Monday, November 1, 2010

The effect is like bedaubing a marble statue with paint - Hawthorne meddles with classical myths

Since I ended last week with a cutesy 19th century sex joke, it is only appropriate that I begin this week with another, this time from a book for children.

So King Cadmus dwelt in the palace, with his new friend Harmonia, and found a great deal of comfort in his magnificent abode, but would doubtless have found as much, if not more, in the humblest cottage by the wayside.  Before many years went by, there was a group of rosy little children (but how they came thither has always been a mystery to me) sporting in the great hall, and on the marble steps of the palace, and running joyfully to meet King Cadmus when affairs of state left him at leisure to play with them. (1381)

It’s between the parentheses. The joke. Look, I didn’t say it was a great joke. It's just unexpected. 

The source of that passage is the story “The Dragon’s Teeth” from Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys (1853) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, his second collection of Greek myths adapted for children.  I’m not entirely sure why I read it, or its predecessor A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (1852).  No, I do know.  The neurotic satisfaction of completeness.  What I don’t know is why I do not more actively combat my neuroses.  The two short kiddie books fill out the valuable Library of America Tales and Sketches of Hawthorne, which would be almost 1,200 pages without them, plenty long, but what’s another 300 pages on top of that heap.

If I had read these books as a child, I suspect I would have loved them, but I read lots of mythological stories, so I won't vouch for any other child's response.  I almost wonder if I did read some of these - a phrase or image here and there nagged at me - but who knows.  At their worst, Hawthorne makes some profound tales twee and trivial; at his best, he keeps the essence of the original while cleverly shaving off some of the less savory parts.  The first book, The Wonder Book, has a frame in which children, and a skeptical adult, comment on the stories:

"Eustace," remarked Mr. Pringle, after some deliberation, "I find it impossible to express such an opinion of this story as will be likely to gratify, in the smallest degree, your pride of authorship.  Pray let me advise you never more to meddle with a classical myth.  Your imagination is altogether Gothic, and will inevitably Gothicize everything that you touch.  The effect is like bedaubing a marble statue with paint.” (1254)

If I understand the current ideas about Greek statuary correctly, that last complaint has become doubly ironic.

Two good reasons for an adult to look at these stories.  First, The Wonder Book is part of the background of the delightful Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa, recommended to anyone, anywhere.  Second, just skip to the last two pages of The Wonder Book, where the inventor of the stories mounts Pegasus to visit Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes and Herman Melville, “shaping out the gigantic conception of his ‘White Whale’” (1301), before flying to Boston to have Ticknor & Co. publish A Wonder Book and becoming one of “the lights of the age,” a process that will take "about five months."

"Poor boy!" said Primrose, half aside. "What a disappointment awaits him!" (1302)

Page numbers from that Library of America book.


  1. You and Hawthorne do kiddie lit/YA fiction better than the rest of America's blog world, that's for sure!

  2. If you were so inclined, you might find a joke before the parentheses, namely, a pun on "abode" that exploits the ambiguity of "his" in "he found comfort in his magnificent abode."

    But that's just creepy!

    By the by, the pairing of "sex joke" and "children" is about as comfortable as buying Halloween candy and Astroglide.

    That's even creepier than a pun that falls flat.


  3. How sad, awful, and embarrassing is it that I didn't know this is what A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales actually were. But then, how wonderful that I know now, because I want to read them lots more. Admittedly, though, the earlier sex joke was better.

    Also, what Richard said.

  4. It's a dangerous pursuit, looking for the double entendres. They multiply alarmingly.

    I now what you mean, nicole, about the "what are these books" issue. The Tanglewood Music Festival and so on is actually named after the book (indirectly - it's named after an estate named after a house named after a cottage named after the book or something like that). But none of that is related to the content of the book.

    Richard, hold your praise until you see what I do with Laura Ingalls Wilder next week. No, go ahead - there's good stuff in Wilder. Philosophical disquisitions on the nature of time, for example. That will actually be a post, I think.

    Do you ever take a look at the transcendent A Journey Round My Skull? He puts up some unbelievable illustrations frm children's books, some of them completely insane. Surrealist, Constructivist, Expressionist, whatever. No need to lower standards with the kiddie books.