| Tanglewood Tales|
|by Nathaniel Hawthorne|
|Sequel to A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys by master storyteller Nathaniel Hawthorne. Six more Greek myths retold by the fictional Eustace Bright to his enthusiastic throng of young listeners, namely The Minotaur, The Pygmies, The Dragon's Teeth, Circe's Palace, The Pomegranate Seeds, and The Golden Fleece. Attractively illustrated by Willy Pogany. Ages 9-12 |
 IN the old city of Trœzene, at the foot of a lofty mountain,
there lived, a very long time ago, a little boy named Theseus.
His grandfather, King Pittheus, was the sovereign of that
country, and was reckoned a very wise man; so that Theseus,
being brought up in the royal palace, and being naturally a
bright lad, could hardly fail of profiting by the old king's
instructions. His mother's name was Æthra. As for his father,
the boy had never seen him. But, from his earliest remembrance,
Æthra used to go with little Theseus into a wood, and sit down
upon a moss-grown rock, which was deeply sunken into the earth.
Here she often talked with her son about his father, and said
that he was called Ægeus, and that he was a great king, and
ruled over Attica, and dwelt at Athens, which was as famous a
city as any in the world. Theseus was very fond of hearing
about King Ægeus, and often asked his good mother Æthra why
he did not come and live with them at Trœzene.
"Ah, my dear son," answered Æthra, with a sigh, "a monarch has
his people to take care of. The men and women over whom he
rules are in the place of children to him; and he can seldom
spare time to love his own children as other parents do. Your
father will never be able to leave his kingdom for the sake of
seeing his little boy."
"Well, but, dear mother," asked the boy, "why cannot I go to
this famous city of Athens, and tell King Ægeus that I am his
"That may happen by and by," said Æthra. "Be patient, and
shall see. You are not yet big and strong enough to set out on
such an errand."
"And how soon shall I be strong enough?" Theseus persisted in
"You are but a tiny boy as yet," replied his mother. "See if
you can lift this rock on which we are sitting."
The little fellow had a great opinion of his own strength. So,
grasping the rough protuberances of the rock, he tugged and
toiled amain, and got himself quite out of breath, without
being able to stir the heavy stone. It seemed to be rooted into
the ground. No wonder he could not move it; for it would have
taken all the force of a very strong man to lift it out of its
His mother stood looking on, with a sad kind of a smile on her
lips and in her eyes, to see the zealous and yet puny efforts
of her little boy. She could not help being sorrowful at
finding him already so impatient to begin his adventures in the
"You see how it is, my dear Theseus," said she. "You must
possess far more strength than now before I can trust you to go
to Athens, and tell King Ægeus that you are his son. But when
you can lift this rock, and show me what is hidden beneath it,
I promise you my permission to depart."
Often and often, after this, did Theseus ask his mother whether
it was yet time for him to go to Athens; and still his mother
pointed to the rock, and told him that, for years to come, he
could not be strong enough to move it. And again and again the
rosy-checked and curly-headed boy would tug and strain at the
huge mass of stone, striving, child as he was, to do what a
giant could hardly have done without taking both of his great
hands to the task. Meanwhile the rock seemed to be sinking
farther and farther into the ground. The moss grew over it
thicker and thicker, until at last it looked almost like a soft
green seat, with only a few gray knobs of granite peeping out.
The overhanging trees, also, shed their brown leaves upon it,
as often as the autumn came; and at its base grew ferns and
wild flowers, some of which crept quite over its surface. To
all appearance, the rock was as firmly fastened as any other
portion of the earth's substance.
THESEUS TRYING TO LIFT THE ROCK
But, difficult as the matter looked, Theseus was now growing up
to be such a vigorous youth, that, in his own opinion, the time
 would quickly come when he might hope to get the upper hand of
this ponderous lump of stone.
"Mother, I do believe it has started!" cried he, after one of
his attempts. "The earth around it is certainly a little
"No, no, child!" his mother hastily answered. "It is not
possible you can have moved it, such a boy as you still are!"
Nor would she be convinced, although Theseus showed her the
place where he fancied that the stem of a flower had been
partly uprooted by the movement of the rock. But Æthra sighed,
and looked disquieted; for, no doubt, she began to be conscious
that her son was no longer a child, and that, in a little while
hence, she must send him forth among the perils and troubles of
It was not more than a year afterwards when they were again
sitting on the moss-covered stone. Æthra had once more told
him the oft-repeated story of his father, and how gladly he
would receive Theseus at his stately palace, and how he would
present him to his courtiers and the people, and tell them that
here was the heir of his dominions. The eyes of Theseus glowed
with enthusiasm, and he would hardly sit still to hear his
"Dear mother Æthra," he exclaimed, "I never felt half so
strong as now! I am no longer a child, nor a boy, nor a mere
youth! I feel myself a man! It is now time to make one earnest
trial to remove the stone."
"Ah, my dearest Theseus," replied his mother "not yet! not
"Yes, mother," said he, resolutely, "the time has come!"
Then Theseus bent himself in good earnest to the task, and
strained every sinew, with manly strength and resolution. He
put his whole brave heart into the effort. He wrestled with the
big and sluggish stone, as if it had been a living enemy. He
heaved, he lifted, he resolved now to succeed, or else to
perish there, and let the rock be his monument forever! Æthra
stood gazing at him, and clasped her hands, partly with a
mother's pride, and partly with a mother's sorrow. The great
rock stirred! Yes, it was raised slowly from the bedded moss
and earth, uprooting the shrubs and flowers along with it, and
was turned upon its side! Theseus had conquered!
While taking breath, he looked joyfully at his mother, and she
smiled upon him through her tears.
 "Yes, Theseus," she said, "the time has come, and you must stay
no longer at my side! See what King Ægeus, your royal father,
left for you, beneath the stone, when he lifted it in his mighty
arms, and laid it on the spot whence you have now removed it."
