I have a lot of familiarity with the old mythologies. I love the old stories of the classical Greek and Roman myths. Even the old Norse mythology has its place, although it is so much darker. Darker, and more ominous.
Read the original Nibelungenlied, for example, if you don’t believe me. It is a gory, ghastly tale, and one of great power. Or any of the Icelandic Eddas. These are vast catalogues of blood-soaked feuds, vengeance, and contests for dominion.
In other words, life.
Every nation has its own traditions in this regard. India, China, Japan, and the Middle East all have their own mythological traditions. I even talked a bit about Kalila wa Dimna here recently. But of all the old myths, I love the story of Jason and the Argonauts the most. What a fantastic story, and what an incredible tale. We first find the story in written form with Apollonius Rhodius’s epic Argonautica; this appeared sometime during the third century B.C. You might want to re-acquaint yourself with this tale, if you haven’t heard it in a while.
It is a great story.
The ancients were convinced–probably rightly–that there really was a historical Jason, and that he had been a real person. They thought the same thing about Hercules (Heracles), too. And we cannot be sure they were wrong. All myths–the better ones, anyway–are based on fact. And the tale of the Golden Fleece is a profound one. Jason, the man with the one sandal, embarks on a quest to find the Golden Fleece. The purpose, ultimately, is to claim the throne that is rightfully his. But to claim this prize, he must endure countless hardships. Countless tribulations, betrayals, treacheries, and twists of fate.
Much like life, actually.
What matters here–beyond anything else–is that we have a true quest in the legend of the Golden Fleece. There is a deliberate setting out on a journey for the accomplishment of a specific goal. In other words, a quest. Every man needs a quest. Every man needs (1) a specific objective, and (2) a turbulent, brutal journey that leads either to the attainment of that goal, or to its non-attainment. Let me repeat that one more time. We need objective, and a difficult journey. Both. Not one, but both. With men, it doesn’t so much matter if we attain the goal. Well, it does in some ways. But in other ways, not so much.
What matters is the quest itself. The journey itself provides the crucible for the learning of the lessons.
These were some of the thoughts that went through my mind recently when I heard of the death of British adventurer Henry Worsley. He died attempting to complete the first solo trek across the Antarctic. He was actually a descendant of a man (Frank Worsley) who had been with Ernest Shackleton on the latter’s ill-fated polar expedition in the early 20th century. Worsley was an interesting man. He had been a soldier in the British Army for 36 years. He commanded the British military deployment in Afghanistan in 2001, and had served in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland. So he was not without experience of hardship.
Reckless? Foolish? Well, you could say this about nearly any feat of exploration or discovery. Discovery is not really supposed to be rational. It’s not supposed to come from a comfortable armchair in one’s living room. It is an inherently irrational impulse.
Always has been.
Organisms expand to fill their environment, as the biologist tells us. And men must go forth and explore, and penetrate the unknown, and complete their quests. This is the way it ought to be, and this is the way it is. Worsley was obsessed with Shackleton, actually. He couldn’t get him out of his mind. And the peacetime civilian life must have been a crashing bore to him as well. I mean, the indignity of it. Having to listen to some buck-toothed dunce in a London pub prattle on and on about social justice. He couldn’t stand it. He had to escape. Worsley had to get away, to get away, to go far, far away.
To follow in the footsteps of his ancestor, Frank Worsley. To retrace the steps of the great Shackleton. Some men just need to transcend the day-to-day drudgery of existence. They have to get out, to get away. They just can’t be happy with the evening news and a plate of wretched noodles. I like Worsley’s plan. It is an honorable one. He had succeeded in raising funds totaling over 100,000 pounds for injured military personnel; and he even managed to secure royal patronage for the expedition. But such projects are always risks. Always. And men will seek to follow in the footsteps of their heroes, quite literally in this case.
Worsley’s last audio message was somber and reflective. “My journey is at an end,” he said. “I have run out of time, physical endurance and a simple sheer inability to slide one ski in front of the other to travel the distance required to reach my goal.” He had already crossed over 900 miles, unassisted, and had to stop when he was only 30 miles from his destination. But 30 miles in the polar regions can seem like 3000 miles anywhere else.
Worsley was fascinated with Ernest Shackleton, and his audio diary recounts details of his predecessor’s struggles in the Antarctic a century earlier. Worsley began his journey pulling about 300 pounds of gear–food, equipment, and supplies–which would get lighter as he traveled. But Fate has a way of not cooperating. And Worsley, this Jason wearing the one sandal, was overwhelmed by events. He could not return to take his throne. But he had contracted a bacterial affliction called peritonitis, and even though he was flown to a hospital in Chile, he died shortly thereafter.
But he expired on his quest. It was his, not someone else’s. He was the one-sandaled Jason, entering the kingdom of Pelias, and demanding his inheritance. And he got it. I won’t say he “almost” got it, because his quest was his, and he expired while carrying it out. It is not easy to leave this world wrapped with this kind of dignity. When his battered body was lifted out of the stark-white desolation of the southern pole, it was not so much as a victim, but as a victor. Because all that matters is the quest. Everything else is just conversation.
I do not sing his funeral dirge. I celebrate his quest.
A victor, returning to claim his throne.
We should all be so lucky.
Read more in Lives of the Great Commanders: