Do not speak so harshly of poor King Pluto,” said Proserpina, kissing her mother. “He has some very good qualities; and I really think I can bear to spend six months in his palace, if he will only let me spend the other six with you. He certainly did very wrong to carry me off; but then, as he says, it was but a dismal sort of life for him, to live in that great gloomy place, all alone; and it has made a wonderful change in his spirits to have a little girl to run up stairs and down. There is some comfort in making him so happy; and so, upon the whole, dearest mother, let us be thankful that he is not to keep me the whole year round.”

I grew up fascinated with ancient mythology. The Nordic cycle, the Greco-Roman legends, but most especially Celtic myths, I devoured the lot. Robert Graves was a great help in supplying my addiction, his translations of Greek mythology in particular managing to present the adventures of various demi-gods, heroes and tricksters in an easily digestible form.

Of course, I read Graves’s translations as the literal truth of these myths. I did not realize they were reinterpretations of the original stories, or that the written versions of these tales represented dozens of differing accounts transcribed from ancient oral histories of same. Then we come to the Irish myths. I started to notice that the Christian religion was routinely inserted into stories featuring pagan heroes. This struck me as profoundly wrong. To reinterpret the story spoiled the original meaning. Mythology itself is the kind of subject you need to go to college to get access to the ‘real’ stuff, or perhaps more accurately a frank discussion.

Nathaniel Hawthorne had previously written a book titled A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys wherein the bawdy adventures of heroes was rewritten to become more suitable fare for children. Tanglewood Tales is a sequel of sorts to that book, with the narrator meeting up again with his young friend Eustace Bright, after having enjoyed a measure of commercial success thanks to the publication of the previous title. Hawthorne revisits another selection of Greco-Roman adventures, including the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, Hercules’ battle with Antaeus, the kidnapping of Europa and the visit of Ulysses to Circe.

Each of the tales is retold in a more folksy, humourous manner. Hawthorne, as part of the framing device, sees fit to correct the consensus view of certain mythological accounts. So for example Ariadne is not abandoned by Theseus, but stays on Crete to care for her aging father. The Minotaur itself, though monstrousness, is shown to be a figure deserving of pity. The encounter of Hercules with the Pygmies has the great hero be shamed into retreating from their passionate defence of their land, instead of turning the humble creatures into playthings for a child.

The book also contains a number of illustrations, depicting pivotal moments from these stories. Overall this is a sweet and entertaining revisiting of the Greek myths. I cannot take issue with the tone, or differing interpretations of the original stories, as they are, after all, simply one more among a multitude.

Sweet, witty and perfect introduction for children.

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