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From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Start of Story
Age Rating 8 to 10.
Any other mortal man, except the very one whom Antaeus had now
encountered, would have been half frightened to death by the Giant's
ferocious aspect and terrible voice. But the stranger did not seem at
all disturbed. He carelessly lifted his club, and balanced it in his
hand, measuring Antaeus with his eye, from head to foot, not as if
wonder-smitten at his stature, but as if he had seen a great many Giants
before, and this was by no means the biggest of them. In fact, if the
Giant had been no bigger than the Pygmies (who stood pricking up their
ears, and looking and listening to what was going forward), the stranger
could not have been less afraid of him.
"Who are you, I say?" roared Antaeus again. "What's your name? Why do
you come hither? Speak, you vagabond, or I'll try the thickness of your
skull with my walking-stick!"
"You are a very discourteous Giant," answered the stranger quietly, "and
I shall probably have to teach you a little civility, before we part. As
for my name, it is Hercules. I have come hither because this is my most
convenient road to the garden of the Hesperides, whither I am going to
get three of the golden apples for King Eurystheus."
"Caitiff, you shall go no farther!" bellowed Antaeus, putting on a
grimmer look than before; for he had heard of the mighty Hercules, and
hated him because he was said to be so strong. "Neither shall you go
back whence you came!"
"How will you prevent me," asked Hercules, "from going whither I
"By hitting you a rap with this pine tree here," shouted Antaeus,
scowling so that he made himself the ugliest monster in Africa. "I am
fifty times stronger than you; and now that I stamp my foot upon the
ground, I am five hundred times stronger! I am ashamed to kill such a
puny little dwarf as you seem to be. I will make a slave of you, and you
shall likewise be the slave of my brethren here, the Pygmies. So throw
down your club and your other weapons; and as for that lion's skin, I
intend to have a pair of gloves made of it."
"Come and take it off my shoulders, then," answered Hercules, lifting
Then the Giant, grinning with rage, strode tower-like towards the
stranger (ten times strengthened at every step), and fetched a monstrous
blow at him with his pine tree, which Hercules caught upon his club; and
being more skilful than Antaeus, he paid him back such a rap upon the
sconce, that down tumbled the great lumbering man-mountain, flat upon
the ground. The poor little Pygmies (who really never dreamed that
anybody in the world was half so strong as their brother Antaeus) were a
good deal dismayed at this. But no sooner was the Giant down, than up
he bounced again, with tenfold might, and such a furious visage as was
horrible to behold. He aimed another blow at Hercules, but struck awry,
being blinded with wrath, and only hit his poor innocent Mother Earth,
who groaned and trembled at the stroke. His pine tree went so deep into
the ground, and stuck there so fast, that, before Antaeus could get it
out, Hercules brought down his club across his shoulders with a mighty
thwack, which made the Giant roar as if all sorts of intolerable noises
had come screeching and rumbling out of his immeasurable lungs in that
one cry. Away it went, over mountains and valleys, and, for aught I
know, was heard on the other side of the African deserts.
As for the Pygmies, their capital city was laid in ruins by the
concussion and vibration of the air; and, though there was uproar enough
without their help, they all set up a shriek out of three millions of
little throats, fancying, no doubt, that they swelled the Giant's bellow
by at least ten times as much. Meanwhile, Antaeus had scrambled upon his
feet again, and pulled his pine tree out of the earth; and, all aflame
with fury, and more outrageously strong than ever, he ran at Hercules,
and brought down another blow.
"This time, rascal," shouted he, "you shall not escape me."
But once more Hercules warded off the stroke with his club, and the
Giant's pine tree was shattered into a thousand splinters, most of which
flew among the Pygmies, and did them more mischief than I like to think
about. Before Antaeus could get out of the way, Hercules let drive
again, and gave him another knock-down blow, which sent him heels over
head, but served only to increase his already enormous and insufferable
strength. As for his rage, there is no telling what a fiery furnace it
had now got to be. His one eye was nothing but a circle of red flame.
Having now no weapons but his fists, he doubled them up (each bigger
than a hogshead), smote one against the other, and danced up and down
with absolute frenzy, flourishing his immense arms about, as if he meant
not merely to kill Hercules, but to smash the whole world to pieces.
"Come on!" roared this thundering Giant. "Let me hit you but one box on
the ear, and you'll never have the headache again."
