts label them brothers.  Fearing that her son would be killed by Pelias, Jason’s mother sends him away to live in the cave of Chiron the Centaur, where he is raised until adulthood.  It is then that Jason returns to Iolcus to claim the throne, which he believes is rightfully his.  On his way to Iolcus, he is tested by the goddess Hera.  Disguised as an elderly woman, Hera begs Jason to help her across a stream.  He agrees and takes her on his back.  Jason’s good will impresses Hera, and she makes it her duty to help him on his journey.

      Once in Iolcus, Jason meets with Pelias and asserts his right to the throne.  Pelias is unwilling to step down, and he sends Jason on a quest to find the Golden Fleece.  Jason puts together a fine crew and names them the Argonauts and their ship the Argo.  The most famous member of the crew is the mighty Herakles.  The Argonauts leave Iolcus and set sail for Colchis, the land of the Golden Fleece.  The ship first stops at Lemnos, an island populated entirely by women.  It is at Lemnos that the crew loses Herakles, the most well-liked and well-respected crewmate.

The Argo makes its way to Salmydessus, where the crew chases flying Harpies away from the island’s king Phineus.  To show his gratitude, Phineus warns them that they will soon encounter the Clashing Rocks.  The rocks crash together whenever a ship tries to get through.  The secret, Phineus says, is to release a bird between the rocks so that they come together.  The Argo would then have enough time to pass through before the rocks come together again. The plan works, and the crew makes it safely to Colchus.

Jason meets with Aeetes, the king of Colchus, who dislikes Jason but agrees to give him the Golden Fleece if he could help out with some farmyard “chores.”  The chores are actually seemingly impossible tasks designed to kill Jason and keep the Fleece in Colchus.  Fortunately for Jason, the goddess Aphrodite makes Medea, the daughter of Aeetes, fall in love with Jason. Medea has magical powers, which she uses to help Jason complete the assigned tasks. First Jason was ordered to harness two fire-breathing bulls.  He then had to plant some dragon’s teeth in the field. As the teeth hit the soil, they sprouted into armed warriors.  Without Medea’s assistance, Jason would have surely been killed, but thanks to her magic he manages to harness the bull and kill the warriors.

Aeetes had promised to give the Fleece to Jason, but he confided to Medea that he would go back on his word. Angered, Medea leads Jason to the location of the Fleece, where it is guarded by a dragon.  She gives the dragon a sleeping potion, which allows Jason to grab the Fleece.  The Argonauts quickly set sail as they are pursued by Aeetes’ army.  On the return trip to Greece, the Argo is safely guided with help from Hera.  The end of the story differs in book and film adaptation, but in the ancient myth Medea kills Pelias and Jason becomes king.


·        William Morris’ adaptation

            William Morris was a British writer, designer, and politician. He is actually quite well known for his artwork on stained glass, textiles, and wallpapers. In 1867, he wrote The Life and Death of Jason. The differences between Morris’ version and the ancient myth are not very significant. One difference is that when the Argo makes its first stop, at the island of Lemnos, the crew is forced to leave without Hercules. The reason for Hercules’ disappearance differs in The Life and Death of Jason. One of the young crew members, Hylas, wanders off alone and comes upon a group of sea-nymphs. The sea-nymphs seduce Hylas into loving them.  Meanwhile, the Argo is ready to leave the island so Herakles decides to search for Hylas. During the search, Juno causes the winds to blow and the crew is forced to set sail without Herakles and Hylas. In some previous tellings of the story, Hylas is dragged under a spring with one of the sea-nymphs and drowns. Other versions omit any mention of Hylas and the sea-nymphs. The reason for Morris’ rather extended story about Hylas and the sea-nymphs likely stems from his artistic background.  Morris likely wanted to stay true to the original story while complementing it with his personal touch.


·        The Movie Adaptations

             The first movie adaptation of the ancient myth was Jason and the Argonauts, a 1963 feature film release from Columbia TriStar Pictures. Again, the basic plot is the same as in Apollonius’ version, but there are numerous specific details that have been changed.  In the ancient myth, Jason loses his sandal while transporting the elderly woman across the river.  In the 1963 film, Pelias starts to drown in a river and Jason jumps in to save him, losing a sandal in the process.  Jason is unaware that the man he has saved is Pelias, and the king does not identify himself because he notices that Jason has only one sandal, and a prophet had warned Pelias of a “one-sandaled stranger.”  Still not realizing the identity of the man, Jason proceeds to tell Pelias of his plan to become king of Iolcus.  Pelias then suggests that Jason attempt to recover the Golden Fleece.  Pelias convinces Jason that if he were able to gain possession of the Fleece, he would have the power to overthrow Pelias.  One possible reason for this plot difference is that it is a more dramatic way for Pelias to meet Jason.  It is ironic that Jason unknowingly saves the life of the man he has come to overthrow.  By saving Pelias’ life, Jason pleases the gods by demonstrating his bravery. After the prophet’s prediction of a “one-sandaled stranger,” it creates a dramatic moment when Jason emerges from the water wearing only one sandal.  It also allows for Jason to begin his journey early in the movie, allowing more time to be spent on the Argo’s quest.

