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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #294: Perseus

"Time to make the French Fries!"

Perseus was, in many ways, the original questing hero. His story contains many of the elements that have become essential tropes of adventure stories - an apparently humble origin, hidden divine parentage, a difficult journey to slay a dangerous monster and obtain a magical object (the Gorgon's head being one of the first MacGuffins), side quests to find enchanted objects, the mentorship of sympathetic gods, the rescue of a damsel in distress, revenge upon his mother's tormentors, and his eventual long and rewarding kingship. The tale of Perseus covers them all.

Like so many other Greek demigods, Perseus was a bastard son of Zeus. Perseus' mother, Danae, was prophesied to bear a son who would kill her father, Acrisius, King of Argos. Having never read his Sophocles, Acrisius seeks to evade this fate by locking his daughter in a bronze cage open to the sky. Naturally, Zeus sees her, is momentarily distracted by her beauty, and - I kid you not - comes to her as a "golden shower". Creepy imagery and standard god-date-rape aside, Danae gets pregnant. Acrisius finds out, and tosses the two into the sea in a locked chest, figuring if they don't make it, it's Poseidon's fault and not his, so Zeus can't get mad at him. Makes sense.

Eventually a fisherman finds them, and through a complicated series of events, young Perseus is tasked with bringing back Medusa's head to rescue his mother from a bad marriage, or something. Being a son of Zeus, Perseus undertakes the mission. He gets help from Athena and Hermes by way of the nymphs of the Hesperides (flying sandals, a mirrored shield, a sharp sword, a magic bag, a helmet of invisibility) and he finds the Gorgons. This part of the myth is familiar to everyone - he uses the shield to not look directly into the face of the Medusa, which turns men to stone, and succeeds in decapitating her and flying off with the severed head (which can still turn people into stone). While flying back to his mother and her unwanted suitor, he happens to notice a pretty girl tied up to a rock. That's Andromeda, princess of Ethiopia (and lily white). Her parents, Cephus and Cassiopeia, had bragged about her beauty, comparing it to the Nereids, sea-nymph daughters of Poseidon, so of course the prickly water-deity sent a leviathan to wreck things until they sacrificed Andromeda to it. That's the picture from the D'Aulaires' wonderful book: Andromeda chained up, Perseus coming to the rescue, and what I always assumed in my youth to be a big bad sea-potato with good dental work (and eyelashes) on the hunt. Perseus uses Medusa's head to turn the beast into stone (creating a rock formation near Lebanon, according to legend). Unfortunately he also turned her folks into stone. Collateral damage and all.

Anyway, Perseus and his new arm candy Andromeda rescue his mother, get married, turn his grandfather into stone for his earlier treatment of Danae, and then Perseus settles down for a healthy reign as king of someplace called Tiryns. Here's the key, though, and this is where Perseus vaults into most-favored-character status. All that cool stuff he got for his quest? He gives it all back. Except Andromeda. But the sword, the sandals, the shield, all of it, he returns to the gods, avoiding hubris and the attendant penalties. He is one of the few mythical Greek heroes to keep his promises and properly honor the gods, and so he gets to grow old and die in his bed and become a constellation. Well done, kid.

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