Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
A Wonder Book for Girls & Boys by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I think most of us have some basic knowledge on who Nathaniel Hawthorne was, having probably read The Scarlet Letter somewhere in high school. But did you know that Hawthorne also wrote kids’ books? And fantasy? And fantasy kids’ books? It’s true!
Wonder Book, published in 1851, is one of two children’s books that Hawthorne wrote during his life. It’s actually a short story collection, in which Hawthorne retells several different Greek myths. But the actual text is a little more ambitious and fun than what that simple premise describes.
First of all, Hawthorne gives his book a framing device. Wonder Book opens at a house called Tanglewood in rural Massachusetts, where a university student named Eustace Bright is chaperoning a group of young children. When the children demand to be told a story, Eustace decides to regale them with some of the classical literature he’s studied at school:
“…I will tell you one of the nursery tales that were made for the amusement of our great old grandmother, the Earth, when she was a child in frock and pinafore. There are a hundred such; and it is a wonder to me that they have not long ago been put into picture-books for little girls and boys. But, instead of that, old gray-bearded grandsires pore over them in musty volumes of Greek, and puzzle themselves with trying to find out when, and how, and for what they were made.”Page 6
There are a total of six stories in the book: the quest of Perseus to slay Medusa, the story of King Midas, the story of Pandora’s Box, one of the Twelve Labors of Heracles, the story of Baucis and Philemon and the story of Bellerophon taming the Pegasus. Commentary from Eustace and the children is interspersed throughout.
The work that Wonder Book reminds me of the most actually isn’t related to Greek myths. The way I see it, Hawthorne here is following in the footsteps of Charles and Mary Lamb with their Tales from Shakespeare, first published in 1807. Like Wonder Book, the purpose of Tales is to take famous works of literature and make them more accessible to children. While Hawthorne doesn’t make any explicit reference to this earlier book, he almost certainly would have been aware of it, and he goes about writing his own book in a similar way. In order to get little kids invested in these old works of literature, you have to realize that they don’t care about symbolism or historical significance or anything like that — they want a good story. So that’s what Hawthorne gives the reader, using vivid and playful language to craft his own unique spin on Greek mythology.
The Gorgons were more like an awful, gigantic kind of insect,—immense, golden-winged beetles, or dragon-flies, or things of that sort,—at once ugly and beautiful,—than like anything else; only that they were a thousand and a million times as big. And, with all this, there was something partly human about them, too. Luckily for Perseus, their faces were completely hidden from him by the posture in which they lay; for, had he but looked one instant at them, he would have fallen heavily out of the air, an image of senseless stone.Page 31
You must understand that the Old Man of the Sea, though he generally looked so much like the wave-beaten figure-head of a vessel, had the power of assuming any shape he pleased. When he found himself so roughly seized by Hercules, he had been in hopes of putting him into such surprise and terror, by these magical transformations, that the hero would be glad to let him go. If Hercules had relaxed his grasp, the Old One would certainly have plunged down to the very bottom of the sea, whence he would not soon have given himself the trouble of coming up, in order to answer any impertinent questions. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred, I suppose, would have been frightened out of their wits by the very first of his ugly shapes, and would have taken to their heels at once. For, one of the hardest things in this world is, to see the difference between real dangers and imaginary ones.
But, as Hercules held on so stubbornly, and only squeezed the Old One so much the tighter at every change of shape, and really put him to no small torture, he finally thought it best to reappear in his own figure. So there he was again, a fishy, scaly, web-footed sort of personage, with something like a tuft of sea-weed at his chin.
“Pray, what do you want with me?” cried the Old One, as soon as he could take breath; for it is quite a tiresome affair to go through so many false shapes. “Why do you squeeze me so hard? Let me go, this moment, or I shall begin to consider you an extremely uncivil person!”
“My name is Hercules!” roared the mighty stranger. “And you will never get out of my clutch, until you tell me the nearest way to the garden of the Hesperides!”Page 122
The framing devices with Eustace and the kids are equally fun to read. Hawthorne gives all the children names like Primrose and Dandelion and Cowslip, because “authors sometimes get themselves into great trouble by accidentally giving the names of real persons to the characters in their books” (page 3). Before and after each tale, they’re all joking around, spiraling off into random tangents and trading playful insults. Some of the discussions they get into are hilariously morbid, like when they’re trying to figure out how many gold coins you could make out of the statue that used to be King Midas’s daughter. But the funniest part is at the very end, when Eustace is telling the kids about all the authors he’d go visit if he could fly around on Pegasus:
“Have we not an author for our next neighbor?” asked Primrose. “That silent man, who lives in the old red house, near Tanglewood Avenue, and whom we sometimes meet, with two children at his side, in the woods or at the lake. I think I have heard of his having written a poem, or a romance, or an arithmetic, or a school-history, or some other kind of a book.”
“Hush, Primrose, hush!” exclaimed Eustace, in a thrilling whisper, and putting his finger on his lip. “Not a word about that man, even on a hill-top! If our babble were to reach his ears, and happen not to please him, he has but to fling a quire or two of paper into the stove, and you, Primrose, and I, and Periwinkle, Sweet Fern, Squash-Blossom, Blue Eye, Huckleberry, Clover, Cowslip, Plantain, Milkweed, Dandelion, and Buttercup,—yes, and wise Mr. Pringle, with his unfavorable criticisms on my legends, and poor Mrs. Pringle, too,—would all turn to smoke, and go whisking up the funnel! Our neighbor in the red house is a harmless sort of person enough, for aught I know, as concerns the rest of the world; but something whispers to me that he has a terrible power over ourselves, extending to nothing short of annihilation.”Page 208
That sound you’re hearing in the distance is Hawthorne bashing down the fourth wall with a sledgehammer.
This is a really fun book. And for a book from the 1850s, it’s actually aged pretty well. I could see young kids today enjoying this a lot: it’s weird, it’s silly, it’s exciting and it avoids talking down to its readers. And honestly, it makes me wish Hawthorne had written more kids’ books, because he was surprisingly good at it.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!