Theseus looked, and saw that the rock had been placed over
another slab of stone, containing a cavity within it; so that
it somewhat resembled a roughly made chest or coffer, of which
the upper mass had served as the lid. Within the cavity lay a
sword, with a golden hilt, and a pair of sandals.
"That was your father's sword," said Æthra, "and those were
his sandals. When he went to be king of Athens, he bade me
treat you as a child until you should prove yourself a man by
lifting this heavy stone. That task being accomplished, you are
to put on his sandals, in order to follow in your father's
footsteps, and to gird on his sword, so that you may fight
giants and dragons, as King Ægeus did in his youth."
"I will set out for Athens this very day!" cried Theseus.
But his mother persuaded him to stay a day or two longer, while
she got ready some necessary articles for his journey. When his
grandfather, the wise King Pittheus, heard that Theseus
intended to present himself at his father's palace, he
earnestly advised him to get on board of a vessel, and go by
sea; because he might thus arrive within fifteen miles of
Athens, without either fatigue or danger.
"The roads are very bad by land," quoth the venerable king;
"and they are terribly infested with robbers and monsters. A
mere lad, like Theseus, is not fit to be trusted on such a
perilous journey, all by himself. No, no; let him go by sea."
But when Theseus heard of robbers and monsters, he pricked up
his ears, and was so much the more eager to take the road along
which they were to be met with. On the third day, therefore, he
bade a respectful farewell to his grandfather, thanking him for
all his kindness; and, after affectionately embracing his
mother, he set forth with a good many of her tears glistening
on his cheeks, and some, if the truth must be told, that had
gushed out of his own eyes. But he let the sun and wind dry
them, and walked stoutly on, playing with the golden hilt of
his sword, and taking very manly strides in his father's
 I cannot stop to tell you hardly any of the adventures that
befell Theseus on the road to Athens. It is enough to say, that
he quite cleared that part of the country of the robbers, about
whom King Pittheus had been so much alarmed. One of these bad
people was named Procrustes; and he was indeed a terrible
fellow, and had an ugly way of making fun of the poor travellers
who happened to fall into his clutches. In his cavern he had a
bed, on which, with great pretence of hospitality, he invited
his guests to lie down; but if they happened to be shorter
than the bed, this wicked villain stretched them out by main
force; or, if they were too long, he lopped off their heads or
feet, and laughed at what he had done, as an excellent joke.
Thus, however weary a man might be, he never liked to lie in
the bed of Procrustes. Another of these robbers, named Scinis,
must likewise have been a very great scoundrel. He was in the
habit of flinging his victims off a high cliff into the sea;
and, in order to give him exactly his deserts, Theseus tossed
him off the very same place. But if you will believe me, the
sea would not pollute itself by receiving such a bad person
into its bosom; neither would the earth, having once got rid of
him, consent to take him back; so that, between the cliff and
the sea, Scinis stuck fast in the air, which was forced to bear
the burden of his naughtiness.
After these memorable deeds, Theseus heard of an enormous sow,
which ran wild, and was the terror of all the farmers round
about; and, as he did not consider himself above doing any good
thing that came in his way, he killed this monstrous creature,
and gave the carcass to the poor people for bacon. The great
sow had been an awful beast, while ramping about the woods and
fields, but was a pleasant object enough when cut up into
joints, and smoking on I know not how many dinner tables.
Thus, by the time he reached his journey's end, Theseus had
done many valiant feats with his father's golden-hilted sword,
and had gained the renown of being one of the bravest young men
of the day. His fame travelled faster than he did, and reached
Athens before him. As he entered the city, he heard the
inhabitants talking at the street-corners, and saying that
Hercules was brave, and Jason too, and Castor and Pollux
likewise, but that Theseus, the son of their own king, would
turn out as great a hero as the best of them. Theseus took
longer strides on hearing this,
 and fancied himself sure of a
magnificent reception at his father's court, since he came
thither with Fame to blow her trumpet before him, and cry to
King Ægeus, "Behold your son!"
He little suspected, innocent youth that he was, that here, in
this very Athens, where his father reigned, a greater danger
awaited him than any which he had encountered on the road. Yet
this was the truth. You must understand that the father of
Theseus, though not very old in years, was almost worn out with
the cares of government, and had thus grown aged before his
time. His nephews, not expecting him to live a very great
while, intended to get all the power of the kingdom into their
own hands. But when they heard that Theseus had arrived in
Athens, and learned what a gallant young man he was, they saw
that he would not be at all the kind of a person to let them
steal away his father's crown and sceptre, which ought to be
his own by right of inheritance. Thus these bad-hearted nephews
of King Ægeus, who were the own cousins of Theseus, at once
became his enemies. A still more dangerous enemy was Medea, the
wicked enchantress; for she was now the king's wife, and wanted
to give the kingdom to her son Medus, instead of letting it be
given to the son of Æthra, whom she hated.
It so happened that the king's nephews met Theseus, and found
out who he was, just as he reached the entrance of the royal
palace. With all their evil designs against him, they pretended
to be their cousin's best friends, and expressed great joy at
making his acquaintance. They proposed to him that he should
come into the king's presence as a stranger, in order to try
whether Ægeus would discover in the young man's features any
likeness either to himself or his mother Æthra, and thus
recognize him for a son. Theseus consented; for he fancied that
his father would know him in a moment, by the love that was in
his heart. But, while he waited at the door, the nephews ran
and told King Ægeus that a young man had arrived in Athens,
who, to their certain knowledge, intended to put him to death,
and get possession of his royal crown.
"And he is now waiting for admission to your Majesty's
presence," added they.
"Aha!" cried the old king, on hearing this. "Why, he must be a
very wicked young fellow indeed! Pray, what would you advise me
to do with him? "
 In reply to this question, the wicked Medea put in her word. As
I have already told you, she was a famous enchantress.
