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Extracts from James Reeves's Robert Graves Reader

The following two chapters from the Golden Fleece by Robert Graves are presented as possible Teacher’s Resources. They are part of a Selected Poetry and Prose of Robert Graves, Chosen, introduced and annotated by James Reeves, Hutchinson Educational, 1961.

James Reeves, (1909-1978), was a poet, writer, and a long standing friend of Graves. The book was used for “O” (ordinary) level English Literature studies in the UK in the 1960’s.

Any feedback from teachers will be appreciated. Use of these texts are for teaching purposes only.

 

Pollux Boxes with King Amycus

From The Golden Fleece (1944) (US title Hercules my Shipmate), By Robert Graves

©The Robert Graves Copyright Trust

Upon making Cape Poseidon, the Argonauts shaped their course for the north-west, lowering the sail and taking to their oars. The high hills sheltered them from the wind, but they had not yet recovered from their exertions of the previous day, and their progress along the steep and rocky coast was therefore slow.

Nauplius asked Jason: ‘Do we attempt the Bosphorus passage this afternoon?’

Jason consulted Tiphys, who answered: ‘The current in the strait will still be very strong. Without the help of Hercules I think that we shall hardly be able to stem it.’

‘Then why in the world,’ cried Admetus, ‘did you hurry us away this morning, leaving Hercules behind?’

Idmon said in his high voice: ‘Admetus, Admetus, we have already canvassed that question sufficiently, and the speaking branch of Father Zeus has plainly accounted for the action of Tiphys. My advice is that you should go over to Tiphys now and shake him by the hand, to show yourself his friend; and that you should do the same with Jason and Calais and Zetes.’

Since everyone approved this suggestion, Admetus was obliged to fall in with it. He rose and solemnly shook hands with his comrades.

‘Now, Jason,’ Great Ancaeus said, ‘if you intend to make no further progress today, why should we not land on the next sheltered beach and complete our interrupted rest?’

"Why, indeed? Jason assented.

They rowed slowly on for another few miles, until the coast took a westerly turn and the hills receded; then they came up with a prosperous-looking town, where herds grazed on rich meadow grass and a bright stream rushed down from the mountain.

‘Does anyone know who these people are?’ asked Jason.

Argus answered: ‘They are Bebrycians—or rather a mixture of Achaeans, Brygians and Mysians. Two generations ago an Achaean clan settled among the Brygians at the mouths of the Danube and intermarried with them; they later came here in a fleet of seal-skin rowing-boats accompanied by a number of Brygian fighting men, and soon subjugated the local Mysians. They are a strange people who prefer cows’ milk to that of sheep or goats and mix their wine with fresh pine resin. I have heard that their King, who is nearly always at war with the Mariandynians and Bithynians to the north, is a savage creature named Amycus. He claims descent from Poseidon, to whom, in a style now happily abandoned throughout Greece, he offers human sacrifices on the slightest pretext. If Ancaeus of Tegea needs a rest, Amycus is likely to offer him eternal rest.’

Jason put it to the vote: ‘Shall we land here, or shall we row on?’

The decision was for landing, by thirty votes to two; so all put on their helmets and armour and, raising a defiant shout, beached the Argo opposite what seemed, from its size, to be a royal palace, and there made the hawsers fast to a fine bay-tree.

Echion the herald was the first to go ashore. He advanced with grave and fearless aspect towards the house. A huge, shaggy, long-armed man with a squat head that looked as though it had been roughly shaped on the anvil with sledge-­hammers—King Amycus himself, to judge from his golden ornaments—came out to meet Echion. But instead of greeting him with the formality that every man o£ honour shows to the herald even of an enemy, he bawled out roughly: ‘I suppose that you know who I am. I am King Amycus. No, I do not want to know who you are or where you are bound-and no doubt your mouth is full of lies, in any case-but I would have you understand clearly how you are now circumstanced. No strangers are allowed to land in my kingdom, none at all. Once they have done so, whether by mistake or intentionally, they must accept the consequences. Either they may send out a champion to box with me, in which case I invariably kill him with my famous right-handed swing, or, if they prefer to waive this formality, they may shorten proceedings by an unconditional surrender. In either case, they are subsequently taken up to the top of the headland which you have just rounded and thrown splash into the sea as an offering to my great ancestor, the God Poseidon.’

