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Classics for the Young: Middle School Literature

3 minutes

In A Wonder Book and The Tanglewood Tales Hawthorne retells some of the famous classical myths in an imaginative and charming style that captures the universality and moral wisdom of the stories and expresses the beauty of goodness and the ugliness of evil. He retells these favorites: “The Minotaur,” “The Pygmies,” “The Dragon’s Teeth,” “Circe’s Palace,” “The Pomegranate Seeds,” and “The Golden Fleece.”

In “The Pygmies,” for example, Hawthorne portrays not only the littleness of the creatures only six inches in height but also depicts the smallness of their minds and the narrow-mindedness of their thinking. Smallness of mind means selfishness, pettiness, quarreling, and revenge. Living next to their neighbor, the giant Antaeus, who possesses “more strength on his little finger than in ten million of such bodies as theirs,” the Pygmies receive many benefits from the good-natured giant’s friendship. Antaeus with the breath of his mighty lungs moves the windmills, with the shadow of his great bulk provides shade in the summer, and with the size of his outstretched body offers a playground for the children “dodging in and out among his hair” and “running races on his forehead.” The gigantic Antaeus, however, is not only large in body but also great in mind, a magnanimous hero who overlooks all the irritations the Pygmies inflict upon him. He is large-minded enough to forgive and forget, to tolerate no grudges, and to ignore the impertinent behavior of the Pygmies who imagine themselves more intelligent than the giant.

The small-minded Pygmies, on the other hand, provoke petty wars with the Cranes and consider themselves to be heroic warriors admired by the nations of the world, parading “armed with sword and spear, and bow and arrow, blowing their tiny trumpet, and shouting their little war-cry.” They vainly boast of their success in war and proudly attribute their victory to the brilliance of Pygmy captains even though it is Antaeus who comes to their rescue “flourishing his club aloft and shouting at the cranes, who quacked and croaked, and retreated as fast as they could.” Even though Antaeus observes this ridiculous war with amusement and sees the Pygmies in battle as comical rather than valiant—the cranes snatching the little creatures in their beaks as they kick and scream in the air—the Pygmies boast of their astounding victories and their extraordinary fortitude.

Thus the story exposes the many aspects of small-mindedness—its selfishness, conceit, vengefulness, and boastfulness. The small always need to appear great and use every means to assure themselves of their self-importance. The Pygmies use and exploit Antaeus as their instrument of power, as their amusement for the children, and as a convenience for their self-interest—never expressing gratitude to the friendly giant and never acknowledging their dependence upon his many favors.

When Hercules, another giant, travels through the land, the Pygmies instigate trouble by scheming to have one giant fight the other for the benefit of their little nation: “Get up, Antaeus! Bestir yourself, you lazy old Giant! Here comes another Giant, as strong as you are, to fight with you.” When Hercules defeats Antaeus by holding him face downwards until all his strength declines, the warmongering Pygmies swear undying revenge and march with 20,000 archers to slay the giant. Hercules cannot control his laughter in witnessing the arrows that harm him no more than mosquitoes. Ironically, he mockingly flatters the fearless fighters: “Not for all the world would I do an intentional injury to such brave fellows as you!”

While Antaeus and Hercules laugh at the pompous antics of this vainglorious group, they themselves record in their annals “that, a great many centuries ago, the valiant Pygmies avenged the death of the Giant Antaeus by scaring away the mighty Hercules.” Better than Ovid’s rendition of the story, Hawthorne’s version of the myth illuminates the difference between pride and humility, pettiness and nobility, and small-minded selfishness and large-minded generosity.

In “Circe’s Palace” Hawthorne’s account of Ulysses’ men transformed into pigs because of their gluttony exposes the deadly effects of forbidden pleasure. The beautiful woman singing happily at the loom who welcomes the travelers into her palace with gracious hospitality drugs them with her magical potion and turns the men into animals “by tempting human beings into the vices which make beasts of them.” Brave soldiers become docile pigs. Fighting men determined to do battle against enemies and monsters and return home to Ithaca at all costs soon “forgot all about their homes, and their wives, and children, and all about Ulysses, and everything else, except this banquet, at which they wanted to keep feasting forever.”

The classic story shows how human beings with godlike dignity lower themselves into despicable beasts, how manly men degrade themselves into enslaved servants governed by an enchantress, and how the sin of gluttony robs persons of their rational, civilized nature as beings capable of the virtue of temperance. They follow their bellies and ignore reason, insisting, “We would not turn back, though we were certain that the king of the Laestrygons, as big as a mountain, would sit at the head of the table, and huge Polyphemus, the one-eye Cyclops, at its foot.” They will purchase pleasure even at the price of death.

Thus Hawthorne’s moral imagination captures the universal truth that the good and the pleasurable are not always the same, that instant gratification results in shameful consequences, and that worshipping the god of the belly instead of obeying the light of reason leads to disgust. These are just two of the treasures of moral wisdom found in these ancient stories that Hawthorne recreates with great imaginative power, instruction, and delight.

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About Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian
The son of Armenian immigrants, Dr. Kalpakgian has taught at Simpson College, Christendom College and Wyoming Catholic College. He has authored several books and written for many Catholic publications. Meet Dr. Kalpakgian | See his Books
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