According to some stories, she was in the habit of boiling old
people in a large caldron, under pretence of making them young
again; but King Ægeus, I suppose, did not fancy such an
uncomfortable way of growing young, or perhaps was contented to
be old, and therefore would never let himself be popped into
the caldron. If there were time to spare from more important
matters, I should be glad to tell you of Medea's fiery chariot,
drawn by winged dragons, in which the enchantress used often to
take an airing among the clouds. This chariot, in fact, was the
vehicle that first brought her to Athens, where she had done
nothing but mischief ever since her arrival. But these and many
other wonders must be left untold; and it is enough to say,
that Medea, amongst a thousand other bad things, knew how to
prepare a poison, that was instantly fatal to whomsoever might
so much as touch it with his lips.
So, when the king asked what he should do with Theseus, this
naughty woman had an answer ready at her tongue's end.
"Leave that to me, please your Majesty," she replied. "Only
admit this evil-minded young man to your presence, treat him
civilly, and invite him to drink a goblet of wine. Your Majesty
is well aware that I sometimes amuse myself by distilling very
powerful medicines. Here is one of them in this small phial. As
to what it is made of, that is one of my secrets of state. Do
but let me put a single drop into the goblet, and let the young
man taste it; and I will answer for it, he shall quite lay
aside the bad designs with which he comes hither."
As she said this, Medea smiled; but, for all her smiling face,
she meant nothing less than to poison the poor innocent
Theseus, before his father's eyes. And King Ægeus, like most
other kings, thought any punishment mild enough for a person
who was accused of plotting against his life. He therefore made
little or no objection to Medea's scheme, and as soon as the
poisonous wine was ready, gave orders that the young stranger
should be admitted into his presence.
The goblet was set on a table beside the king's throne; and a
fly, meaning just to sip a little from the brim, immediately
tumbled into it, dead. Observing this, Medea looked round at
the nephews, and smiled again.
 When Theseus was ushered into the royal apartment, the only
object that he seemed to behold was the white-bearded old king.
There he sat on his magnificent throne, a dazzling crown on his
head, and a sceptre in his hand. His aspect was stately and
majestic, although his years and infirmities weighed heavily
upon him, as if each year were a lump of lead, and each
infirmity a ponderous stone, and all were bundled up together,
and laid upon his weary shoulders. The tears both of joy and
sorrow sprang into the young man's eyes; for he thought how sad
it was to see his dear father so infirm, and how sweet it would
be to support him with his own youthful strength, and to cheer
him up with the alacrity of his loving spirit. When a son takes
a father into his warm heart, it renews the old man's youth in a
better way than by the heat of Medea's magic caldron. And this
was what Theseus resolved to do. He could scarcely wait to see
whether King Ægeus would recognize him, so eager was he to
throw himself into his arms.
THESEUS BEFORE KING AEGEUS
Advancing to the foot of the throne, he attempted to make a
little speech, which he had been thinking about as he came up
the stairs. But he was almost choked by a great many tender
feelings that gushed out of his heart and swelled into his
throat, all struggling to find utterance together. And
therefore, unless he could have laid his full, over-brimming
heart into the king's hand, poor Theseus knew not what to do or
say. The cunning Medea observed what was passing in the young
man's mind. She was more wicked at that moment than ever she
had been before; for (and it makes me tremble to tell you of
it) she did her worst to turn all this unspeakable love with
which Theseus was agitated, to his own ruin and destruction.
"Does your majesty see his confusion?" she whispered in the
king's ear. "He is so conscious of guilt, that he trembles and
cannot speak. The wretch lives too long! Quick! offer him the
Now King Ægeus had been gazing earnestly at the young
stranger, as he drew near the throne. There was something, he
knew not what, either in his white brow, or in the fine
expression of his mouth, or in his beautiful and tender eyes,
that made him indistinctly feel as if he had seen this youth
before; as if, indeed, he had trotted him on his knee when a
baby, and had beheld him
grow-  ing to be a stalwart man, while he
himself grew old. But Medea guessed how the king felt, and
would not suffer him to yield to these natural sensibilities;
although they were the voice of his deepest heart, telling him
as plainly as it could speak, that here was his dear son, and
Æthra's son, coming to claim him for a father. The enchantress
again whispered in the king's ear, and compelled him, by her
witchcraft, to see everything under a false aspect.
He made up his mind, therefore, to let Theseus drink off the
"Young man," said he, "you are welcome! I am proud to show
hospitality to so heroic a youth. Do me the favor to drink the
contents of this goblet. It is brimming over, as you see, with
delicious wine, such as I bestow only on those who are worthy
of it! None is more worthy to quaff it than yourself!"
So saying, King Ægeus took the golden goblet from the table,
and was about to offer it to Theseus. But, partly through his
infirmities, and partly because it seemed so sad a thing to
take away this young man's life. however wicked he might be,
and partly, no doubt, because his heart was wiser than his
head, and quaked within him at the thought of what he was going
to do,—for all these reasons, the king's hand trembled so much
that a great deal of the wine slopped over. In order to
strengthen his purpose, and fearing lest the whole of the
precious poison should be wasted, one of his nephews now
whispered to him,—
"Has your Majesty any doubt of this stranger's guilt? There is
the very sword with which he meant to slay you. How sharp, and
bright, and terrible it is! quick!—let him taste the wine; or
perhaps he may do the deed even yet."
At these words Ægeus drove every thought and feeling out of
his breast, except the one idea of how justly the young man
deserved to be put to death. He sat erect on his throne, and
held out the goblet of wine with a steady hand, and bent on
Theseus a frown of kingly severity; for, after all, he had too
noble a spirit to murder even a treacherous enemy with a
deceitful smile upon his face.
"Drink!" said he, in the stern tone with which he was wont to
condemn a criminal to be beheaded. "You have well deserved of
me such wine as this!"
Theseus held out his hand to take the wine. But, before he
 touched it, King Ægeus trembled again. His eyes had fallen on
the gold-hilled sword that hung at the young man's side. He
drew back the goblet.
"That sword!" he cried; "how came you by it?"
"It was my father's sword," replied Theseus with a tremulous
voice. "These were his sandals. My dear mother (her name is
Æthra) told me his story while I was yet a little child. But
it is only a month since I grew strong enough to lift the heavy
stone, and take the sword and sandals from beneath it, and come
to Athens to seek my father."
