A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In these days of hot-and-cold running plagiarism lawsuits and zealously defended copyrights, the watchword in all creative works is Originality. Luckily, the heirs of Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, and their ilk are no longer enforcing their ownership of intellectual property. Otherwise, many of today's best entertainments would be up for challenge, if not for their overt content, at least for their themes. Sometimes the mania for strict originality becomes downright ridiculous, as in the oft-retweeted criticism of J. R. R. Tolkien for stealing ideas from J. K. Rowling.
I, for one, am a big supporter of the art of making old things new again. I have devoted many of my reviews to admiring the services of such authors as Walter Scott, Roger Lancelyn Green, Howard Pyle, Andrew Lang, Charles & Mary Lamb, and so on and on and on. In many instances, their retellings of older fables, legends, myths, and dramas have joined the originals amid the ranks of the classics, at least in some senses of the word "classic." Learning Greek and Latin is worthwhile, but reading Lancelyn Green is quicker. By the time your young classical scholar has painfully begun to construe Virgil and Ovid, he might not regret having read and enjoyed the same stories in a simple, friendly translation. And for the purpose of introducing young children to the wonders of ancient storytelling, no recycling could be more simple and friendly than that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of A Scarlet Letter.
In fact, if any fault is to be found in Hawthorne's adaptation of six tales of the ancient heroes, it may be the fault of being too precious, if not even patronizing, in his approach to the little heads and hearts of his hearers. But Hawthorne shields himself from this charge by putting a little "creative distance" between himself and the supposed adapter of the tales. For it seems that, during a relaxing retreat in the Massachusetts countryside (now the site of the Tanglewood Music Festival), where Hawthorne wrote this book, the author overheard these stories being told in their present form by a young scholar named Eustace Bright to a crowd of his younger siblings and cousins. The six tales are framed by passages in which we observe Eustace and the younger children recreating themselves amid the scenic charms of the Tanglewood estate and its neighborhood at different seasons of the year. The children all have floral nicknames like Primrose, Cowslip, and Dandelion, and although there seem to be a score of them (more or less), only a few of them speak up and display any sort of personality. The real, central character is Eustace Bright, and you learn what you know of him by the way he adapts Greek legends to the amusement of children of his day. And so, if you find any shortcomings in the way these stories are told, you must put them down to the unfinished education of young Mr. Bright, whose taste is perhaps not yet fully formed.
And which tales does he tell? The titles in Hawthorne's table of contents are helpful only as vague clues. Of course, "The Gorgon's Head" would have to be the story of Perseus, and how he slew snaky-headed Medusa, whose face had the same effect as the basilisk's gaze. And "The Golden Touch" can be easily identified as the affair of Midas, who foolishly wished for everything he touched to be changed into gold. Obviously this wish had drawbacks, as Midas learned when trying to eat or hugging his daughter. "The Paradise of Children" tells how Pandora opened the forbidden box and let all the troubles out into the world. "The Three Golden Apples" relates one of the adventures of Hercules, during which the Titan who holds the sky on his shoulders tries to leave Hercules in the lurch. In "The Miraculous Pitcher," two mysterious travelers reward an elderly couple named Baucis and Philemon for their humble hospitality... and punish the neighboring villagers for their lack of ditto. And finally, "The Chimæra" proves to be the story of Bellerophon, who (in case you don't know) is the character in Greek folklore who tamed Pegasus, the famed winged horse. Holy hippogriff!
All these stories are perfectly fabulous, and what Hawthorne (or Eustace Bright) leaves out will not be missed by small children. To be sure, those same children might not care if you left out the introductions and conclusions to each tale, in which the scene reverts to Eustace and the other children. I have it on good authority that the sequel, Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls, dispenses with these verbal picture-frames and lets the Eustace-Brightified legends stand on their own. For the serious student of this type of literature (I mean the "original" stuff), the bridge material is helpful in providing a little explanation of the way the stories have been modified—for example, infusing them with a moral sensibility that wasn't present in the authentic Greek version. But I am neither purist enough, nor copyright lawyer enough, to be picky about these things. For me, it is wonderful to see one great writer take the work of another and make it completely his own. And that is to say nothing of the miracle of sharing it with a child and making what was theirs, yours.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 10+
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