‘I do not box myself,’ replied Echion suavely, ‘and I regret that Hercules of Tiryns, who was our shipmate until yesterday, is not aboard. He would have given you a pretty fair bout, I believe. Still, we have another champion of fisticuffs here, whom you may enjoy meeting. He is Pollux of Sparta, who won the All-Greece championship at the Olympic Games some years ago.’

Amycus laughed. ‘I have never yet set eyes on a Greek who was of any use in the ring. I have, I own, seen Greeks do some very pretty boxing; with neat footwork, ducking and dodging in and out. But what does that profit them? Nothing at all, the fools! I always land my right-handed swing before long and it knocks them in a heap. They cannot hurt me, you must under­stand. I am nothing but bone and muscle. Hit me and break your wrist.’

They went down together to the Argo, and Amycus shouted out in rude tones: ‘Where is this mad Spartan, Pollux, who styles himself a boxer?’

Jason said coldly: ‘I think that you must have misheard the words of our noble herald, Echion the son of Hermes. I am Jason of Iolcos, leader of this expedition, and I must ask you to address your words of greeting to me first of all.’

Amycus uttered a contemptuous, bleating laugh and said: ‘Speak when you are spoken to, Golden-locks! I am the famous and terrible Amycus. I trespass in no man"s orchard and allow no man to trespass in mine. Before I pitch you all over the cliff, splash into the sea, one after the other, I wish to meet this All­-Greece champion of yours and punch him about for a while. I am in need of exercise.’

The Argonauts looked at one another in a wondering way, but by now the beach was thronged with the armed followers of Amycus. They could not hope to push the Argo off and get clear of the shore without heavy losses; and they did not wish to leave Echion behind in the hands of savages who could clearly not be counted upon to respect the inviolability of his person.

‘Here I am, King Amycus,’ said Pollux, standing up. ‘I am somewhat stiff from rowing, but I shall be greatly honoured to meet you in the ring. Where do you usually box? Is it in the courtyard of your fine palace yonder?’

‘No, no,’ answered Amycus. ‘There is a convenient dell under the cliff beyond the village, where I always fight, if you can call it fighting. Usually it is more like a simple blood-­sacrifice.’

‘Indeed?’ said Pollux. ‘So you favour the pole-axe style of boxing? Big men like you are often tempted to rise on their toes and deal a swinging downward blow. But do you find it effective against an opponent who keeps his head?’

‘You will learn a good many tricks of the ring before I have killed you,’ said Amycus, roaring with laughter.

‘By the way,’ asked Pollux, ‘is this to be a boxing match, or an all-in wrestling match?’

‘A boxing match, of course,’ Amycus replied. ‘And I flatter myself that I am a true sportsman.’

‘Let me understand you fully,’ said Pollux. ‘As you know, codes vary considerably in these outlying kingdoms. First of all: do you permit clinching, handling or kicking? Or throwing of dust in the other man"s eyes?’

‘Certainly not,’ said Amycus.

‘Or biting, butting, hitting below the hip-bone?’

‘No indeed!’ Amycus indignantly exclaimed.

‘And only yourself and myself will be allowed in the ring?’

‘Only we two,’ said Amycus. ‘And the fight is to the finish.’

‘Good,’ cried Pollux. ‘Lead on to the dell!’

Amycus led the way to the dell, which was a very lovely place, where violet, hyacinth and anemone grew in profusion from the greenest turf imaginable, and the daphne scented the air. His armed followers took up their posts on one side under a row of arbutus-trees, leaving the other side free for the Argo­nauts. But on the way there, walking apart from the others, Idmon came upon a heartening augury: twin eagles perched upon the carcass of a shaggy black horse, newly dead, of which one was continually thrusting its head between the ribs to tear at the guts, but the other, already satiated, was wiping its curved beak against the horse"s hoof. Other carrion birds, crows, kites and magpies, were hopping and fluttering about, intent on sharing the meal. Idmon recognized the twin eagles as Castor and his brother Pollux, the eagle being the bird of their father Zeus; and the horse as Amycus, the horse being sacred to Poseidon; and the other carrion birds were Coronus, Melampus, Calais, Zetes and the rest of the Argonauts.

