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From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Age Rating 8 to 10.
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Start of Story
In the old city of Troezene, 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 Aethra. As for his
father, the boy had never seen him. But, from his earliest remembrance,
Aethra 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
Aegeus, 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 Aegeus, and often asked his good mother
Aethra why he did not come and live with them at Troezene.
"Ah, my dear son," answered Aethra, 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 Aegeus that I am his son?"
"That may happen by and by," said Aethra. "Be patient, and we 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 inquiring.
"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 earthy bed.
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 world.
"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 Aegeus 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
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.
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
"Mother, I do believe it has started!" cried he, after one of his
attempts. "The earth around it is certainly a little cracked!"
"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 Aethra 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 the world.
It was not more than a year afterwards when they were again sitting on
the moss-covered stone. Aethra 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 mother speak.
"Dear mother Aethra," 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 yet!"
"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! Aethra 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 Aegeus, 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
"That was your father's sword," said Aethra, "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 Aegeus 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 sandals.
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 travelers who happened to fall into his clutches. In his
cavern he had a bed, on which, with great pretense 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 tall, 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
traveled 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 Aegeus, "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 scepter, which ought to be his own by right of inheritance. Thus
these bad-hearted nephews of King Aegeus, 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 Aethra, 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 Aegeus would discover in the young
man's features any likeness either to himself or his mother Aethra, 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 Aegeus
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
"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
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 pretense of making them young again; but King Aegeus, 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 Aegeus, 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
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 scepter 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 Aegeus would recognize him, so
eager was he to throw himself into his arms.
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 wine!"
Now King Aegeus 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 growing 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 our dear son, and Aethra'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
He made up his mind, therefore, to let Theseus drink off the poisoned
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