"My son! my son!" cried King Ægeus, flinging away the fatal
goblet, and tottering down from the throne to fall into the
arms of Theseus. "Yes, these are Æthra's eyes. It is my son."
I have quite forgotten what became of the king's nephews. But
when the wicked Medea saw this new turn of affairs, she hurried
out of the room, and going to her private chamber, lost no time
to setting her enchantments to work. In a few moments, she
heard a great noise of hissing snakes outside of the chamber
window; and behold! there was her fiery chariot, and four huge
winged serpents, wriggling and twisting in the air, flourishing
their tails higher than the top of the palace, and all ready to
set off on an aerial journey. Medea stayed only long enough to
take her son with her, and to steal the crown jewels, together
with the king's best robes, and whatever other valuable things
she could lay hands on; and getting into the chariot, she
whipped up the snakes, and ascended high over the city.
The king, hearing the hiss of the serpents, scrambled as fast
as he could to the window, and bawled out to the abominable
enchantress never to come back. The whole people of Athens,
too, who had run out of doors to see this wonderful spectacle,
set up a shout of joy at the prospect of getting rid of her.
Medea, almost bursting with rage, uttered precisely such a hiss
as one of her own snakes, only ten times more venomous and
spiteful; and glaring fiercely out of the blaze of the chariot,
she shook her hands over the multitude below, as if she were
scattering a million of curses among them. In so doing,
however, she unintentionally let fall about five hundred
diamonds of the first water, together with a thousand great
pearls, and two thousand emeralds, rubies, sapphires, opals,
 topazes, to which she had helped herself out of the king's
strong-box. All these came pelting down, like a shower of
many-colored hailstones, upon the heads of grown people and
children, who forthwith gathered them up, and carried them back
to the palace. But King Ægeus told them that they were welcome
to the whole, and to twice as many more, if he had them, for
the sake of his delight at finding his son, and losing the
wicked Medea. And, indeed, if you had seen how hateful was her
last look, as the flaming chariot flew upward, you would not
have wondered that both king and people should think her
departure a good riddance.
And now Prince Theseus was taken into great favor by his royal
father. The old king was never weary of having him sit beside
him on his throne (which was quite wide enough for two), and of
hearing him tell about his dear mother, and his childhood, and
his many boyish efforts to lift the ponderous stone. Theseus,
however, was much too brave and active a young man to be
willing to spend all his time in relating things which had
already happened. His ambition was to perform other and more
heroic deeds, which should be better worth telling in prose and
verse. Nor had he been long in Athens before he caught and
chained a terrible mad bull, and made a public show of him,
greatly to the wonder and admiration of good King Ægeus and
his subjects. But pretty soon, he undertook an affair that made
all his foregone adventures seem like mere boy's play. The
occasion of it was as follows:—
One morning, when Prince Theseus awoke, he fancied that he must
have had a very sorrowful dream, and that it was still running
in his mind, even now that his eyes were open. For it
appeared as if the air was full of a melancholy wail; and when
he listened more attentively, he could hear sobs and groans,
and screams of woe, mingled with deep, quiet sighs, which came
from the king's palace, and from the streets, and from the
temples, and from every habitation in the city. And all these
mournful noises, issuing out of thousands of separate hearts,
united themselves into one great sound of affliction, which had
startled Theseus from slumber. He put on his clothes as quickly
as he could (not forgetting his sandals and gold-hilted sword),
and, hastening to the king, inquired what it all meant.
"Alas! my son," quoth King Ægeus, heaving a long sigh, "here
 is a very lamentable matter in hand! This is the wofullest
anniversary in the whole year. It is the day when we annually
draw lots to see which of the youths and maidens of Athens shall
go to be devoured by the horrible Minotaur!"
"The Minotaur!" exclaimed Prince Theseus; and like a brave
young prince as he was, he put his hand to the hilt of his
sword. "What kind of a monster may that be? Is it not possible,
at the risk of one's life, to slay him?"
But King Ægeus shook his venerable head, and to convince
Theseus that it was quite a hopeless case, he gave him an
explanation of the whole affair. It seems that in the island of
Crete there lived a certain dreadful monster, called a
Minotaur, which was shaped partly like a man and partly like a
bull, and was altogether such a hideous sort of a creature that
it is really disagreeable to think of him. If he were suffered
to exist at all, it should have been on some desert island, or
in the duskiness of some deep cavern, where nobody would ever
be tormented by his abominable aspect. But King Minos, who
reigned over Crete, laid out a vast deal of money in building a
habitation for the Minotaur, and took great care of his health
and comfort, merely for mischief's sake. A few years before
this time, there had been a war between the city of Athens and
the island of Crete, in which the Athenians were beaten, and
compelled to beg for peace. No peace could they obtain,
however, except on condition that they should send seven young
men and seven maidens, every year, to be devoured by the pet
monster of the cruel King Minos. For three years past, this
grievous calamity had been borne. And the sobs, and groans, and
shrieks, with which the city was now filled, were caused by the
people's woe, because the fatal day had come again, when the
fourteen victims were to be chosen by lot; and the old people
feared lest their sons or daughters might be taken, and the
youths and damsels dreaded lest they themselves might be
destined to glut the ravenous maw of that detestable man-brute.
But when Theseus heard the story, he straightened himself up,
so that he seemed taller than ever before; and as for his face
it was indignant, despiteful, bold, tender, and compassionate,
all in one look.
"Let the people of Athens, this year, draw lots for only six
 men, instead of seven," said he, "I will myself be the
seventh; and let the Minotaur devour me if he can!"
"O my dear son," cried King Ægeus, "why should you expose
yourself to this horrible fate? You are a royal prince, and
have a right to hold yourself above the destinies of common
"It is because I am a prince, your son, and the rightful heir
of your kingdom, that I freely take upon me the calamity of
your subjects," answered Theseus. "And you, my father, being
king over these people, and answerable to Heaven for their
welfare, are bound to sacrifice what is dearest to you, rather
than that the son or daughter of the poorest citizen should
come to any harm."