‘This is an unusual sort of ring,’ remarked Pollux. ‘It allows mighty little room for maneuver. And both ends narrow to a point like the bows and stern of a ship.’

‘It suits my style of boxing,’ said Amycus. ‘And I may add that I always box with my back to the cliff. I dislike having the sun in my eyes.’

‘I am glad to know that,’ said Pollux. ‘in civilized countries it is more usual to draw lots for position. Come now, my lord, strip yourself, and bind on your gloves!’

Amycus stripped. He was as shapeless as a bear, though longer-legged. The muscles of his shaggy arms stood out like seaweed-covered boulders. His henchmen bound on his gloves for him-huge leather strips weighted with lead and studded with brass spikes.

Jason came striding forward to expostulate: ‘King Amycus, this will never do! in Greece, studs of metal fixed upon gloves are forbidden as barbarous. This is a boxing match, not a battle.’

‘This is not Greece,’ said Amycus. ‘However, no man must be allowed to question my sportsmanship. Pollux is welcome to my spare set of gloves if he cares to borrow them.’

Jason thanked Amycus, who ordered a slave to fetch gloves for Pollux of the same sort as those that he was wearing himself. Pollux laughed at the slave and shook his head, for Castor had already bound on for him his own supple sparring-gloves, which served to protect his knuckles from swelling and to brace his wrists. The four fingers of each hand were caught in a loop, but the thumb remained free and uncovered.

Jason whispered to Castor: ‘Why has your twin rejected those excellent gloves?’

Castor answered: ‘The heavier the glove, the slower the blow. You will see!’

The opponents agreed to begin the bout at the blast of a conch. The trumpeter took up his stand on a rock above the dell, and was still pretending to untangle the crossed strings which attached the conch to his neck, when another conch sounded from among the crowd and Amycus rushed at Pollux, hoping to take him off his guard. Pollux leaped back, avoiding the right-handed swing aimed at his ear, side-stepped and turned rapidly about. Amycus, recovering himself, found himself standing with the sun in his eyes.

Amycus was by far the heavier man, and the younger by some years. Enraged at having to face in the wrong direction, he made a bull-like rush at Pollux, hammering at him with both hands. Pollux pulled him up with a straight left-handed punch on the point of his chin, and pressed his advantage, not with the expected right-handed swing but with another jolt from the same fist, which made his teeth rattle.

It took more than this to check Amycus. He ran in, head down, covering up his face against an upper-cut, butted Pollux in the chest and aimed a pair of flailing blows at his kidneys. Pollux broke away in good time and Amycus tried to pursue him into the shaded northern corner of the dell, where the sun did not annoy the eyes of either. But Pollux stood his ground and kept Amycus fighting at a spot where the sun would most trouble him: at one instant it was obscured by a rock and at the next it dazzled out again from above the rock, as Pollux stopped his rushes with hooks, jabs, chopping blows and upper-cuts. Pollux fought now left-handed and now right-handed, for he was naturally ambidextrous, a wonderful advantage to a boxer.

After the contest had lasted for as long as it would take a man to walk a mile in no great hurry, Pollux was untouched except for a torn shoulder which, forgetting the spikes of Amycus"s gloves, he had flung up to save his head from a sudden swing; but Amycus was spitting blood from his swollen mouth and both his eyes were nearly closed. Amycus twice tried his pole-axe blow, rising on his toes and swinging downwards with his right fist; but each time he missed, and Pollux caught him off his balance and punished him, for he had drawn his feet too close together.

