Select the desired text size
From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Start of Story
Age Rating 8 to 10.
This enterprise, you will understand, was, of all others, the most
difficult and dangerous in the world. In the first place it would be
necessary to make a long voyage through unknown seas. There was hardly
a hope, or a possibility, that any young man who should undertake this
voyage would either succeed in obtaining the Golden Fleece, or would
survive to return home, and tell of the perils he had run. The eyes of
King Pelias sparkled with joy, therefore, when he heard Jason's reply.
"Well said, wise man with the one sandal!" cried he. "Go, then, and at
the peril of your life, bring me back the Golden Fleece."
"I go," answered Jason, composedly. "If I fail, you need not fear that
I will ever come back to trouble you again. But if I return to Iolchos
with the prize, then, King Pelias, you must hasten down from your lofty
throne, and give me your crown and sceptre."
"That I will," said the king, with a sneer. "Meantime, I will keep them
very safely for you."
The first thing that Jason thought of doing, after he left the king's
presence, was to go to Dodona, and inquire of the Talking Oak what
course it was best to pursue. This wonderful tree stood in the center of
an ancient wood. Its stately trunk rose up a hundred feet into the air,
and threw a broad and dense shadow over more than an acre of ground.
Standing beneath it, Jason looked up among the knotted branches and
green leaves, and into the mysterious heart of the old tree, and spoke
aloud, as if he were addressing some person who was hidden in the depths
of the foliage.
"What shall I do," said he, "in order to win the Golden Fleece?"
At first there was a deep silence, not only within the shadow of the
Talking Oak, but all through the solitary wood. In a moment or two,
however, the leaves of the oak began to stir and rustle, as if a gentle
breeze were wandering amongst them, although the other trees of the wood
were perfectly still. The sound grew louder, and became like the roar of
a high wind. By and by, Jason imagined that he could distinguish words,
but very confusedly, because each separate leaf of the tree seemed to be
a tongue, and the whole myriad of tongues were babbling at once. But the
noise waxed broader and deeper, until it resembled a tornado sweeping
through the oak, and making one great utterance out of the thousand and
thousand of little murmurs which each leafy tongue had caused by its
rustling. And now, though it still had the tone of a mighty wind roaring
among the branches, it was also like a deep bass voice, speaking as
distinctly as a tree could be expected to speak, the following words:
"Go to Argus, the shipbuilder, and bid him build a galley with fifty
Then the voice melted again into the indistinct murmur of the rustling
leaves, and died gradually away. When it was quite gone, Jason felt
inclined to doubt whether he had actually heard the words, or whether
his fancy had not shaped them out of the ordinary sound made by a
breeze, while passing through the thick foliage of the tree.
But on inquiry among the people of Iolchos, he found that there was
really a man in the city, by the name of Argus, who was a very skilful
builder of vessels. This showed some intelligence in the oak; else how
should it have known that any such person existed? At Jason's request,
Argus readily consented to build him a galley so big that it should
require fifty strong men to row it; although no vessel of such a size
and burden had heretofore been seen in the world. So the head carpenter
and all his journeymen and apprentices began their work; and for a
good while afterwards, there they were, busily employed, hewing out the
timbers, and making a great clatter with their hammers; until the new
ship, which was called the Argo, seemed to be quite ready for sea. And,
as the Talking Oak had already given him such good advice, Jason thought
that it would not be amiss to ask for a little more. He visited it
again, therefore, and standing beside its huge, rough trunk, inquired
what he should do next.
This time, there was no such universal quivering of the leaves,
throughout the whole tree, as there had been before. But after a while,
Jason observed that the foliage of a great branch which stretched above
his head had begun to rustle, as if the wind were stirring that one
bough, while all the other boughs of the oak were at rest.
"Cut me off!" said the branch, as soon as it could speak distinctly;
"cut me off! cut me off! and carve me into a figure-head for your
Accordingly, Jason took the branch at its word, and lopped it off the
tree. A carver in the neighborhood engaged to make the figurehead.