The old king shed tears, and besought Theseus not to leave him
desolate in his old age, more especially as he had but just
begun to know the happiness of possessing a good and valiant
son. Theseus, however, felt that he was in the right, and
therefore would not give up his resolution. But he assured his
father that he did not intend to be eaten up, unresistingly,
like a sheep, and that, if the Minotaur devoured him, it should
not be without a battle for his dinner. And finally, since he
could not help it, King Ægeus consented to let him go. So a
vessel was got ready, and rigged with black sails; and Theseus,
with six other young men, and seven tender and beautiful
damsels, came down to the harbor to embark. A sorrowful
multitude accompanied them to the shore. There was the poor old
king, too, leaning on his son's arm, and looking as if his
single heart held all the grief of Athens.
Just as Prince Theseus was going on board, his father bethought
himself of one last word to say.
"My beloved son," said he, grasping the Prince's hand, "you
observe that the sails of this vessel are black; as indeed they
ought to be, since it goes upon a voyage of sorrow and despair.
Now, being weighed down with infirmities, I know not whether I
can survive till the vessel shall return. But, as long as I do
live, I shall creep daily to the top of yonder cliff, to watch
if there be a sail upon the sea. And, dearest Theseus, if by
some happy chance, you should escape the jaws of the Minotaur,
then tear down those dismal sails, and hoist others that shall
be bright as the sunshine. Beholding them on the horizon,
myself and all the people will know that you are coming back
victorious, and will welcome you with such a festal uproar as
Athens never heard before."
 Theseus promised that he would do so. Then going on board, the
mariners trimmed the vessel's black sails to the wind, which
blew faintly off the shore, being pretty much made up of the
sighs that everybody kept pouring forth on this melancholy
occasion. But by and by, when they had got fairly out to sea,
there came a stiff breeze from the northwest, and drove them
along as merrily over the white-capped waves as if they had
been going on the most delightful errand imaginable. And though
it was a sad business enough, I rather question whether
fourteen young people, without any old persons to keep them in
order, could continue to spend the whole time of the voyage in
being miserable. There had been some few dances upon the
undulating deck, I suspect, and some hearty bursts of laughter,
and other such unseasonable merriment among the victims, before
the high, blue mountains of Crete began to show themselves among
the far-off clouds. That sight, to be sure, made them all very
Theseus stood among the sailors, gazing eagerly towards the
land; although, as yet, it seemed hardly more substantial than
the clouds, amidst which the mountains were looming up. Once or
twice, he fancied that he saw a glare of some bright object, a
long way off, flinging a gleam across the waves.
"Did you see that flash of light?" he inquired of the master of
"No, prince; but I have seen it before," answered the master.
"It came from Talus, I suppose."
As the breeze came fresher just then, the master was busy with
trimming his sails, and had no more time to answer questions.
But while the vessel flew faster and faster towards Crete,
Theseus was astonished to behold a human figure, gigantic in
size, which appeared to be striding, with a measured movement,
along the margin of the island. It stepped from cliff to cliff,
and sometimes from one headland to another, while the sea
foamed and thundered on the shore beneath, and dashed its jets
of spray over the giant's feet. What was still more remarkable,
whenever the sun shone on this huge figure, it flickered and
glimmered; its vast countenance, too, had a metallic lustre,
and threw great flashes of splendor through the air. The folds
of its garments, moreover, instead of waving in the wind, fell
heavily over its limbs, as if woven of some kind of metal.
 The nigher the vessel came, the more Theseus wondered what this
immense giant could be, and whether it actually had life or no.
For though it walked, and made other lifelike motions, there
yet was a kind of jerk in its gait, which, together with its
brazen aspect, caused the prince to suspect that it was
no true giant, but only a wonderful piece of machinery. The
figure looked all the more terrible because it carried an
enormous brass club on its shoulder.
"What is this wonder?" Theseus asked of the master of the
vessel, who was now at leisure to answer him.
"It is Talus, the Man of Brass," said the master.
"And is he a live giant, or a brazen image?" asked Theseus.
"That, truly," replied the master, "is the point which has
always perplexed me. Some say, indeed, that this Talus was
hammered out for King Minos by Vulcan himself, the skilfullest
of all workers in metal. But who ever saw a brazen image that
 enough to walk round an island three times a day, as
this giant walks round the island of Crete, challenging every
vessel that comes nigh the shore? And, on the other hand, what
living thing, unless his sinews were made of brass, would not
be weary of marching eighteen hundred miles in the twenty-four
hours, as Talus does, without ever sitting down to rest? He is
a puzzler, take him how you will."
Still the vessel went bounding onward; and now Theseus could
hear the brazen clangor of the giant's footsteps, as he trod
heavily upon the sea-beaten rocks, some of which were seen to
crack and crumble into the foaming waves beneath his weight. As
they approached the entrance of the port, the giant straddled
clear across it, with a foot firmly planted on each headland,
and uplifting his club to such a height that its but-end was
hidden in the cloud, he stood in that formidable posture, with
the sun gleaming all over his metallic surface. There seemed
nothing else to be expected but that, the next moment, he would
fetch his great club down, slam bang, and smash the vessel into
a thousand pieces, without heeding how many innocent people he
might destroy; for there is seldom any mercy in a giant, you
know, and quite as little in a piece of brass clock-work. But
just when Theseus and his companions thought the blow was
coming, the brazen lips unclosed themselves, and the figure
"Whence come you, strangers?"
And when the ringing voice ceased, there was just such a
reverberation as you may have heard within a great church bell,
for a moment or two after the stroke of the hammer.
"From Athens!" shouted the master in reply.
"On what errand?" thundered the Man of Brass.
And he whirled his club aloft more threateningly than ever, as
if he were about to smite them with a thunder-stroke right
amidships, because Athens, so little while ago, had been at war
"We bring the seven youths and the seven maidens," answered the
master, "to be devoured by the Minotaur!"
"Pass!" cried the brazen giant.