Pollux now began announcing in what places he intended to strike Amycus, and each warning was immediately followed by a blow. He disdained to strike any body-blows, for that is not the Olympic style, but always made for the head. He cried out: ‘Mouth, mouth, left eye, right eye, chin, mouth again.’

Amycus roared almost as loudly as Hercules had roared in his search for Hylas, but when he began bawling obscene threats, Pollux grew angry. He feinted with his right fist, and with the left he landed a heavy blow on the bridge of his enemy"s nose; he felt the bone and cartilage crunch under the weight of the blow.

Amycus toppled and fell backwards, Pollux sprang forward to strike him where he lay; for though in the friendly contests of the boxing school it is considered generous to refrain from hitting a prostrate opponent, yet in a public contest a boxer is considered a fool who does not follow up his blow. Amycus rolled over quickly and struggled to his feet. But his blows now came short and wild, his gloves seeming to him as heavy as anchor-stones; and Pollux did not spare the broken nose, but struck at it continually from either side and from in front.

Amycus in desperation snatched with his left hand at the left fist of Pollux, as it came jabbing towards him, and tugged at it, at the same time bringing up a tremendous right-handed swing. Pollux, who had been expecting foul play, threw himself in the same direction as he was tugged; and Amycus, who had expected him to resist the tug and thus fix his head to receive the swing, struck only air. Before he could recover, Pollux had landed a powerful right-handed hook on his temple, followed by a left-handed upper-cut on the point of his chin.

Amycus dropped his guard; he could fight no more. He tottered on his feet, while Pollux methodically swung at his head with rhythmic blows, like those of a woodman who leisurely chops down a tall pine-tree and at last stands aside to watch it crash among the undergrowth. The last blow, a left-handed one that came up almost from the ground, broke the bones of his enemy"s temple and knocked him stone dead. The Argonauts roared for wonder and delight.

 

 

 

 

 

 THE PASSAGE OF THE BOSPHORUS

 From The Golden Fleece (1944) (US title Hercules my Shipmate), By Robert Graves

©The Robert Graves Copyright Trust

 ‘The Bosphorus,’ Phineus had announced, ‘measures some sixteen miles in length from sea to sea, and resembles a rushing river rather than a strait, especially where the channel narrows to less than half a mile from bank to bank: for it receives the outflow of a huge sea nearly a thousand miles long and five hundred miles broad, which is fed by several enormous rivers. O my friends, when the melting snows of the great northern steppes, or of the Caucasian mountains, swell each of those rivers to many times its usual size, and when violent north-easterly gales drive the tremendous mass of waters before them into the Bosphorus, you can imagine what a cataract roars down the Narrows! Fortunately, the worst season is not yet here and the south-west wind which has now blown for two days will have abated the force of the current. Seize the chance without delay and may the Gods grant that you win through before the wind swings about again, as by the look of the sky I fear it will soon do.

‘The current runs most swiftly in the middle of the strait, and on either side you will find eddies and counter-currents. Remember that unless you make use of these counter-currents your oarsmen"s task will be an impossible one; remember, too, that the projecting points of the abrupt and twisting channel provide shelter under their lee, where the current is deflected, and allow you to regain your breath for a renewed effort. But your master and helmsman must be men of the coolest judgement otherwise you will assuredly be swept against the rocks.

‘Begin your ascent from the eastern side, where the coast is bold and you will find deep water close inshore; but beware the entrance to the Narrows, where a shoal fronts the mouth of a mountain torrent and extends off shore for a hundred paces. Here, as you venture into midstream, your vessel will be whirled about like a chip of wood. Let your helmsman keep her prow pointed straight into the current; and do you put your trust in the Gods and bend to your oars. When you have passed through the Narrows, where the pace of the current today will, I reckon, be that of a man walking very fast, you will find that the strait opens out again, with slack water on either side; on the western shore is Therapeia, a little bay where you may anchor safely, if you wish, for a half-way rest. Only once more does the passage become difficult;  and there lies the greatest danger of all —the Clashing Rocks. You will meet them about two hundred paces off-shore at a narrow point distinguished by a grove of white cypress-trees. As you sail with difficulty along the western side of the strait, where the water is slacker than on the eastern, you will find the counter-current so capricious that your eyes will be tricked. It will seem as though the dark rocks, some of which are awash, are not fixed to the bottom of the channel but swing about and attempt to crush the vessel between themselves and the shore. But let your helmsman fix his gaze on some steady mark across the strait and steer towards it.