He was a tolerably good workman, and had already carved several
figure-heads, in what he intended for feminine shapes, and looking
pretty much like those which we see nowadays stuck up under a vessel's
bowsprit, with great staring eyes, that never wink at the dash of the
spray. But (what was very strange) the carver found that his hand was
guided by some unseen power, and by a skill beyond his own, and that his
tools shaped out an image which he had never dreamed of. When the work
was finished, it turned out to be the figure of a beautiful woman, with
a helmet on her head, from beneath which the long ringlets fell down
upon her shoulders. On the left arm was a shield, and in its center
appeared a lifelike representation of the head of Medusa with the snaky
locks. The right arm was extended, as if pointing onward. The face of
this wonderful statue, though not angry or forbidding, was so grave and
majestic, that perhaps you might call it severe; and as for the mouth,
it seemed just ready to unclose its lips, and utter words of the deepest
Jason was delighted with the oaken image, and gave the carver no rest
until it was completed, and set up where a figure-head has always stood,
from that time to this, in the vessel's prow.
"And now," cried he, as he stood gazing at the calm, majestic face of
the statue, "I must go to the Talking Oak and inquire what next to do."
"There is no need of that, Jason," said a voice which, though it was
far lower, reminded him of the mighty tones of the great oak. "When you
desire good advice, you can seek it of me."
Jason had been looking straight into the face of the image when these
words were spoken. But he could hardly believe either his ears or his
eyes. The truth was, however, that the oaken lips had moved, and, to all
appearance, the voice had proceeded from the statue's mouth. Recovering
a little from his surprise, Jason bethought himself that the image had
been carved out of the wood of the Talking Oak, and that, therefore, it
was really no great wonder, but on the contrary, the most natural thing
in the world, that it should possess the faculty of speech. It would
have been very odd, indeed, if it had not. But certainly it was a great
piece of good fortune that he should be able to carry so wise a block of
wood along with him in his perilous voyage.
"Tell me, wondrous image," exclaimed Jason,--"since you inherit the
wisdom of the Speaking Oak of Dodona, whose daughter you are,--tell me,
where shall I find fifty bold youths, who will take each of them an oar
of my galley? They must have sturdy arms to row, and brave hearts to
encounter perils, or we shall never win the Golden Fleece."
"Go," replied the oaken image, "go, summon all the heroes of Greece."
And, in fact, considering what a great deed was to be done, could any
advice be wiser than this which Jason received from the figure-head of
his vessel? He lost no time in sending messengers to all the cities, and
making known to the whole people of Greece, that Prince Jason, the son
of King Jason, was going in quest of the Fleece of Gold, and that he
desired the help of forty-nine of the bravest and strongest young men
alive, to row his vessel and share his dangers. And Jason himself would
be the fiftieth.
At this news, the adventurous youths, all over the country, began to
bestir themselves. Some of them had already fought with giants, and
slain dragons; and the younger ones, who had not yet met with such
good fortune, thought it a shame to have lived so long without getting
astride of a flying serpent, or sticking their spears into a Chimaera,
or, at least, thrusting their right arms down a monstrous lion's throat.
There was a fair prospect that they would meet with plenty of such
adventures before finding the Golden Fleece. As soon as they could
furbish up their helmets and shields, therefore, and gird on their
trusty swords, they came thronging to Iolchos, and clambered on board
the new galley. Shaking hands with Jason, they assured him that they
did not care a pin for their lives, but would help row the vessel to
the remotest edge of the world, and as much farther as he might think it
best to go.
Many of these brave fellows had been educated by Chiron, the four-footed
pedagogue, and were therefore old schoolmates of Jason, and knew him
to be a lad of spirit. The mighty Hercules, whose shoulders afterwards
upheld the sky, was one of them. And there were Castor and Pollux, the
twin brothers, who were never accused of being chicken-hearted, although
they had been hatched out of an egg; and Theseus, who was so renowned
for killing the Minotaur, and Lynceus, with his wonderfully sharp eyes,
which could see through a millstone, or look right down into the depths
of the earth, and discover the treasures that were there; and Orpheus,
the very best of harpers, who sang and played upon his lyre so sweetly,
that the brute beasts stood upon their hind legs, and capered merrily
to the music. Yes, and at some of his more moving tunes, the rocks
bestirred their moss-grown bulk out of the ground, and a grove of forest
trees uprooted themselves, and, nodding their tops to one another,
performed a country dance.
One of the rowers was a beautiful young woman, named Atalanta, who had
been nursed among the mountains by a bear. So light of foot was this
fair damsel, that she could step from one foamy crest of a wave to
the foamy crest of another, without wetting more than the sole of her
sandal. She had grown up in a very wild way, and talked much about the
rights of women, and loved hunting and war far better than her needle.
But in my opinion, the most remarkable of this famous company were two
sons of the North Wind (airy youngsters, and of rather a blustering
disposition) who had wings on their shoulders, and, in case of a calm,
could puff out their cheeks, and blow almost as fresh a breeze as their
father. I ought not to forget the prophets and conjurors, of whom there
were several in the crew, and who could foretell what would happen
to-morrow or the next day, or a hundred years hence, but were generally
quite unconscious of what was passing at the moment.
