“Evil had never existed; and sorrow, misfortune, crime, were mere shadows which the mind fancifully created for itself, as a shelter against too sunny realities—or, at most, but prophetic dreams, to which the dreamer himself did not yield a waking credence. Children are now the only representatives of the men and women of that happy era; and therefore it is that we must raise the intellect and fancy to the level of childhood, in order to re-create the original myths.” (“The Wayside: Introductory,” 1310)
These words appear in the introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s second collection of reinterpretation of Greek myths, Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys. It lacks the superstructure of A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, but is set in the universe and provides the same type of challenge as the first volume by rewriting myths for a democratic age.
What are some of the lessons from this bygone age, this happy era? I will just pick ten at random.
1. Tyrants are defeated by courage, love, and ingenuity. One of the worst examples of this is King Minos of Crete, who maintained the Minotaur a maze, demanding his subject nation of Athens send him fourteen prisoners to be fed to the monster every year. Theseus of course overcomes the Minotaur, defeating Minos.
2. The oppressed have nothing to lose by speaking truth to power. As Theseus tells King Minos before facing the Minotaur: “I tell thee to thy face, King Minos, thou art a more hideous monster than the Minotaur himself.” (1329)
3. An army of pygmies can defeat Heracles. There are strength in numbers.
4. The muses sing about heroic deeds, not banalities.
5. Even rude centaurs can raise well-meaning, brave, and principled children, who know how to throw great parties (Fifty heroes on a boat, including Orpheus! I hope they brought enough wine.)
6. Women do not really need to join with the man at the end of the tale. Hawthorne rewrote Ariande so she is not abandoned on Naxos but stays with her defeated father.
7. Diversity is the norm. Giants and pygmies lived side by side as “brothers” and will risk their life for each other in necessary.
8. Everyone has some good characteristics and even the worst situation has a bright side. “Do not speak so harshly of poor King Pluto. He has some very good qualities, and I really think I can bear to spend six months in his palace if he will only let me spend the other six with you.” (1436)
9. Rulers step aside to ensure the survival of justice and kings can be chosen for virtues instead of blood. “Because Thasus was an upright, true-hearted, and courageous man, and therefore fit to rule.” (1366–1367)
10. Being imprisoned by a witch, tends to mean being served on by beautiful women and given no shortage of feasts. (At worst you might be turned into a pig.)
Of course this undisciplined and silly list fall short of including all the messages celebrating freedom and whitewashes some of the horrible messages contained within. In a sense, it really does not matter if the list is complete or fully honest. These tales are part of our collective heritage. They are as much a part of the commons as water or air (at least until Homer’s heirs find a way to copyright The Iliad).
Onto the four great Hawthorne novels.
Audiobook version of Tanglewood Tales. Enjoy!