Now Hercules (though strong enough, as you already know, to hold the
sky up) began to be sensible that he should never win the victory, if he
kept on knocking Antaeus down; for, by and by, if he hit him such hard
blows, the Giant would inevitably, by the help of his Mother Earth,
become stronger than the mighty Hercules himself. So, throwing down his
club, with which he had fought so many dreadful battles, the hero stood
ready to receive his antagonist with naked arms.
"Step forward," cried he. "Since I've broken your pine tree, we'll try
which is the better man at a wrestling match."
"Aha! then I'll soon satisfy you," shouted the Giant; for, if there was
one thing on which he prided himself more than another, it was his skill
in wrestling. "Villain, I'll fling you where you can never pick yourself
On came Antaeus, hopping and capering with the scorching heat of his
rage, and getting new vigor wherewith to wreak his passion, every time
But Hercules, you must understand, was wiser than this numskull of a
Giant, and had thought of a way to fight him--huge, earth-born monster
that he was--and to conquer him too, in spite of all that his Mother
Earth could do for him. Watching his opportunity, as the mad Giant made
a rush at him, Hercules caught him round the middle with both hands,
lifted him high into the air, and held him aloft overhead.
Just imagine it, my dear little friends. What a spectacle it must have
been, to see this monstrous fellow sprawling in the air, face downwards,
kicking out his long legs and wriggling his whole vast body, like a baby
when its father holds it at arm's length towards the ceiling.
But the most wonderful thing was, that, as soon as Antaeus was fairly
off the earth, he began to lose the vigor which he had gained by
touching it. Hercules very soon perceived that his troublesome enemy was
growing weaker, both because he struggled and kicked with less violence,
and because the thunder of his big voice subsided into a grumble. The
truth was that unless the Giant touched Mother Earth as often as once
in five minutes, not only his overgrown strength, but the very breath of
his life, would depart from him. Hercules had guessed this secret; and
it may be well for us all to remember it, in case we should ever have
to fight a battle with a fellow like Antaeus. For these earth-born
creatures are only difficult to conquer on their own ground, but may
easily be managed if we can contrive to lift them into a loftier and
purer region. So it proved with the poor Giant, whom I am really a
little sorry for, notwithstanding his uncivil way of treating strangers
who came to visit him.
When his strength and breath were quite gone, Hercules gave his huge
body a toss, and flung it about a mile off, where it fell heavily,
and lay with no more motion than a sand hill. It was too late for the
Giant's Mother Earth to help him now; and I should not wonder if his
ponderous bones were lying on the same spot to this very day, and were
mistaken for those of an uncommonly large elephant.
But, alas me! What a wailing did the poor little Pygmies set up when
they saw their enormous brother treated in this terrible manner! If
Hercules heard their shrieks, however, he took no notice, and perhaps
fancied them only the shrill, plaintive twittering of small birds that
had been frightened from their nests by the uproar of the battle between
himself and Antaeus. Indeed, his thoughts had been so much taken up with
the Giant, that he had never once looked at the Pygmies, nor even knew
that there was such a funny little nation in the world. And now, as he
had traveled a good way, and was also rather weary with his exertions in
the fight, he spread out his lion's skin on the ground, and, reclining
himself upon it, fell fast asleep.
As soon as the Pygmies saw Hercules preparing for a nap, they nodded
their little heads at one another, and winked with their little eyes.
And when his deep, regular breathing gave them notice that he was
asleep, they assembled together in an immense crowd, spreading over
a space of about twenty-seven feet square. One of their most eloquent
orators (and a valiant warrior enough, besides, though hardly so good
at any other weapon as he was with his tongue) climbed upon a toadstool,
and, from that elevated position, addressed the multitude. His
sentiments were pretty much as follows; or, at all events, something
like this was probably the upshot of his speech:
"Tall Pygmies and mighty little men! You and all of us have seen what
a public calamity has been brought to pass, and what an insult has here
been offered to the majesty of our nation. Yonder lies Antaeus, our
great friend and brother, slain, within our territory, by a miscreant
who took him at disadvantage, and fought him (if fighting it can be
called) in a way that neither man, nor Giant, nor Pygmy ever dreamed of
fighting, until this hour. And, adding a grievous contumely to the wrong
already done us, the miscreant has now fallen asleep as quietly as
if nothing were to be dreaded from our wrath! It behooves you,
fellow-countrymen, to consider in what aspect we shall stand before
the world, and what will be the verdict of impartial history, should we
suffer these accumulated outrages to go unavenged.
