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From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Start of Story
Age Rating 8 to 10.
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
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 shut up.
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 moonlight.
"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, as 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 Daedalus
built before he made himself a pair of wings, and flew away from our
island like a bird. That Daedalus 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 center 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
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 Daedalus, 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. O, 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 center 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 a while, 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 down."
"Come on, then, and try it!" was all that Theseus deigned to reply; for
he was far too magnanimous to assault his enemy with insolent language.
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 thunder storm. 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,
grazed 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 hands.
"Thanks to thee, dear Ariadne," answered Theseus, "I return victorious."
"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 Aegeus,
and my dear mother, Aethra, 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 the 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 accompany him:
"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 clockwork, 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
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 Aegeus, had enjoined it upon him to hoist sunshiny 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 Aegeus, 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 Aegeus 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.
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