Argonautika: The Clashing Rocks

The Argonauts Pass the Symplegades by Bernard Picart (1733)

 

The kids and I have been reading Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles. It’s a beautiful literary retelling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts for children (the edition we have is gorgeously illustrated by Willy Pogany). Padraic Colum was a poet of the Irish Literary Revival who I first met when doing my MA in Irish literature. He also wrote plays nd novels and collected folklore and wrote many beautiful books for children.

Yesterday we read the episode of the Clashing Rocks, or Symplegades, which Colum retells beautifully, and the children noticed that some of the details were different from the D’Aulaire’s retelling. Colum doesn’t mention the tip of the poop being shorn off and in his version Tiphys is dead before they reach the rocks. This sparked a discussion about how different authors tell the same story in different ways– not an uncommon discussion around here.

And that jogged my memory and I recalled that I had a copy of The Argonautika on my poetry shelf— a copy I bought on impulse at the Half Price Books in Austin that is near the UT campus and has all sorts of brilliant books that you just know were purchased for a class but have obviously never been read. Anyway, I’ve got all these books of sagas and classical poems and epics that I’ve never read that I bought when I was younger and more ambitious but also lazier in my reading habits. I’ve never even cracked the cover of my Argonautika— much like that long ago student— but this seemed the perfect moment. How was this episode recounted in the original? 

Oh what a treat! (At least I thought so, the children endured yet another round of Mama reading poetry at them.) I found the passage without too much difficulty and I read a chunk of it to the kids, about two pages. The poetry was a delight to read aloud, vivid and strong language and beautiful imagery. I’m going to have to add this to my pile. (To read after I finally finish Omeros.)

This edition of The Argonautika by Apollonios of Rhodes is translated by Peter Green. (Sorry about the wall of text. I was temped to put in some spacing just to make it more readable, but there are no breaks in the original and I just couldn’t bring myself to force them in.)

“When they reached the narrow throat of that twisting passage,
walled in on either side by a rough rockface,
and a turbulent current boiled up under the vessel
as she advanced, and they urged her on, terrified,
while already the knock of the rocks in violent collision
kept assaulting their ears, and the sea-washed cliffs resounded—
then it was that Euphémos scrambled up, still clutching
his dove, and made for the prow, while at a word from
Tiphys, Hagnias’ son, the rest now slowed the strike-rate
of their rowing, the better to charge the rocks afterwards
drawing on all their strength; and as they rounded the last
bend, in that instant they saw the rocks drawing open,
and their hearts were confounded. Then Euphémos released
the dove on her flight, and every head was craned
to watch her as she went; straight on and in between
the rocks she fluttered, and they both came roaring back
to crash one against the other. An explosion
of salt spray boiled up like a cloud; then fearfully thundered
the sea, and all about echoed the vault of heaven.
The hollow caverns boomed, while under jagged reefs
surged in the brine and high as the cliff’s summit
spat up the white spume of the seething breakers.
Then the ship spun with the current. The rocks sheared off
the dove’s tipmost tail-feathers, yet she darted clear
unscathed, to loud cheers from the oarsmen, and a shouted
command from Tiphys himself t row hard, for the rocks were
parting once more. They toiled, panic-stricken, till the tidal
reflux, boiling back, bore them forward between rock
and rock, and then the most awful terror gripped them
one and all, for over their heads hung destruction inexorable.
And now, as to right and left the wide Black Sea appeared,
there rose up before them a wave, enormous, sudden,
arching like a sheer crag; and they, when they saw it,
shrank back, heads averted, for it seemed about to
plunge down upon the ship’s whole length and overwhelm them.
But Tiphys moved quicker, easing her round as she labored
with their rowing, and the wave’s mass rolled away under the keel,
yet bore up the vessel’s stern, swung her far back beyond the
rocks, and high aloft she was carried. Then Euphémos
strode between comrade and comrade, shouting to them
to bend their full strength to the oars, and they, with a cheer,
sliced through the water. Yet for every yard rowed forward
the ship was driven back two, and the heroes’ efforts
made their oars bend till they looked like the curve of a bow.
But then a wave from behind, looming over, rushed upon them,
and their vessel sped forward like a long surfing missile
over the hollow sea on that swift rough crest. But midway
between the Clashing Rocks a maelstrom held her. On either
side the Rocks shuddered and thundered, while her timbers
ground to a halt. Then Athena, left hand jammed against a massive
rock, with her right thrust Argo through and onward,
and the vessel sped, airborne, like a swift-winged arrow;
yet still the Rocks, as they violently met, sheared off
the tip of her curving poop, with its ornament. But Athena,
once they were clear, unscathed, sped back to Olympus;
and the rocks fused into each other, forever rooted
in the same spot, as the gods had decreed should happen
the first time a man looked on them, and got his vessel through.
Then at last they breathed again, quit of their chilling
terror, and gazed around them at the sky, the widespread
expanse of sea; for indeed they’d been saved, they thought,
from Hades.”

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