"Antaeus was our brother, born of that same beloved parent to whom we
owe the thews and sinews, as well as the courageous hearts, which
made him proud of our relationship. He was our faithful ally, and fell
fighting as much for our national rights and immunities as for his own
personal ones. We and our forefathers have dwelt in friendship with
him, and held affectionate intercourse as man to man, through immemorial
generations. You remember how often our entire people have reposed in
his great shadow, and how our little ones have played at hide-and-seek
in the tangles of his hair, and how his mighty footsteps have familiarly
gone to and fro among us, and never trodden upon any of our toes. And
there lies this dear brother--this sweet and amiable friend--this brave
and faithful ally---this virtuous Giant--this blameless and excellent
Antaeus--dead! Dead! Silent! Powerless! A mere mountain of clay! Forgive
my tears! Nay, I behold your own. Were we to drown the world with them,
could the world blame us?
"But to resume: Shall we, my countrymen, suffer this wicked stranger to
depart unharmed, and triumph in his treacherous victory, among distant
communities of the earth? Shall we not rather compel him to leave his
bones here on our soil, by the side of our slain brother's bones? so
that, while one skeleton shall remain as the everlasting monument of our
sorrow, the other shall endure as long, exhibiting to the whole human
race a terrible example of Pygmy vengeance! Such is the question. I put
it to you in full confidence of a response that shall be worthy of our
national character, and calculated to increase, rather than diminish,
the glory which our ancestors have transmitted to us, and which we
ourselves have proudly vindicated in our warfare with the cranes."
The orator was here interrupted by a burst of irrepressible enthusiasm;
every individual Pygmy crying out that the national honor must be
preserved at all hazards. He bowed, and, making a gesture for silence,
wound up his harangue in the following admirable manner:
"It only remains for us, then, to decide whether we shall carry on
the war in our national capacity--one united people against a common
enemy--or whether some champion, famous in former fights, shall be
selected to defy the slayer of our brother Antaeus to single combat.
In the latter case, though not unconscious that there may be taller men
among you, I hereby offer myself for that enviable duty. And believe me,
dear countrymen, whether I live or die, the honor of this great country,
and the fame bequeathed us by our heroic progenitors, shall suffer no
diminution in my hands. Never, while I can wield this sword, of which
I now fling away the scabbard--never, never, never, even if the crimson
hand that slew the great Antaeus shall lay me prostrate, like him, on
the soil which I give my life to defend."
So saying, this valiant Pygmy drew out his weapon (which was terrible to
behold, being as long as the blade of a penknife), and sent the scabbard
whirling over the heads of the multitude. His speech was followed by an
uproar of applause, as its patriotism and self-devotion unquestionably
deserved; and the shouts and clapping of hands would have been greatly
prolonged, had they not been rendered quite inaudible by a deep
respiration, vulgarly called a snore, from the sleeping Hercules.
It was finally decided that the whole nation of Pygmies should set to
work to destroy Hercules; not, be it understood, from any doubt that
a single champion would be capable of putting him to the sword, but
because he was a public enemy, and all were desirous of sharing in the
glory of his defeat. There was a debate whether the national honor did
not demand that a herald should be sent with a trumpet, to stand over
the ear of Hercules, and after blowing a blast right into it, to defy
him to the combat by formal proclamation. But two or three venerable
and sagacious Pygmies, well versed in state affairs, gave it as their
opinion that war already existed, and that it was their rightful
privilege to take the enemy by surprise. Moreover, if awakened, and
allowed to get upon his feet, Hercules might happen to do them a
mischief before he could be beaten down again. For, as these sage
counselors remarked, the stranger's club was really very big, and had
rattled like a thunderbolt against the skull of Antaeus. So the
Pygmies resolved to set aside all foolish punctilios, and assail their
antagonist at once.
Accordingly, all the fighting men of the nation took their weapons, and
went boldly up to Hercules, who still lay fast asleep, little dreaming
of the harm which the Pygmies meant to do him. A body of twenty thousand
archers marched in front, with their little bows all ready, and the
arrows on the string. The same number were ordered to clamber upon
Hercules, some with spades to dig his eyes out, and others with bundles
of hay, and all manner of rubbish with which they intended to plug up
his mouth and nostrils, so that he might perish for lack of breath.