That one loud word rolled all about the sky, while again there
was a booming reverberation within the figure's breast. The
vessel glided between the headlands of the port, and the giant
resumed his march. In a few moments, this wondrous sentinel was
 flashing in the distant sunshine, and revolving with
immense strides round the island of Crete, as it was his
never-ceasing task to do.
No sooner had they entered the harbor than a party of the
guards of King Minos came down to the water-side, and took
charge of the fourteen young men and damsels. Surrounded by
these armed warriors, Prince Theseus and his companions were
led to the king's palace, and ushered into his presence. Now,
Minos was a stern and pitiless king. If the figure that guarded
Crete was made of brass, then the monarch who ruled over it
might be thought to have a still harder metal in his breast,
and might have been called a man of iron. He bent his shaggy
brows upon the poor Athenian victims. Any other mortal,
beholding their fresh and tender beauty, and their innocent
looks, would have felt himself sitting on thorns until he had
made every soul of them happy by bidding them go free as the
summer wind. But this immitigable Minos cared only to examine
whether they were plump enough to satisfy the Minotaur's
appetite. For my part, I wish he himself had been the only
victim; and the monster would have found him a pretty tough
One after another, King Minos called these pale, frightened
youths and sobbing maidens to his footstool, gave them each a
poke in the ribs with his sceptre (to try whether they were in
good flesh or no), and dismissed them with a nod to his guards.
But when his eyes rested on Theseus, the king looked at him
more attentively, because his face was calm and brave.
"Young man," asked he, with his stern voice, "are you not
appalled at the certainty of being devoured by this terrible
"I have offered my life in a good cause," answered Theseus,
"and therefore I give it freely and gladly. But thou, King
Minos, art thou not thyself appalled, who, year after year,
hast perpetrated this dreadful wrong, by giving seven innocent
youths and as many maidens to be devoured by a monster? Dost
thou not tremble, wicked king, to turn thine eyes inward on
thine own heart? Sitting there on thy golden throne, and in thy
robes of majesty, I tell thee to thy face, King Minos, thou art
a more hideous monster than the Minotaur himself!"
"Aha! do you think me so?" cried the king, laughing in his
cruel way. "To-morrow, at breakfast time, you shall have an
opportunity of judging which is the greater monster, the
 the king! Take them away, guards; and let this
free-spoken youth be the Minotaur's first morsel."
Near the king's throne (though I had no time to tell you so
before) stood his daughter Ariadne. She was a beautiful and
tender-hearted maiden, and looked at these poor doomed captives
with very different feelings from those of the iron-breasted
King Minos. She really wept, indeed, at the idea of how much
human happiness would be needlessly thrown away, by giving so
many young people, in the first bloom and rose blossom of their
lives, to be eaten up by a creature who, no doubt, would have
preferred a fat ox, or even a large pig, to the plumpest of
them. And when she beheld the brave, spirited figure of Prince
Theseus bearing himself so calmly in his terrible peril, she
grew a hundred times more pitiful than before. As the guards
were taking him away, she flung herself at the king's feet, and
besought him to set all the captives free, and especially this
one young man.
"Peace, foolish girl!" answered King Minos.
"What hast thou to do with an affair like this? It is a matter
of state policy, and therefore quite beyond thy weak
comprehension. Go water thy flowers, and think no more of these
Athenian caitiffs, whom the Minotaur shall as certainly eat up
for breakfast as I will eat a partridge for my supper."
So saying, the king looked cruel enough to devour Theseus and
all the rest of the captives himself, had there been no
Minotaur to save him the trouble. As he would hear not another
word in their favor, the prisoners were now led away, and
clapped into a dungeon, where the jailer advised them to go to
sleep as soon as possible, because the Minotaur was in the
habit of calling for breakfast early. The seven maidens and
six of the young men soon sobbed themselves to slumber! But
Theseus was not like them. He felt conscious that he was wiser
and braver and stronger than his companions, and that
therefore he had the responsibility of all their lives upon
him, and must consider whether there was no way to save them,
even in this last extremity. So he kept himself awake, and
paced to and fro across the gloomy dungeon in which they were
Just before midnight, the door was softly unbarred, and the
gentle Ariadne showed herself, with a torch in her hand.
 "Are you awake, Prince Theseus?" she whispered.
"Yes," answered Theseus. "With so little time to live, I do not
choose to waste any of it in sleep."
"Then follow me," said Ariadne, "and tread softly."
What had become of the jailer and the guards, Theseus never
knew. But, however that might be, Ariadne opened all the doors,
and led him forth from the darksome prison into the pleasant
"Theseus," said the maiden, "you can now get on board your
vessel, and sail away for Athens."
"No," answered the young man; "I will never leave Crete unless
I can first slay the Minotaur, and save my poor companions, and
deliver Athens from this cruel tribute."
"I knew that this would be your resolution," said Ariadne.
"Come, then, with me, brave Theseus. Here is your own sword,
which the guards deprived you of. You will need it; and pray
Heaven you may use it well."
Then she led Theseus along by the hand until they came to a
dark, shadowy grove, where the moonlight wasted itself on the
tops of the trees, without shedding hardly so much as a
glimmering beam upon their pathway. After going a good way
through this obscurity, they reached a high, marble wall, which
was overgrown with creeping plants, that made it shaggy with
their verdure. The wall seemed to have no door, nor any
windows, but rose up, lofty, and massive, and mysterious, and
was neither to be clambered over, nor, so far as Theseus could
perceive, to be passed through. Nevertheless, Ariadne did but
press one of her soft little fingers against a particular block
of marble, and, though it looked as solid as any other part of
the wall, it yielded to her touch, disclosing an entrance just
wide enough to admit them They crept through, and the marble
stone swung back into its place.
