The good centaur Chiron taught many of the heroes. He taught the mighty Hercules to labour all his life. He taught the valiant Jason to vow vengeance against evil. Jason fled to Chiron to escape his uncle Pelias, a wicked man who had driven Jason's father, Eson, from his kingdom of Thessaly.
'I shall take revenge on Pelias,' Jason swore to Chiron, 'for he's thrown my father off his throne.'
'Fine words,' said Chiron, but don't be too bold and don't be rash and boastful. It could land you in deep trouble.'
'The world shall learn to fear me,' Jason said.
'Remember it's only Pelias who's wronged you,' said the centaur. 'Fight against him, if you will, but fight for all the weak as well.'
'Hmmph!' said Jason in a huff. 'Why do I have to waste my time in helping hopeless causes?'
'Because that's the very stuff of heroes!' Chiron said.
Jason put on his sandals, girded his sword to his side and set off for Thessaly to thump his uncle Pelias. He came to a stream swollen by the spring rains. Just as he was going to dive into the wildly surging water to swim across, he saw an old woman standing helpless by the bank.
'Can I give you a hand?' he asked.
'That would be kind,' she said.
He bore her on his back, struggling against the foaming torrent. Several times he nearby slipped. He lost a sandal in mid-stream. But at last he reached the other side.
As soon as Jason dropped her safe and dry on the grass, she stood up straight, threw off her old disguise and became the goddess Juno. Unlike the hero Hercules, Jason got on rather well with her.
'Thank you,' she smiled. 'If ever you need help, you only have to ask.'
With that, she vanished and Jason continued to his way. At last he reached the court of Thessaly. The false King Pelias had heard a rumour that he should beware a man wearing one shoe. He gazed in fear at Jason's feet.
'Who are you?' he asked in a trembling voice. 'Who comes to threaten me with one shoe on and one shoe off?'
'I am Jason, son of Eson, true king of this country,' said the hero. 'I have come to give my father back his throne.'
'Let's discuss it over dinner,' Pelias replied.
Jason, who was confident that he would win, agreed.
'I must say, you are most courageous,' said the false king, 'to come alone to capture a kingdom. Have some more wine.'
'Heroes in the old days used to do it,' Jason said, knocking back the sparkling drink. 'I think it is time I gave a good example to modern youth.'
'Splendid!' said Pelias. 'Another glass of wine? Tell me, what's your hobby?'
Monsters, maidens and all that,' said Jason. 'This wine is very good. Why do you ask?'
'A silly little thought,' said Pelias. 'I have just remembered there's a way to manage a monster and a maiden both in the same adventure, if you like.'
Jason drunk his wine and asked for yet another glass.
'Tell me how,' he said.
'The Golden Fleece that hangs on a tree in Colchis is guarded by bulls and giants and dragon,' said the false king. 'The King of Colchis also has a daughter. She is called Medea. How about it? A Golden Fleece and a wickedly wonderful princess, two birds with one stone, so to speak.'
'Why don't you go?' Jason asked suspiciously.
'Of course I would,' said Pelias, 'If only I was younger. Heroes nowadays,' he sighed, 'have no ambition any more!'
'That's a lie! Cried Jason, jumping from his seat. 'I'll get the Golden Fleece and the princess, too.'
'Very good,' laughed Pelias. 'That should keep you busy for a while. I can enjoy my kingdom now. Don't you think you ought to go and buy another sandal, before you begin?'
The next day, when Jason's head was clear from wine, he cursed himself for a fool but could not change his vow. He had a word with Juno and she helped him build a marvelous ship from pine trees, with a branch from the Speaking Oak carved into a figure-head. The carving had the power to speak to him and advise him in times of peril.
Jason called the ship the Argo, which means 'swift sailing', and he called the sailors Argonauts. You never saw a braver band of heroes than the crew of that strange craft. Hercules was one, these us another, and Orpheus with his lyre a third. There were many other bold adventures who sailed with Jason to seek the Golden Fleece.
They met with danger after danger. They lost one of the crew to some beautiful nymphs who beckoned him down to their watery playground. Two more sailors fought with the Harpies, vile creatures, half woman and half bird. Then the ship passed beneath a flight of brass-feathered fowls, who rained their plumage down at the Argonauts like deadly darts.
'What shall I do?' Jason asked the oaken figure-head.
'They hate too much noise,' the figure-head replied. 'Bang your weapons and clang you shields.'
Up and down the deck, the weapons banged and clanged. The brazen birds shrieked with fury and flew off.
Next came the clashing rocks. Like iron icebergs, they floated in the sea and crashed together, squashing all that tried to pass between their towering sides.
'What shall I do?' Jason asked the oaken figure-head.
'Follow the dove and sail as fast,' the figure-head replied.
