R.J. CLARE, The Path of the Argo: Language, Imagery and Narrative in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. x + 301. ISBN 0-521-81036-1. STG £45 (Hb).
Review by Martin Brady
The Argonautica myth, unlike many of the more prominent myth cycles of ancient Greece, proved remarkably resistant to canonization. Apollonius’ treatment in the Argonautica must be set alongside variant versions of the myth promulgated by Pindar, Callimachus and Euripides among many others; and this is not to mention later treatments by Roman authors such as Catullus, Ovid, and Valerius Flaccus. For this reason, the Argonautica is ripe for interpretation in terms of such contemporary critical concerns as narratology (the style of tale-telling), indeterminacy, and intertextuality. In this monograph Clare has produced a welcome and timely reappraisal of the poem along such lines.
The book is divided into two sections. The first half is titled ‘There and Back Again’; in the four chapters which comprise this section Clare follows the poem from beginning to end (the chapters are titled in order ‘Beginnings’, ‘Outward Bound’, ‘Other Journeys’, and ‘Homeward Bound’), and traces the rise and fall of various thematic elements in the poem, particularly the dialectic between ‘wandering’ (disordered, random and purposeless travel) and ‘homecoming’ (orderly, formal journeying to a preordained destination). The first chapter establishes, by means of a particularly sensitive reading of the proems to the Odyssey and the Argonautica, the ongoing intertextual dialogue between the plots and themes of these poems. The Odyssean intertext is sustained throughout the remainder of this section, though the third chapter also plots the Argonauts’ journey against other prominent travel myths of antiquity, most particularly the wanderings of Heracles and Theseus’ trip to the underworld. The impression Clare conveys of the Argonautica is thus a poem rich in allusion and intertextual detail, playing off traditional epic and myth as it establishes its own concerns between the polarities of indeterminate wandering and directed nostos.
The second half of the book (titled ‘Order and Disorder’) consists of three chapters which re-examine the same material on a thematic basis. Chapter 5 details recurring ‘image patterns’, whereby the visual elements of an introductory type-scene (such as those of an assembly, an arrival or a departure) are reintroduced and varied through the remainder of the work. Chapter 6 focuses in detail on the figures of Orpheus and Medea, whom Clare wishes to read as exemplars of his master terms ‘order’ and ‘disorder’, while the final chapter reflects on broader issues of narrative and tale-telling which are raised self-consciously in the course of the poem. Clare’s grand design in dividing the book into two halves thus becomes clear: the first section sets up the framework for ideas and insights which are analyzed in greater depth in the three much lengthier chapters of the second section. For this reason readers versed in Argonautica scholarship will prefer to concentrate on the latter chapters rather than the former; though casual readers, less familiar with the epic, will surely find the first four chapters a more accessible introduction.
Clare follows the commendable modern practice of translating all Greek referred to, though the inconsistent execution of this policy is sometimes a source of frustration. When he has no specific points to make about the Greek, Clare gives the English translation only: while this has obvious benefits in saving space and clarifying the layout, it denies readers with knowledge of the language the chance to test his suppositions by a close reading of the text. The translations themselves, which are all Clare’s own work, are exactly what is required in a work of this type: they are both fluent and literal. However and this may be inconvenient for the Greekless reader they do not match the Greek originals line for line, so that when the reader is referred to, for example, line 738 of the original text (p.131), in practice he needs to turn to line 736 of the English translation. Furthermore, while key words and phrases are highlighted in the Greek text, the translated passages do not highlight the English equivalents. The dust jacket claims that the book is written to be accessible to non-specialists: such niggling details of presentation compromise a book which otherwise takes very good care of its less experienced readers.
Clare’s work belongs to an important tradition of recent scholarship on Greek and Latin epic poetry, in which the dynamic interplay of order and disorder is traced with reference to both literary and philosophical paradigms. In this respect, this book makes an important contribution for specialists in the field as the first full-length study of the Argonautica’s exploration of such themes. The work is also, however, accessible to non-specialists who are coming to Apollonius for the first time, and offers a fine introduction to the nuances of the ancient epic genre. This book contains many insights of both general and specific value, and its readership ought not to be restricted to Argonautica scholars alone.