The Wonder-book for Boys and Girls (1851), along with its sequel The Tanglewood Tales (1852), were an attempt by the celebrated novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne — author of The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851) — to turn the Greek myths into something entertaining and edifying to young readers. It worked. The Wonder-book sold 4667 copies in its first two months. By comparison Moby Dick, which was published in the same month, sold less than 1800 copies in its first year. (Herman Melville had actually dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne — the intense friendship of the two writers has been brilliantly told by Philip Hoare in Leviathan, or the Whale ).
In his preface to Tanglewood Tales, Hawthorne reveals the reservations he felt about adapting the Greek myths into child-friendly form. Knowing that many of the old legends are “hideous … melancholy … miserable … abhorrent to our Christianized moral sense” he had wondered “How were they to be purified? How was the blessed sunshine to be thrown into them?” The idea of whitewashing the Greek myths may put off some twenty-first-century readers. Thankfully the project was not a complete success. Plenty of darkness survives. So for example in the retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur we learn of Procrustes, a man who ensured his visitors had the right size bed in uncompromising fashion:
In his cavern he had a bed, on which, with great pretense of hospitality, he invited his guests to lie down; but, if they happened to be shorter than the bed, this wicked villain stretched them out by main force; or, if they were too tall, he lopped off their heads or feet, and laughed at what he had done, as an excellent joke.
The 1921 edition we are featuring here is greatly enhanced by its otherworldly illustrations, all of which we’ve placed below. They are the work of Chicago-based artist Virginia Frances Sterrett who was just 20 at the time. The previous year she had blessed Old French Fairy Tales (1920) with more of her graphic magic, which you can see here and also buy as prints in our online shop here. If you are looking to get a copy of the Tanglewood Tales on your bookshelves without breaking the bank then we recommend this 2017 edition from The Planet Books complete with reproductions of Sterrett's beautiful illustrations.