Jason appointed Tiphys to be helmsman because he was a star-gazer, and
knew the points of the compass. Lynceus, on account of his sharp sight,
was stationed as a look-out in the prow, where he saw a whole day's sail
ahead, but was rather apt to overlook things that lay directly under his
nose. If the sea only happened to be deep enough, however, Lynceus could
tell you exactly what kind of rocks or sands were at the bottom of it;
and he often cried out to his companions, that they were sailing
over heaps of sunken treasure, which yet he was none the richer for
beholding. To confess the truth, few people believed him when he said
Well! But when the Argonauts, as these fifty brave adventurers were
called, had prepared everything for the voyage, an unforeseen difficulty
threatened to end it before it was begun. The vessel, you must
understand, was so long, and broad, and ponderous, that the united force
of all the fifty was insufficient to shove her into the water. Hercules,
I suppose, had not grown to his full strength, else he might have set
her afloat as easily as a little boy launches his boat upon a puddle.
But here were these fifty heroes, pushing, and straining, and growing
red in the face, without making the Argo start an inch. At last,
quite wearied out, they sat themselves down on the shore exceedingly
disconsolate, and thinking that the vessel must be left to rot and fall
in pieces, and that they must either swim across the sea or lose the
All at once, Jason bethought himself of the galley's miraculous
"O, daughter of the Talking Oak," cried he, "how shall we set to work to
get our vessel into the water?"
"Seat yourselves," answered the image (for it had known what had ought
to be done from the very first, and was only waiting for the question to
be put),--"seat yourselves, and handle your oars, and let Orpheus play
upon his harp."
Immediately the fifty heroes got on board, and seizing their oars, held
them perpendicularly in the air, while Orpheus (who liked such a task
far better than rowing) swept his fingers across the harp. At the first
ringing note of the music, they felt the vessel stir. Orpheus thrummed
away briskly, and the galley slid at once into the sea, dipping her prow
so deeply that the figure-head drank the wave with its marvelous lips,
and rising again as buoyant as a swan. The rowers plied their fifty
oars; the white foam boiled up before the prow; the water gurgled and
bubbled in their wake; while Orpheus continued to play so lively a
strain of music, that the vessel seemed to dance over the billows by way
of keeping time to it. Thus triumphantly did the Argo sail out of the
harbor, amidst the huzzas and good wishes of everybody except the wicked
old Pelias, who stood on a promontory, scowling at her, and wishing
that he could blow out of his lungs the tempest of wrath that was in his
heart, and so sink the galley with all on board. When they had sailed
above fifty miles over the sea, Lynceus happened to cast his sharp eyes
behind, and said that there was this bad-hearted king, still perched
upon the promontory, and scowling so gloomily that it looked like a
black thunder-cloud in that quarter of the horizon.
In order to make the time pass away more pleasantly during the voyage,
the heroes talked about the Golden Fleece. It originally belonged, it
appears, to a Boeotian ram, who had taken on his back two children, when
in danger of their lives, and fled with them over land and sea as far
as Colchis. One of the children, whose name was Helle, fell into the sea
and was drowned. But the other (a little boy, named Phrixus) was brought
safe ashore by the faithful ram, who, however, was so exhausted that
he immediately lay down and died. In memory of this good deed, and as
a token of his true heart, the fleece of the poor dead ram was
miraculously changed to gold, and became one of the most beautiful
objects ever seen on earth. It was hung upon a tree in a sacred grove,
where it had now been kept I know not how many years, and was the envy
of mighty kings, who had nothing so magnificent in any of their palaces.
If I were to tell you all the adventures of the Argonauts, it would take
me till nightfall, and perhaps a great deal longer. There was no lack of
wonderful events, as you may judge from what you have already heard.
At a certain island, they were hospitably received by King Cyzicus, its
sovereign, who made a feast for them, and treated them like brothers.
But the Argonauts saw that this good king looked downcast and very much
troubled, and they therefore inquired of him what was the matter. King
Cyzicus hereupon informed them that he and his subjects were greatly
abused and incommoded by the inhabitants of a neighboring mountain, who
made war upon them, and killed many people, and ravaged the country. And
while they were talking about it, Cyzicus pointed to the mountain, and
asked Jason and his companions what they saw there.
