In the Tanglewood Tales Nathaniel Hawthorne retells famous classical myths with imaginative charm that captures the universality and moral wisdom of the stories. Hawthorne’s lively, fresh retelling of six famous myths—“The Minotaur,” “The Pygmies,” “The Dragon’s Teeth,” “Circe’s Palace,” “The Pomegranate Seeds,” and “The Golden Fleece”—captures the essence of great stories that always possess, in Chesterton’s words, the combination of both the “strange” (the new) that evokes wonder and the “familiar” (the old) that expresses universality.
In “The Minotaur” Hawthorne’s art of storytelling illuminates the ugliness of evil in all its unnatural and vicious forms through the image of the Minotaur, a monster part man and part bull that each year devours fourteen Athenian youth chosen by lottery as sacrificial victims to satisfy the malice of King Minos. The Minotaur hides in the center of the labyrinth that none of the victims can escape. As Ariadne warns Theseus who has come to destroy the monster, “Were we to take a few steps from the doorway, we might wander about all our lifetime, and never find it again.” Evil lurks in secretive places as it lures its victims into the crooked ways of the maze.
Hawthorne’s vivid picture of the labyrinthine, devious, and serpentine nature of evil in all its cunning guile captures the insidiousness of evil’s artful ways that always seek to ensnare and destroy. Like other Greek myths that depict evil as monstrous, deformed, and hideous (the Gorgon’s Head, the Chimaera), “The Minotaur” also exposes evil’s repulsive, deadly nature. On the other hand, as Theseus arrives to be imprisoned as one of the victims, his noble nature shining with the heroic glory of goodness touches the heart of Minos’s daughter Ariadne. When she releases him from prison and urges him to save his life and leave for Athens, she hears the young hero proclaim, “I will never leave Athens unless I can first slay the Minotaur, and save my poor companions, and deliver Athens from this cruel tribute”—a magnanimity that inspires wonder. In these two examples alone of the loathsome Minotaur and the admirable Theseus Hawthorne gives good and evil realistic, vivid images that identify their natures with luminous clarity.
Hawthorne’s tale about the Pygmies illustrates another facet of evil—its lowly nature that contrasts with the large-mindedness of Theseus. Hawthorne portrays not only the littleness of the creatures only six inches in height but also depicts the smallness of their minds and the narrow-mindedness of their thinking. Smallness of mind means selfishness, pettiness, quarreling, and revenge. Living next to their neighbor, the giant Antaeus, who possesses “more strength on his little finger than in ten million of such bodies as theirs,” the Pygmies receive many benefits from the good-natured giant’s friendship. Antaeus with the breath of his mighty lungs moves the windmills; with the shadow of his great bulk he provides shade in the summer, and with the size of his outstretched body he offers a playground for the children “dodging in and out among his hair” and “running races on his forehead.” The gigantic Antaeus, however, is not only large in body but also great in mind, a magnanimous hero who overlooks all the irritations the Pygmies inflict upon him, “as troublesome to the Giant as a swarm of ants or mosquitoes.” He is large-minded enough to forgive and forget, to tolerate no grudges, and to ignore the impertinent behavior of the Pygmies who imagine themselves more intelligent than the giant.
The small-minded Pygmies, on the other hand, provoke petty wars with the Cranes and consider themselves to be heroic warriors admired by the nations of the world, parading “armed with sword and spear, and bow and arrow, blowing their tiny trumpet, and shouting their little war-cry.” They vainly boast of their success in war and proudly attribute their victory to the brilliance of Pygmy captains even though it is Antaeus who comes to their rescue “flourishing his club aloft and shouting at the cranes, who quacked and croaked, and retreated as fast as they could.” Even though Antaeus observes this ridiculous war with amusement and sees the Pygmies in battle as comical rather than valiant—the cranes snatching the little creatures in their beaks as they kick and scream in the air—the Pygmies boast of their astounding victories and their extraordinary fortitude. Thus the story exposes the many aspects of small-mindedness—its selfishness, conceit, vengefulness, and boastfulness. The small always need to appear great and use every means to assure themselves of their self-importance. The Pygmies use and exploit Antaeus as their instrument of power, as their amusement for the children, and as a convenience for their self-interest—never expressing gratitude to the friendly giant and never acknowledging their dependence upon his many favors.
When Hercules, another giant, travels through the land, the Pygmies instigate trouble by scheming to have one giant fight the other for the benefit of their little nation: “Get up, Antaeus! Bestir yourself, you lazy old Giant! Here comes another Giant, as strong as you are, to fight with you.” When Hercules defeats Antaeus by holding him face downwards until all his strength declines, the warmongering Pygmies swear undying revenge and march with 20,000 archers to slay the giant. Hercules cannot control his laughter in witnessing the arrows that harm him no more than mosquitoes. Ironically, he mockingly flatters the fearless fighters: “Not for all the world would I do an intentional injury to such brave fellows as you!” While Antaeus and Hercules laughed at the pompous antics of this vainglorious race, the Pygmies themselves recorded in their annals “that, a great many centuries ago, the valiant Pygmies avenged the death of the Giant Antaeus by scaring away the mighty Hercules.” The small must always be first and the center of the stage. Better than Ovid’s rendition of the story, Hawthorne’s version of the myth illuminates the difference between pride and humility, pettiness and nobility, and small-minded selfishness and large-minded generosity.
In “Circe’s Palace” Hawthorne’s account of Ulysses’ men transformed into pigs because of their gluttony exposes evil as the deadly effects of forbidden pleasure. The beautiful woman singing happily at the loom who welcomes the travelers into her palace with gracious hospitality drugs them with her magical potion and turns the men into animals “by tempting human beings into the vices which make beasts of them.” Brave soldiers become docile pigs. Fighting men determined to do battle against enemies and monsters and return home to Ithaca at all costs soon “forgot all about their homes, and their wives, and children, and all about Ulysses, and everything else, except this banquet, at which they wanted to keep feasting forever.”
This myth shows the wiles of temptations that promise good but deliver evil, that exaggerate the pleasure to be tasted while hiding the price to be paid. The classic story shows how human beings with godlike dignity lower themselves into despicable beasts, how manly men degrade themselves into enslaved servants governed by an enchantress, and how the sin of gluttony robs persons of their rational, civilized nature as beings capable of the virtue of temperance. Even though Ulysses’ men know from experience that the world consists of both barbarians and the civilized and of both true hospitality and false kindness, they unwittingly fail to learn from the cruelty and deception of the Cyclops and the Laestrygonians who nearly cost them their lives. They follow their belly and ignore reason, insisting, “We would not turn back, though we were certain that the king of the Laestrygons, as big as a mountain, would sit at the head of the table, and huge Polyphemus, the one-eye Cyclops, at its foot.” They will purchase pleasure even at the price of death.
Thus Hawthorne’s moral imagination captures the universal truth that the good and the pleasurable are not always the same, that instant gratification results in shameful consequences, and that worshipping the god of the belly instead of obeying the light of reason leads to disgust. These are just three of the treasures of moral wisdom found in these ancient stories that Hawthorne recreates with instruction and delight as he mingles the strange and the familiar with consummate art.