"We are now," said Ariadne, "in the famous labyrinth which
Dædalus built before he made himself a pair of wings, and flew
away from our island like a bird. That Dædalus was a very
cunning workman; but of all his artful contrivances, this
labyrinth is the most wondrous. Were we to take but a few steps
from the doorway, we might wander about all our lifetime, and
never find it again. Yet in the very centre of this labyrinth
is the Minotaur; and, Theseus, you must go thither to seek
 "But how shall I ever find him," asked Theseus, "if the
labyrinth so bewilders me as you say it will?"
Just as he spoke they heard a rough and very disagreeable
roar, which greatly resembled the lowing of a fierce bull, but
yet had some sort of sound like the human voice. Theseus even
fancied a rude articulation in it, as if the creature that
uttered it were trying to shape his hoarse breath into words.
It was at some distance, however, and he really could not tell
whether it sounded most like a bull's roar or a man's harsh
"That is the Minotaur's noise," whispered Ariadne, closely
grasping the hand of Theseus, and pressing one of her own hands
to her heart, which was all in a tremble. "You must follow that
sound through the windings of the labyrinth, and, by and by,
you will find him. Stay! take the end of this silken string; I
will hold the other end; and then, if you win the victory, it
will lead you again to this spot. Farewell, brave Theseus."
So the young man took the end of the silken string in his left
hand, and his gold-hilted sword, ready drawn from its scabbard,
in the other, and trod boldly into the inscrutable labyrinth.
How this labyrinth was built is more than I can tell you. But
so cunningly contrived a mizmaze was never seen in the world,
before nor since. There can be nothing else so intricate,
unless it were the brain of a man like Dædalus, who planned
it, or the heart of any ordinary man; which last, to be sure,
is ten times as great a mystery as the labyrinth of Crete.
Theseus had not taken five steps before he lost sight of
Ariadne; and in five more his head was growing dizzy. But still
he went on, now creeping through a low arch, now ascending a
flight of steps, now in one crooked passage and now in another,
with here a door opening before him, and there one banging
behind, until it really seemed as if the walls spun round, and
whirled him round along with them. And all the while, through
these hollow avenues, now nearer, now farther off again,
resounded the cry of the Minotaur; and the sound was so fierce,
so cruel, so ugly, so like a bull's roar, and withal so like a
human voice, and yet like neither of them, that the brave heart
of Theseus grew sterner and angrier at every step; for he felt
it an insult to the moon and sky, and to our affectionate and
simple Mother Earth, that such a monster should have the
audacity to exist.
 As he passed onward, the clouds gathered over the moon, and the
labyrinth grew so dusky that Theseus could no longer discern
the bewilderment through which he was passing. He would have
left quite lost, and utterly hopeless of ever again walking in
a straight path, if, every little while, he had not been
conscious of a gentle twitch at the silken cord. Then he knew
that the tender-hearted Ariadne was still holding the other
end, and that she was fearing for him, and hoping for him, and
giving him just as much of her sympathy as if she were close by
his side. Oh, indeed, I can assure you, there was a vast deal of
human sympathy running along that slender thread of silk. But
still he followed the dreadful roar of the Minotaur, which now
grew louder and louder, and finally so very loud that Theseus
fully expected to come close upon him, at every new zizgag and
wriggle of the path. And at last, in an open space, at the very
centre of the labyrinth, he did discern the hideous creature.
Sure enough, what an ugly monster it was! Only his horned head
belonged to a bull; and yet, somehow or other, he looked like a
bull all over, preposterously waddling on his hind legs; or, if
you happened to view him in another way, he seemed wholly a
man, and all the more monstrous for being so. And there he was,
the wretched thing, with no society, no companion, no kind of a
mate, living only to do mischief, and incapable of knowing what
affection means. Theseus hated him, and shuddered at him, and
yet could not but be sensible of some sort of pity; and all the
more, the uglier and more detestable the creature was. For he
kept striding to and fro, in a solitary frenzy of rage,
continually emitting a hoarse roar, which was oddly mixed up
with half-shaped words; and, after listening awhile, Theseus
understood that the Minotaur was saying to himself how
miserable he was, and how hungry, and how he hated everybody,
and how he longed to eat up the human race alive.
Ah, the bull-headed villain! And O, my good little people, you
will perhaps see, one of these days, as I do now, that every
human being who suffers any thing evil to get into his nature,
or to remain there, is a kind of Minotaur, an enemy of his
fellow-creatures, and separated from all good companionship, as
this poor monster was.
Was Theseus afraid? By no means, my dear auditors. What!
 a hero
like Theseus afraid! Not had the Minotaur had twenty bull heads
instead of one. Bold as he was, however, I rather fancy that it
strengthened his valiant heart, just at this crisis, to feel a
tremulous twitch at the silken cord, which he was still holding
in his left hand. It was as if Ariadne were giving him all her
might and courage; and much as he already had, and little as
she had to give, it made his own seem twice as much. And to
confess the honest truth, he needed the whole; for now the
Minotaur, turning suddenly about, caught sight of Theseus, and
instantly lowered his horribly sharp horns, exactly as a mad
bull does when he means to rush against an enemy. At the same
time, he belched forth a tremendous roar, in which there was
something like the words of human language, but all disjointed
and shaken to pieces by passing through the gullet of a
miserably enraged brute.
Theseus could only guess what the creature intended to say, and
that rather by his gestures than his words; for the Minotaur's
horns were sharper than his wits, and of a great deal more
service to him than his tongue. But probably this was the sense
of what he uttered:—
"Ah, wretch of a human being! I'll stick my horns through you,
and toss you fifty feet high, and eat you up the moment you
"Come on, then, and try it!" was all that Theseus deigned to
reply; for he was far too magnanimous to assault his enemy with
Without more words on either side, there ensued the most awful
fight between Theseus and the Minotaur that ever happened
beneath the sun or moon. I really know not how it might have
turned out, if the monster, in his first headlong rush against
Theseus, had not missed him, by a hair's-breadth, and broken
one of his horns short off against the stone wall. On this
mishap, he bellowed so intolerably that a part of the labyrinth
tumbled down, and all the inhabitants of Crete mistook the
noise for an uncommonly heavy thunderstorm. Smarting with the
pain, he galloped around the open space in so ridiculous a way
that Theseus laughed at it, long afterwards, though not
precisely at the moment. After this, the two antagonists stood
valiantly up to one another, and fought sword to horn, for a
long while. At last, the Minotaur made a run at Theseus,
his left side with his horn, and flung him down; and thinking
that he had stabbed him to the heart, he cut a great caper in
the air, opened his bull mouth from ear to ear, and prepared to
snap his head off. But Theseus by this time had leaped up, and
caught the monster off his guard. Fetching a sword-stroke at
him with all his force, he hit him fair upon the neck, and made
his bull head skip six yards from his human body, which fell
down flat upon the ground.