‘Once you have passed the Clashing Rocks, you may lift up your hearts, for you will have only three more miles to go, and these present no great difficulty. Unless the wind suddenly shifts, you will soon be riding at anchor in the Black Sea, or beached on some pleasant strand."

They carefully memorized these and other instructions and repeated them to one another as they sailed up the first reach of the strait, not rowing but conserving their strength for the struggle at the Narrows. The water teemed with tunny and swordfish, and the rocks as they passed by were overhung with caper-bushes of a bright green colour.

When they approached the Narrows and took to their oars, Orpheus tuned up for a new song, a sharp satire upon the ship"s company, designed to turn away the anger of any jealous god or goddess who might seize this opportunity of injuring them. The chorus went:

 

‘Did ever so strange a company

Of tall young champions take to sea?’

 

In it he made a jest upon each of the Argonauts in turn. He sung of Lynceus, whose sight was so keen that he could look through an oak and read the thoughts of a beetle crawling on the other side; of Butes, who knew all his bees by name and lineage and wept if one of them did not return to the hive, having per­haps been eaten by a swallow; of Admetus, to whom Apollo came as a menial, but who could think of no better orders for the God than ‘Bring me sausages, if you please"; of Euphemus the swimmer, who challenged a tunny to a swimming match around the island of Cythera and would have won but that the fish cheated; of Calais and Zetes, who ran so fast that they always arrived at their goal a little before the word ‘Go", and who once chased a covey of Harpies down the Sea of Marmora and across the Aegean and Greece to the Strophades Islands; of Periclymenus the wizard, born in an eclipse, who could change at will into any beast or insect that he fancied, but one day got stuck in the shape of an ass"s foal too young to remember how to return to human shape; of Mopsus and Idmon, who preferred the conversation of birds to that of any human being, even of each other; of Iphitus, who painted on the interior walls of a house in Phocis so lively a picture of a stag hunt that quarry, hounds and huntsmen all ran off in the night and disappeared through the smoke-hole in the roof; of Jason, who was so hand­some that women fainted at the sight of him and had to be restored with the smell of burning feathers. But Orpheus was careful to satirize himself among the rest; he told how, in an Arcadian valley, a great number of forest trees pulled them­selves up by the roots and shuffled along behind him as he thoughtlessly played Come to a better Country, Come to Thrace.

These jests carried them safely through the worst of the Narrows, though at one point, even with the most vigorous rowing, it needed three verses of the song to help them gain a hundred paces. They were trembling with their exertions and nearly dead when Tiphys steered them into Therapeia Bay. They cast anchor and refreshed themselves with wine, cheese and strips of pickled venison which Phineus had given them; but when the wind began to fail they cut short their meal and continued their passage for fear of worse things. But first, to lighten the ship, they disembarked the Mariandynians whom they had rescued from Amycus, and agreed to meet them that same evening, the Gods permitting, on the shores of the Black Sea, to the east of the entrance of the Bosphorus.

They sailed slowly up the broader part of the strait, but the wind had died away altogether when they came in view of the cypress headland, and from the hissing noise of water they knew that the Clashing Rocks were near. Their mouths were dry with fear and their limbs twitched, but Tiphys kept them on their course and Orpheus played cheerfully to them. The current in midstream ran at a terrible rate and the eddies close inshore twisted the Argo about crazily. The oarsmen saw a heron in flight upstream towards them and gaspingly cheered it, because the bird is sacred to the Goddess Athena; but as it flapped over­head at mast height the cheer changed to a groan of dismay. They faltered in their stroke and lost headway; for a sparrow­-hawk had swooped at the heron and missed its mark only by a very little. A tail feather fluttered down and was whirled away by the current.

