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From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Start of Story
Age Rating 8 to 10.
"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 Aegeus 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? This 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, Aegeus 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
Theseus held out his hand to take the wine. But, before he touched it,
King Aegeus trembled again. His eyes had fallen on the gold-hilted sword
that hung at the young man's side. He drew back the goblet.
"That sword!" he exclaimed: "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 Aethra) 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 Aegeus, flinging away the fatal goblet, and
tottering down from the throne to fall into the arms of Theseus. "Yes,
these are Aethra'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 staid 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, and 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 Aegeus 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
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 Aegeus 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 opened. 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 Aegeus, heaving a long sigh, "here is a very
lamentable matter in hand! This is the wofulest anniversary in the
whole year. It is the day when we annually draw lots to see which of
the youths and maids of Athens shall go to be devoured by the horrible
"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
But King Aegeus 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 young 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 Aegeus, "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 men."
"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 Aegeus 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 north-west,
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 grave again.
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 the
"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 young
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 had sense 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 butt-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
clockwork. But just when Theseus and his companions thought the blow was
coming, the brazen lips unclosed themselves, and the figure spoke.
"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 thunderstroke right amidships, because
Athens, so little while ago, had been at war with Crete.
"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 far away, 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.
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 Minotaur?"
"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
shine eyes inward on shine 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 Minotaur or the king! Take them away,
guards; and let this free-spoken youth be the Minotaur's first morsel."
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