So now the battle was ended. Immediately the moon shone out as
brightly as if all the troubles of the world, and all the
wickedness and the ugliness that infest human life, were past
and gone forever. And Theseus, as he leaned on his sword,
taking breath, felt another twitch of the silken cord; for all
through the terrible encounter, he had held it fast in his left
hand. Eager to let Ariadne know of his success, he followed the
guidance of the thread, and soon found himself at the entrance
of the labyrinth.
"Thou hast slain the monster," cried Ariadne, clasping her
"Thanks to thee, dear Ariadne," answered Theseus, "I return
"Then," said Ariadne, "we must quickly summon thy friends, and
get them and thyself on board the vessel before dawn. If
morning finds thee here, my father will avenge the Minotaur."
To make my story short, the poor captives were awakened, and,
hardly knowing whether it was not a joyful dream, were told of
what Theseus had done, and that they must set sail for Athens
before daybreak. Hastening down to the vessel, they all
clambered on board, except Prince Theseus, who lingered behind
them, on the strand, holding Ariadne's hand clasped in his own.
"Dear maiden," said he, "thou wilt surely go with us. Thou art
too gentle and sweet a child for such an iron-hearted father as
King Minos. He cares no more for thee than a granite rock cares
for the little flower that grows in one of its crevices. But my
father, King Ægeus, and my dear mother, Æthra, and all the
fathers and mothers in Athens, and all the sons and daughters
too, will love and honor thee as their benefactress. Come with
us, then; for King Minos will be very angry when he knows what
thou hast done."
 Now, some low-minded people, who pretend to tell the story of
Theseus and Ariadne, have the face to say that this royal and
honorable maiden did really flee away, under cover of the
night, with this young stranger whose life she had preserved.
They say, too, that Prince Theseus (who would have died sooner
than wrong the meanest creature in the world) ungratefully
deserted Ariadne, on a solitary island, where the vessel
touched on its voyage to Athens. But, had the noble Theseus
heard these falsehoods, he would have served their slanderous
authors as he served the Minotaur! Here is what Ariadne
answered, when the brave prince of Athens besought her to
"No, Theseus," the maiden said, pressing his hand, and then
drawing back a step or two, "I cannot go with you. My father is
old, and has nobody but myself to love him. Hard as you think
his heart is, it would break to lose me. At first King Minos
will be angry; but he will soon forgive his only child; and, by
and by, he will rejoice, I know, that no more youths and
maidens must come from Athens to be devoured by the Minotaur. I
have saved you, Theseus, as much for my father's sake as for
your own. Farewell! Heaven bless you!"
All this was so true, and so maiden-like, and was spoken with
so sweet a dignity, that Theseus would have blushed to urge her
any longer. Nothing remained for him, therefore, but to bid
Ariadne an affectionate farewell, and to go on board the
vessel, and set sail.
In a few moments the white foam was boiling up before their
prow, as Prince Theseus and his companions sailed out of the
harbor, with a whistling breeze behind them. Talus, the brazen
giant, on his never-ceasing sentinel's march, happened to be
approaching that part of the coast; and they saw him, by the
glimmering of the moonbeams on his polished surface, while he
was yet a great way off. As the figure moved like clock-work,
however, and could neither hasten his enormous strides nor
retard them, he arrived at the port when they were just beyond
the reach of his club. Nevertheless, straddling from headland
to headland, as his custom was, Talus attempted to strike a
blow at the vessel, and, overreaching himself, tumbled at full
length into the sea, which splashed high over his gigantic
shape, as when an iceberg turns a somerset. There he lies yet;
and whoever desires to enrich himself by means of brass had
better go thither with a diving-bell, and fish up Talus.
 On the homeward voyage, the fourteen youths and damsels were in
excellent spirits, as you will easily suppose. They spent most
of their time in dancing, unless when the sidelong breeze made
the deck slope too much. In due season, they came within sight
of the coast of Attica, which was their native country. But
here, I am grieved to tell you, happened a sad misfortune.
You will remember (what Theseus unfortunately forgot) that his
father, King Ægeus, had enjoined it upon him to hoist sunshine
sails, instead of black ones, in case he should overcome the
Minotaur, and return victorious. In the joy of their success,
however, and amidst the sports, dancing, and other merriment,
with which these young folks wore away the time, they never
once thought whether their sails were black, white, or rainbow
colored, and, indeed, left it entirely to the mariners whether
they had any sails at all. Thus the vessel returned, like a
raven, with the same sable wings that had wafted her away. But
poor King Ægeus, day after day, infirm as he was, had
clambered to the summit of a cliff that overhung the sea, and
there sat watching for Prince Theseus, homeward bound; and no
sooner did he behold the fatal blackness of the sails, than he
concluded that his dear son, whom he loved so much, and felt so
proud of, had been eaten by the Minotaur. He could not bear the
thought of living any longer; so, first flinging his crown and
sceptre into the sea (useless baubles that they were to him
now!), King Ægeus merely stooped forward, and fell headlong
over the cliff, and was drowned, poor soul, in the waves that
foamed at its base!
This was melancholy news for Prince Theseus, who, when he
stepped ashore, found himself king of all the country, whether
he would or no; and such a turn of fortune was enough to make
any young man feel very much out of spirits. However, he sent
for his dear mother to Athens, and, by taking her advice in
matters of state, became a very excellent monarch, and was
greatly beloved by his people.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics