Newbery Project: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles by Padraic Colum

In 1922, the first year that the Newbery Medal was awarded, one of the “runners-up” later called “honor books,” was The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles by an Irish storyteller named Padraic Colum. Mr. Colum was a poet and a playwright and a friend of James Joyce, but his retelling of myths, legends, and folklore for children came to be his most enduring work. Padraic Colum won the Regina Medal in 1961 for his “distinguished contribution to children’s literature.” Some of his other books include The Children’s Homer, The Children of Odin, The Arabian Nights, and The King of Ireland’s Son. Padraic Colum was born December 8, 1881, and he died on January 12, 1972.

“In transferring a story of the kind I heard then to the pages of a collection, elements are lost, many elements —the quietness of the surroundings, the shadows on the smoke-browned walls, the crickets chirping in the ashes, the corncrake in the near meadow, or the more distant crying of a snipe or curlew, and (for a youngster) the directness of statement, or, simply the evocation of wonder.” ~Padraic Colum

Padraic Colum grew up listening to stories told by the fire or in the meadow, and The Golden Fleece is written in the voice of a storyteller; it’s meant to be read aloud and to evoke wonder. The syntax and writing style are poetic and begging to be read to listening ears. In addition to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Colum blended into his narrative many of the older Greek myths: Persephone, Pandora’s Box, Theseus and the Minotaur, and the Labors of Hercules, just to name a few. I’m planning a year of ancient history and literature next school year, and I think The Golden Fleece will be our first read aloud as we study Greek history and literature.
Willy Pogany, the illustrator for this compilation, is one of my favorites. In some of the other books I have that are illlustrated by Pogany, his illustrations are full-color paintings, but the illustrations in The Golden Fleece are black and white line drawings reminiscent of the pictures on Greek vases. I can envision having my urchins copy one of the pictures in the book as an art project, then maybe make their own drawing in the same style.

Although The Golden Fleece would be perfect for read aloud time, I also think that all those kids who can’t get enough of Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief might want to go to the source, so to speak, and I can’t think of a better source for Greek mythology than Colum’s The Golden Fleece. So, as I begin my Newbery Project, Padraic Colum’s Newbery Honor Book wins a Newbery renewal for its beautiful use of language and powerful storytelling voice. This one stands the test of time, maybe because the stories themselves are timeless, but also because the storyteller, like Orpheus the Singer, knew how to tell a tale.

“Many were the minstrels who, in the early days, went through the world, telling to men the stories of the gods, telling of their wars and of their births. Of all these minstrels non was so famous as Orpheus who had gone with the argonauts; none could tell truer things about the gods, for he himself was half divine.

Orpheus sang to his lyre. Orpheus, the minstrel, who knew the ways and the stories of the gods; out in the open sea on the first morning of the voyage Orpheus sang to them of the beginning of things.”

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