Jason let fly a dove between the rocks. It was barely fast enough. As it flew through, the rocks clashed and caught the feathers of its tail. Jason and the Argonauts rowed with all their might. The rocks clashed they drew apart. The ship surged forward, the men straining at the oars. They were almost through when the rocks came crashing together with a thunderous roar. But only the rudder was caught. The Argo was safe. The land of Colchis lay ahead.
Jason stood before the King of Colchis.
'We have come for the Golden Fleece,' he said.
'I'm sure you have,' the king replied. 'Heroes have come before. But it's my favourite trophy. What's it worth?'
'A hero's fame,' said Jason proudly.
'Here's what you have to do,' the King of Colchis said. 'Slay the giants which grow from the dragon's teeth which are sown in the stony field which is ploughed with the fire-breathing bulls. And then you must tackle the serpent that sleeps in the tree where hangs the Golden Fleece.'
'To work!' cried Jason. 'No time to waste!'
'Come and tell me when it's done!' the King of Colchis laughed.
Any one of those dreadful tasks would have dismayed a normal man. But Jason was a hero. He went to ask the oaken figure-head for help.
'You don't need me,' the figure-head replied. 'Ask the wickedly wonderful Medea.'
Jason had forgotten her. He went to find the king's princess.
'You want my help, I think,' she smiled.
Jason found her absolutely beautiful.
'I do,' he sighed. 'I do indeed.'
'I'm something of a sorceress,' she murmured.
'I know,' thought Jason, who had fallen for her charms.
'If I help you, will you marry me?' she asked.
'Always the same question every hero hears,' laughed Jason. 'I can't see that there is much alternative. But I would love to anyway.'
And so Medea helped Jason with his tasks. He caught the bulls that breathed out fire, without himself being burnt. He hitched them to the plough, without himself being hurt. He ploughed the stony filed in less than half a day. And then he sowed the magic dragon's teeth from end to end of the deep-dug furrows.
First the tips of spears like blades of new-sown grass grew up slowly from the soil. The tops of helmets broke the surface like turnips with their plumes of leaves. Heads like pumpkins next appeared, then shoulders, arms and hands with swords and spears, and thick chests like strawberry barrels. At last there grew great legs like giant rhubarb stems that made the soldiers thrice the height of Jason.
They shook their swords and spears, a filed ripe with flashing foes who swept down upon the dumbstruck Jason. There is a moment when every hero stands alone. But he held his head high, as the harvest of the host of giants charged at him. Then he stooped, picked up some dust and flung it in their faces. The first giants were blinded for a moment. They struck out at whoever was the nearest. Jason threw more dust. The giants fought each other furiously. Soon all were dead. Their bodies sank into the ground, like plants that die and decay.
'Now for the serpent,' Jason said.
The magic potion of Medea and the music of Orpheus sent the snake to sleep. Jason cut off its head and reached for the Golden Fleece. It hung on branch, a golden, gleaming fleece, with the horns of a ram. Jason snatched it down.
'Quick!' cried Medea. 'My father does not want to lose the Golden Fleece.'
She seized her little brother and ran with Jason to the Argo, where the Argonauts were waiting at the oars.
'Set sail and row with all the speed you can,' said Jason.
But the King of Colchis, finding the serpent slain, the giants decayed, the fleece stolen, his daughter and his son escaped and the Argonauts gone, came sailing after them.
'He gains on us,' cried Jason.
'He won't for long,' Medea replied. 'I'm going to show you what a wicked heart I have.'
She held her little brother and cut him up and threw him in the sea. Poor King of Colchis! He stopped his ship, he picked up the pieces and put them back together. But the delay was enough to let the Argonauts escape.
'That was cruel, Jason said.
'Don't sulk,' replied Medea. 'Do you want to give him back the Golden Fleece?'
'No,' said Jason, 'but we should have fought him face to face.'
They sailed back to Thessaly, glad and sad at the same time. Jason found Pelias still in his father's palace. He flung the fleece at the false king's feet.
'Get out,' he cried, 'and don't come back!'
Jason fetched his father, Eson, but Eson now was old and not fit to be a king. So Medea brewed a magic recipe that made him young again, to make up for the evil she had done.
Pelias heard about the magic recipe.
'If it's good for him, it's good for me,' he thought.
He asked his daughters to steal it from Medea.
'Secretly, of course,' he said.
But nothing is secret from a sorceress. She swapped over some sheets of paper. The daughters took the recipe and read out the instructions: 'Slice the body thinly and simmer the slices in a cast-iron cauldron. Season with herbs to flavour and stir smoothly until tender.'
'Are you sure that's right?' asked Pelias.
'It says so at the top,' his daughters promised him. 'Look here, "A Recipe for Youth".'
'I hope it won't take long,' sighted Pelias.
So they sliced him and simmered him and seasoned him and stirred. And that was the end of the false king Pelias.