| Thirty More Famous Stories Retold|
|by James Baldwin|
|This volume was written by the author in answer to the requests of hundreds of children for more stories like the ones they had enjoyed in Fifty Famous Stories Retold. This volume includes stories of historical events, scientific discoveries, and legendary heroes. The richer vocabulary and more complicated plot elements in these stories gradually accustom children to following a longer narrative. Ages 7-10 |
FRIAR BACON AND THE BRAZEN HEAD
I. THE WIZARD
 MORE than seven hundred years ago there was a professor
in the University of Oxford whose name was Roger Bacon.
People called him Friar Bacon; for he was a monk, and
in those days only monks and priests had anything to do
Friar Bacon was the greatest scholar in all Europe. He
knew so much more than his brother professors and monks
that some of them said he was a wizard and got all his
learning by the practice of magic. The common people
looked upon him with awe; and when they chanced to meet
him, or saw him at a distance, they muttered a charm to
ward off any evil spell that he might cast upon them.
The friar cared but little for all the talk that was
going on. He smiled, and continued his studies and
experiments just as before. "It makes little difference
what they say," he said.
One day he made a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal, and
sulphur, and invited several of the professors to come
and look at it. What was their amazement, when he
touched it with the smallest
 spark, to see the whole mixture go up in air with a
blinding flash and a fearful roar! It was only
gun-powder; but people were then ignorant of that
useful and fearful compound, and they would have
nothing to do with it for yet two hundred years.
"We told you so!" shouted the frightened monks as they
rushed out of the room. "He is a wizard. No honest man
could kindle a blaze so blinding or make a sound so
fearful. Why, the very earth trembled, and the smoke
was like that from a volcano. If this man is allowed
to go on he will destroy us all."
The end of the whole matter was that they put him out
of the university and said that they would have no more
of his magical doings. And to make sure that he would
let them alone, they locked him up in a narrow cell and
gave him only bread and water, and little enough of
that. Some even talked of fagots and fire as the very
best things to cure a wizard; but they dared not be too
severe with the friar lest they should displease the
Now the Pope knew Friar Bacon very well. In fact, the
two had been students at the same school in Paris when
both were young. They had formed a friendship at that
time which was never to be broken. The Pope was a wise
and broad-minded man, and he did not object to a little
magic of the
 kind in which Friar Bacon delighted; and when the fame
of Bacon's learning came to his ears he felt himself
honored by being the friend of such a man.
The action of the monks and professors at Oxford was
anything but pleasing to him. "The foolish fellows!" he
exclaimed. "They would punish the wisest man of the age
simply because he shows them their own ignorance." And
he commanded that the friar should be given his freedom
and be permitted to go where he chose.
The professors could do nothing but obey. With solemn
looks, but with oily words on their tongues, they
unbolted the door of the prison cell and bade their
prisoner come out and enjoy the sunshine again. "We
would not do you any harm for the world," they said;
"and to prove our friendship for you, we will pay your
expenses to London, or even to Paris, if you wish to go
there. The University of Oxford is but a poor place for
a man of your talents. Another person has already been
chosen to fill your chair."
This they said, hoping to get rid of him.
II. THE MANUSCRIPT
Friar Bacon was not ready, however, to go far from
Oxford. In the tower of an old monastery
 near by he found a room which exactly suited his wants,
and there he resolved to stay until he had finished
some experiments that he wished to try. He had a
learned friend, Friar Bungay, who came daily to visit
him; and his servant Miles kept the room in order and
attended to all his wants. He was happier there, with
his books and his instruments and his chemicals, than
he could have been in London or in Paris.
Every night, until long after the midnight hour, the
light of the friar's little lamp could be seen
glimmering through the narrow window of his study and
feebly twinkling in the darkness. The country people
who saw it at a distance shook their
 heads, and whispered that the old wizard was busy with
his magic again. And then they talked of the fearful
things that had been seen and heard around the gloomy
old tower. One man who had ventured quite close to it
on a dark night had beheld blue flames dancing on the
eaves and sheets of fire leaping from the roof. Another
had heard dreadful shrieks and sharp, deafening sounds
like thunder-claps issuing from the tower. A third had
seen a star shoot from the friar's window and lose
itself far up in the sky. Such tales filled many a
simple heart with awe.
Within his room, surrounded by his books and his
instruments, Friar Bacon was content to let the world
think of him as it would. One day Friar Bungay brought
to him an old Arabic manuscript which some wandering
knight had picked up in Spain or perhaps in far-away
Palestine. The two friends set to work at once to make
out its meaning. It was yellow and creased and covered
with many a mysterious sign, but Friar Bacon did not
lay it aside until he had read almost every word of it.