The hawk soared to strike again, and it would have been the worst possible omen had the heron been killed. Phalerus, whose oar Jason had taken at Therapeia because he had not yet re­covered from the blow on his hip that a Bebrycian had dealt him, seized up his bow, fitted an arrow to the string and let fly. Down into the boat tumbled the sparrowhawk, pierced through the heart, and the heron flew safely on towards the Black Sea.

Seldom was an augury so speedily justified as this. Tiphys, seeing one of the Clashing Rocks uncovered by the tide at some distance away towards midstream, judged that he was steering a safe course; but the noise of water had confused him. The sudden tug of an eddy whirled the Argo about, and there followed a grinding crash and a shock that made every one aboard think that the voyage had ended untimely and all was lost. Neverthe­less, Orpheus continued with his song, Tiphys regained control of the ship, and they rowed staunchly on, their oars bending like bows from the force of the current. The salt water did not wet their feet, as at every moment they expected it to do; and Phalerus, leaning over the side to see what was amiss, shouted :hat they had merely fouled the base of their stern ornament against a sunken rock. Part had been broken off, much in the same way as the heron had lost her tail feather; but the skin of the boat was not pierced.

Then, lifting up their hearts, they forged ahead, and soon the Black Sea stretched before them. They rounded the eastern headland and passed the white chalk cliff which had been men­tioned by King Phineus in his instructions; then they beached the Argo a mile or two to the east of it, where yellow cliffs are intersected by small valleys fringed with narrow strips of sand.

No sooner were they ashore than the north-east wind began to blow and presently rolled monstrous waves down the strait. They laughed, shouted and pelted one another with hand­fuls of sand to express their relief and joy.

from THE GOLDEN FLEECE

 

 


NOTES BY JAMES REEVES

POLLUX BOXES WITH KING AMYCUS

and

THE PASSAGE OF THE BOSPHORUS

both from The Golden Fleece

According to the mythology of the early Greeks, Aeolus King of Thebes was the father of a boy and a girl, Phrixus and Helle, by his first wife. To escape from the hostility of his second wife, their step-mother, the two children escaped over the sea on the back of a winged and golden-fleeced ram. Helle fell into the sea at the narrows near Troy, subsequently named after her the Hellespont. Phrixus reached Colchis at the eastern end of the Black Sea, where he was welcomed by King AEetes. The ram was sacrificed to Zeus, and its golden fleece hung up and guarded by a dragon.

King Pelias had usurped the throne of Iolcos in Thessaly from his half-bother Aeson. Jason, son of Aeson and rightful heir, had been given into the hands of Chiron the centaur for safety. On reaching manhood Jason returned to Iolcos to de­mand his throne. In order to get rid of him, Pelias promised him the throne if he would recover the golden fleece from Colchis. The story of Jason"s voyage in the Argo with his company of Greek heroes in search of the fleece has often been reconstructed from the early sources, which are confused and sometimes con­tradictory. Robert Graves" version is extremely plausible and, unlike those of Charles Kingsley and Nathaniel Hawthorne, is intended for the enjoyment of adults.

 

 

Pollux: twin brother of Castor, and son of Zeus and Leda. The brothers, sometimes known as the Dioscuri or ‘Sons of Zeus", were considered friendly to sailors. The constellation named after them is called Gemini (the Twins.

Hercules ... Hylas: Hylas, a beautiful youth, was taken on the voyage of the Argonauts by Hercules; he escaped and was sheltered by some nymphs. Hercules was left on shore, grieved and angry at the loss of Hylas, when the Argo sailed away.

Clashing Rocks: or Symplégades at the northern end of the Bosphorus just before the entrance into the Black Sea.

Lynceus: the far-sighted Argonaut who could see through rocks and trees.

Admetus: King of Pherae in Thessaly. As a punishment for slaying the Cyclopes, Apollo was ordered by Zeus to serve Admetus for a year. In gratitude for Admetus" kindness. Apollo persuaded Death to prolong his life. Death demanded instead the life of Alcestis, Admetus" wife: however, she was rescued by Hercules.

 

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