            Another difference between the ancient myth and the 1963 film is the Clashing Rocks scene.  Instead of releasing a dove to fly between the rocks (as in previous versions), Jason throws an idol into the water.  Poseidon arises from the sea and holds back the rocks, allowing the Argo to sail safely to the other side.  A possible reason for this plot change may again be dramatic effect.  Perhaps the movie’s writers found it more visually stimulating to have Poseidon emerge from the sea and hold back the rocks, as opposed to simply watching the Argo sail through easily thanks to the dove.  Certain scenes in the movie seem to be aimed at amazing the audience through the use of revolutionary special effects.  Another possibility is that, though the dove escapes unharmed in the myth, the movie’s writers did not want to make Jason look cruel for risking the bird’s death.

            Another key difference is noticed in the Clashing Rocks scene. In the film, Jason finds Medea floating in the sea on a piece of a ship that had been destroyed by the rocks.  She and Jason fall in love and she agrees to help Jason find the Golden Fleece.  In the ancient myth, Medea is not seen until Jason arrives in Colchis.  The reason for this plot difference seems to be aimed at keeping the movie from running too long.  It saves time for Jason to meet Medea before he gets to Colchis.  It is also possible that the writers decided that this chance encounter between Jason and Medea would be used to show that the two were destined to be together.

             The most recent movie adaptation is a miniseries version that ran on NBC in May 2000.  The film, which was shot on location in Turkey, received mixed reviews from television critics.  Many of the scenes from Apollonius’ story that were left out of the 1963 film are included in the new version, which is not surprising since the miniseries runs three hours.  The opening scene is quite different from previous adaptations.  Jason’s father is killed by Pelias, and Jason barely escapes death.  Later, when Jason decides to embark on the journey for the Golden Fleece, the crew he rounds up is notably different than in past versions of the story.  Whereas the ancient myth described a crew of heroes, many members of the Argonauts in this film could be considered weak underdogs.  The crew members certainly have heart, but it seems doubtful that they have the experience necessary for a successful voyage.  For example, one Argonaut is a thief who only volunteers his services to escape from authorities who are searching for him.  Two other crewmen are portrayed as bumbling idiots.  Argos nearly refuses to set sail because he fears certain death for the inexperienced crew.  The reason that the writers decided to feature a much weaker crew is likely because it is easier for the audience to root for them.  The villagers laughed at the crew Jason had assembled, and he set out to prove them wrong.  Movies in recent years often highlight the role of the underdog, and rags-to-riches movies have proven popular with audiences.  Modern audiences love an underdog, and television viewers could easily identify with many members of Jason’s crew.  It makes for a better story.

            The role of Herakles is far different in the 2000 film than in previous adaptations. In Apollonius’ story, Herakles is separated from the crew early in the story.  This forces the Argonauts to pull together and overcome their obstacles without their hero.  But in the 2000 film, Herakles nearly makes it back to Iolcus with the rest of the crew.  It is not until after they have arrived in Colchis and Jason has completed the king’s challenges that Herakles meets his death.  As Aeetes’ soldiers chase the Argonauts (who are on their way to find the fleece) Herakles tells Jason he has been ordered by the gods to protect Jason.  As the soldiers finally catch up, Herakles sacrifices his own life to save Jason.  If not for Herakles’ bravery, Jason likely would have been killed by Aeetes’ soldiers.  Herakles has become a role model for Jason by this point in the movie.  By keeping his character around until they reach Colchis, the movie’s writers allow the audience to feel the pain that Jason goes through when Herakles finally dies.  It is a pivotal moment in the film.

            Two final key differences in the 2000 film are seen near the end of the movie.  In the ancient story, Hera gives a sleeping potion to the dragon that guards the fleece. In the 2000 version, Jason tricks the dragon into falling off a cliff to its death.  The ending of the film is also quite different than in previous versions.  Most adaptations of the myth have a dark ending, but in the final scenes of the 2000 film Medea kills the villain Pelias and then marries Jason as the film ends.

            Jason and the Argonauts is a classic story that has been told to audiences of all ages for thousands of years. Throughout the years, there have been numerous adaptations of the myth, and most versions have stayed true to Apollonius’ telling of the story.  Some authors have given the tale their own personal touch, but the main plot details were left in tact.  Recent film versions have added some dramatic touches to the story without straying far from Apollonius’ vision.  The fact that the films have few significant variations from a myth written over 2,000 years ago is a credit to Apollonius’ storytelling ability.  In a time when classic stories are constantly being changed to suit the needs of Hollywood, it is refreshing to see that Jason and the Argonauts has stood the test of time.


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For further reading, check it out:  Jason: A Hero or Not