"It is strange, very strange," said he to Bungay, "but
I believe it can be done."
"What!" cried Bungay, "can lifeless brass be made to
speak and tell secrets that have been hidden from the
wisest of men?"
 "So says this manuscript," answered Bacon; "and here
are careful directions for making an instrument that
will give the dead metal a tongue;" and he translated
them again for his friend.
"The thing seems not unreasonable," said Bungay.
"Let us try it," said Bacon.
III. THE BRAZEN HEAD
For seven years the two monks toiled in secret. Every
day the furnace which they had built in the tower
glowed with white flame, and from the chimney top such
clouds of black smoke issued as caused the hearts of
the country folk to beat again with fear. Old kettles
and precious plates and ornaments gathered in foreign
lands were broken up and melted. The brass hilts of old
swords were thrown into the melting pot. Then came days
upon days of molding and shaping and fitting. And at
last the eyes of the two friends were gladdened by the
sight of the object of all their labor. It was the head
of an image of brass—faultlessly made, beautiful in
every line, a wonder to look upon.
Then began the true work of the magician. The head was
fastened upon a pedestal of marble. Clockwork was
placed inside of it. Wires were attached
 to the tongue, the eyeballs, and other parts of the
image. These were carried to mysterious jars of
chemicals hidden away in a dark closet. Everything was
done with care, strictly according to the directions
given in the manuscript.
When at last the work was ended, the two friars took
turns in watching the brazen head day and night. For
more than a month there was never a minute that one of
them was not sitting before it, and listening for any
sound that it might utter. Then, worn out by his
watching, Friar Bungay became ill and Friar Bacon
watched alone. But neither friars nor philosophers can
live long without sleep, and on the fifth night he was
"If I can keep awake but twelve hours longer," he
muttered, "the wonderful voice will speak and the great
secret will be known."
But he could not keep awake. His eyes closed in spite
of himself; his head sank upon his breast; he fell
gently back in his chair, and was asleep. In a moment
he roused himself only to do the same thing again. Over
and over this happened, until at last it lacked but
three hours of midnight.
"I can hold out no longer," he sighed. "Ah, if only
Friar Bungay could come!"
Then a new thought came into his mind. He
 rang a bell, and in a few minutes the servant Miles
came sleepily in, carrying a heavy cudgel.
"Miles," said the friar, "will you do me a great favor
"I will do anything that I can, master," answered
Miles, rubbing his eyes; "but I can neither fly nor
swim. What is it you would have done?"
"Do you see this brazen head?" said the friar; and as
he spoke he touched a secret spring which caused sparks
of light to flash from the image's eyes.
"Oh, master, you know that I see it," said Miles,
stepping back in alarm.
"Well, then, you must know that for nine and thirty
nights Friar Bungay and myself have watched this head.
Sooner or later, yes, perhaps even before another
morning dawns, its lips will utter a secret of the
greatest importance to every Englishman. And sad will
it be for us if we fail to hear what is said."
"Yes, master," said Miles, trembling as he glanced
about the room.
"You need not be afraid of the brazen head," said the
friar, as he touched another spring. "It may do strange
things, but it will harm no man." A sound like rolling
thunder filled the room, the image's eyes flashed
again, and a cloud of blue smoke came pouring from its
nostrils. Miles turned
 white with fear, and would have run out at the door had
not the friar held him by the arm.
"Do not be afraid," he said. "The head will not hurt
you. It does these things at my bidding. If you do not
touch it, it will remain quiet in its place, just as it
"I see, master, I see," said Miles; "and it is not
myself that will be afraid of a collection of brass.
Why, I have fought in forty battles in France and in
Flanders, and never yet have I known fear."
"You are certainly a brave man, Miles, and that is why
I have called you. The favor that I ask of you is this:
Will you watch here for me for an hour or two while I
get a little needed rest? You know that Brother Bungay
has failed me these five nights, and I cannot keep
"Is it to watch the house that you wish me? There is
certainly nothing hard in that. I will hold my good
cudgel in my hand, and keep my eyes on every door and
window so that no robbers will dare to come near."
"But it is the brazen head that I wish you to watch.
Keep your eyes on it, and if it should begin to speak,
then call me quickly."
"The brazen head, is it? Sure, and it cannot hurt me,
for you have said so. But you will let me
 keep the cudgel, in case the robbers might come, won't
"Oh, certainly, Miles."
"Then trust me, master. Go and take your rest, and I
will watch like a sentinel at his post."