These last, however, could by no means perform their appointed duty;
inasmuch as the enemy's breath rushed out of his nose in an obstreperous
hurricane and whirlwind, which blew the Pygmies away as fast as they
came nigh. It was found necessary, therefore, to hit upon some other
method of carrying on the war.
After holding a council, the captains ordered their troops to collect
sticks, straws, dry weeds, and whatever combustible stuff they could
find, and make a pile of it, heaping it high around the head of
Hercules. As a great many thousand Pygmies were employed in this task,
they soon brought together several bushels of inflammatory matter, and
raised so tall a heap, that, mounting on its summit, they were quite
upon a level with the sleeper's face. The archers, meanwhile, were
stationed within bow shot, with orders to let fly at Hercules the
instant that he stirred. Everything being in readiness, a torch was
applied to the pile, which immediately burst into flames, and soon waxed
hot enough to roast the enemy, had he but chosen to lie still. A Pygmy,
you know, though so very small, might set the world on fire, just as
easily as a Giant could; so that this was certainly the very best way
of dealing with their foe, provided they could have kept him quiet while
the conflagration was going forward.
But no sooner did Hercules begin to be scorched, than up he started,
with his hair in a red blaze.
"What's all this?" he cried, bewildered with sleep, and staring about
him as if he expected to see another Giant.
At that moment the twenty thousand archers twanged their bowstrings, and
the arrows came whizzing, like so many winged mosquitoes, right into
the face of Hercules. But I doubt whether more than half a dozen of them
punctured the skin, which was remarkably tough, as you know the skin of
a hero has good need to be.
"Villain!" shouted all the Pygmies at once. "You have killed the Giant
Antaeus, our great brother, and the ally of our nation. We declare
bloody war against you, and will slay you on the spot."
Surprised at the shrill piping of so many little voices, Hercules, after
putting out the conflagration of his hair, gazed all round about, but
could see nothing. At last, however, looking narrowly on the ground,
he espied the innumerable assemblage of Pygmies at his feet. He stooped
down, and taking up the nearest one between his thumb and finger, set
him on the palm of his left hand, and held him at a proper distance for
examination. It chanced to be the very identical Pygmy who had spoken
from the top of the toadstool, and had offered himself as a champion to
meet Hercules in single combat.
"What in the world, my little fellow," ejaculated Hercules, "may you
"I am your enemy," answered the valiant Pygmy, in his mightiest squeak.
"You have slain the enormous Antaeus, our brother by the mother's
side, and for ages the faithful ally of our illustrious nation. We are
determined to put you to death; and for my own part, I challenge you to
instant battle, on equal ground."
Hercules was so tickled with the Pygmy's big words and warlike gestures,
that he burst into a great explosion of laughter, and almost dropped
the poor little mite of a creature off the palm of his hand, through the
ecstasy and convulsion of his merriment.
"Upon my word," cried he, "I thought I had seen wonders before
to-day--hydras with nine heads, stags with golden horns, six-legged men,
three-headed dogs, giants with furnaces in their stomachs, and nobody
knows what besides. But here, on the palm of my hand, stands a wonder
that outdoes them all! Your body, my little friend, is about the size of
an ordinary man's finger. Pray, how big may your soul be?"
"As big as your own!" said the Pygmy.
Hercules was touched with the little man's dauntless courage, and could
not help acknowledging such a brotherhood with him as one hero feels for
"My good little people," said he, making a low obeisance to the grand
nation, "not for all the world would I do an intentional injury to such
brave fellows as you! Your hearts seem to me so exceedingly great, that,
upon my honor, I marvel how your small bodies can contain them. I sue
for peace, and, as a condition of it, will take five strides, and be out
of your kingdom at the sixth. Good-bye. I shall pick my steps carefully,
for fear of treading upon some fifty of you, without knowing it. Ha, ha,
ha! Ho, ho, ho! For once, Hercules acknowledges himself vanquished."
Some writers say, that Hercules gathered up the whole race of Pygmies
in his lion's skin, and carried them home to Greece, for the children of
King Eurystheus to play with. But this is a mistake. He left them, one
and all, within their own territory, where, for aught I can tell, their
descendants are alive to the present day, building their little houses,
cultivating their little fields, spanking their little children, waging
their little warfare with the cranes, doing their little business,
whatever it may be, and reading their little histories of ancient times.
In those histories, perhaps, it stands recorded, that, a great many
centuries ago, the valiant Pygmies avenged the death of the Giant
Antaeus by scaring away the mighty Hercules.
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