"I see some very tall objects," answered Jason; "but they are at such a
distance that I cannot distinctly make out what they are. To tell your
majesty the truth, they look so very strangely that I am inclined to
think them clouds, which have chanced to take something like human
"I see them very plainly," remarked Lynceus, whose eyes, you know, were
as far-sighted as a telescope. "They are a band of enormous giants, all
of whom have six arms apiece, and a club, a sword, or some other weapon
in each of their hands."
"You have excellent eyes," said King Cyzicus. "Yes; they are six-armed
giants, as you say, and these are the enemies whom I and my subjects
have to contend with."
The next day, when the Argonauts were about setting sail, down came
these terrible giants, stepping a hundred yards at a stride, brandishing
their six arms apiece, and looking formidable, so far aloft in the air.
Each of these monsters was able to carry on a whole war by himself,
for with one arm he could fling immense stones, and wield a club with
another, and a sword with a third, while the fourth was poking a long
spear at the enemy, and the fifth and sixth were shooting him with a bow
and arrow. But, luckily, though the giants were so huge, and had so many
arms, they had each but one heart, and that no bigger nor braver
than the heart of an ordinary man. Besides, if they had been like the
hundred-armed Briareus, the brave Argonauts would have given them their
hands full of fight. Jason and his friends went boldly to meet them,
slew a great many, and made the rest take to their heels, so that if the
giants had had six legs apiece instead of six arms, it would have served
them better to run away with.
Another strange adventure happened when the voyagers came to Thrace,
where they found a poor blind king, named Phineus, deserted by his
subjects, and living in a very sorrowful way, all by himself: On Jason's
inquiring whether they could do him any service, the king answered
that he was terribly tormented by three great winged creatures, called
Harpies, which had the faces of women, and the wings, bodies, and claws
of vultures. These ugly wretches were in the habit of snatching away
his dinner, and allowed him no peace of his life. Upon hearing this, the
Argonauts spread a plentiful feast on the sea-shore, well knowing, from
what the blind king said of their greediness, that the Harpies would
snuff up the scent of the victuals, and quickly come to steal them away.
And so it turned out; for, hardly was the table set, before the three
hideous vulture women came flapping their wings, seized the food in
their talons, and flew off as fast as they could. But the two sons of
the North Wind drew their swords, spread their pinions, and set off
through the air in pursuit of the thieves, whom they at last overtook
among some islands, after a chase of hundreds of miles. The two winged
youths blustered terribly at the Harpies (for they had the rough temper
of their father), and so frightened them with their drawn swords, that
they solemnly promised never to trouble King Phineus again.
Then the Argonauts sailed onward and met with many other marvelous
incidents, any one of which would make a story by itself. At one time
they landed on an island, and were reposing on the grass, when
they suddenly found themselves assailed by what seemed a shower of
steel-headed arrows. Some of them stuck in the ground, while others hit
against their shields, and several penetrated their flesh. The fifty
heroes started up, and looked about them for the hidden enemy, but could
find none, nor see any spot, on the whole island, where even a single
archer could lie concealed. Still, however, the steel-headed arrows came
whizzing among them; and, at last, happening to look upward, they beheld
a large flock of birds, hovering and wheeling aloft, and shooting their
feathers down upon the Argonauts. These feathers were the steel-headed
arrows that had so tormented them. There was no possibility of making
any resistance; and the fifty heroic Argonauts might all have been
killed or wounded by a flock of troublesome birds, without ever setting
eyes on the Golden Fleece, if Jason had not thought of asking the advice
of the oaken image.
So he ran to the galley as fast as his legs would carry him.
"O, daughter of the Speaking Oak," cried he, all out of breath, "we need
your wisdom more than ever before! We are in great peril from a flock of
birds, who are shooting us with their steel-pointed feathers. What can
we do to drive them away?"
"Make a clatter on your shields," said the image.
On receiving this excellent counsel, Jason hurried back to his
companions (who were far more dismayed than when they fought with the
six-armed giants), and bade them strike with their swords upon their
brazen shields. Forthwith the fifty heroes set heartily to work, banging
with might and main, and raised such a terrible clatter, that the birds
made what haste they could to get away; and though they had shot half
the feathers out of their wings, they were soon seen skimming among the
clouds, a long distance off, and looking like a flock of wild geese.
Orpheus celebrated this victory by playing a triumphant anthem on his
harp, and sang so melodiously that Jason begged him to desist, lest, as
the steel-feathered birds had been driven away by an ugly sound, they
might be enticed back again by a sweet one.
continued on page 3