"I do trust you, Miles. Good night!" And the weary
friar went sleepily to his chamber and threw himself
upon his bed.
IV. THE WATCHMAN
sat down close to the door with his cudgel in his
hand. For a while he kept himself awake by looking
about at the strange objects which his master used when
carrying on his studies. They were not unknown to him,
for he had seen them daily when serving the friar's
meals; but now in the dim light of the flickering lamp
they seemed to him like uncanny beings ready to pounce
upon him and destroy him. He grasped his cudgel with a
firmer grip, and looked at the brazen head. The face of
the image seemed to be beaming with a kindly smile, and
Miles felt much braver.
"The head cannot hurt me," he said to himself; "and so
why should I fear those other things? No, no, I am not
In the farthest corner upon his right was the carefully
closed cask in which was stored the
won-  derful black powder that had so frightened the
Oxford professors. Miles crossed himself when he saw
it, and drew a little farther away. Then his eyes
rested on a strange piece of glass, round like a wagon
wheel, through which the friar sometimes looked when
studying the stars. On a table close by were flasks of
all sizes and shapes, crucibles for melting metals, and
instruments whose use was known only to magicians.
While Miles was lost in thought about these strange
things a slight noise caused him to look again at the
brazen head. Its face still bore the smile that had
braced his courage up, and he grew bold enough to speak
"Ah, you head of brass," he said, "you are nothing but
yellow metal. You were made of the old kettles and
sword hilts that I brought to my master. How foolish
for any one to waste his time in watching you! How
silly of my master to starve himself and me, in order
to buy brass for your making! A magician like him
ought to know better. A snap of his fingers would bring
us food and raiment fit for kings; but, instead, he
spends his time with you, and we have nought but scraps
to eat and rags to wear. Come, Master Brassy-head, out
with your secret! And let it be a recipe for my master
to tell him how to get rich."
Just as he spoke the last words a bright flash as
 of lightning lit up the brazen face, and a low sound
like muttering thunder filled the room. The mouth of
the image opened, its lips seemed to move, and in a
voice scarcely louder than a whisper, it uttered the
Miles grasped his cudgel very hard and stood close by
the door, ready to run. But, as the image sat bolted
fast to its pedestal, and moved not, he soon grew very
"Is that all you can say, old Brassy-head?" he asked.
" 'Time is,' did you say? Well, that would be fine news
to carry to a scholar like Friar Bacon. You will have
to tell a better secret than that before I waken him to
Again the thunder rolled, and a brighter flash of
lightning filled the room. Again the mouth opened, the
lips moved, and a voice like the rattling of a brass
Miles put one hand on the door latch and with the other
shook the cudgel at the image.
"Only to think," he said, "that my master and Friar
Bungay should spend seven years in making a head which
can tell no other secret than that! Why everybody knows
that TIME WAS. Fie upon
 you for a brazen fraud, old Brassy-head! If you would
only speak a little Hebrew or Latin, I should begin to
think that you really have a secret to tell, and I
should waken my master to hear it."
Scarcely had he spoken when the room was lighted up
with the brightness of day. The face of the image was
no longer smiling, but it bore a dreadful frown. The
floor swayed and trembled. The head appeared to lift
itself from its pedestal, and in a voice of thunder it
 Miles in his great fright fainted and fell in a
senseless heap by the door. There was a dreadful crash,
a blinding cloud of smoke, and then all was still.
Friar Bacon, roused by the noise, rushed into the room.
The brazen head lay on the floor, shattered into a
"Miles! Miles!" cried the distracted friar.
The serving man slowly raised himself on his knees and
"Did the head speak?" asked the master. "Tell me
"Yes, master, he did speak," muttered Miles, shaking
with terror. "But he said nothing worth remembering."
"What did he say?"
"Why, at first he said, 'Time is,' and as that is a
secret which everybody knows, I urged him to say more.
Presently he spoke up again and said, 'Time was'; and
then, before I could run and call you, he roared out,
'Time is past,' and fell over against me with such a
crash as to knock my senses out of me."
"Oh, wretched fool!" cried Friar Bacon, angrily pushing
the man from the room. "Leave my sight! your
foolishness has caused the wreck of all my hopes. The
labor of seven years is lost. Had I been wakened, I
would have set machinery in motion to prevent this
ruin; and the brazen head
 would have told me how to do most wonderful things. It
would have told me how to build a wall around England
and make her the strongest of all nations. It would
have told me— But now, all is lost. I will make no
more experiments; I will burn my books; I will close my
study. The rest of my life shall be spent, like that of
any other monk, in the quiet cell of a monastery; and
when I die my poor name will be forgotten."
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