The Gorgon's Head
Nathaniel Hawthorne [More Titles by Hawthorne
The author has long been of opinion that many of the classical myths
were capable of being rendered into very capital reading for children.
In the little volume here offered to the public, he has worked up half a
dozen of them, with this end in view. A great freedom of treatment was
necessary to his plan; but it will be observed by every one who attempts
to render these legends malleable in his intellectual furnace, that they
are marvellously independent of all temporary modes and circumstances.
They remain essentially the same, after changes that would affect the
identity of almost anything else.
He does not, therefore, plead guilty to a sacrilege, in having sometimes
shaped anew, as his fancy dictated, the forms that have been hallowed by
an antiquity of two or three thousand years. No epoch of time can claim
a copyright in these immortal fables. They seem never to have been
made; and certainly, so long as man exists, they can never perish; but,
by their indestructibility itself, they are legitimate subjects for
every age to clothe with its own garniture of manners and sentiment, and
to imbue with its own morality. In the present version they may have
lost much of their classical aspect (or, at all events, the author has
not been careful to preserve it), and have, perhaps, assumed a Gothic or
In performing this pleasant task,--for it has been really a task fit for
hot weather, and one of the most agreeable, of a literary kind, which he
ever undertook,--the author has not always thought it necessary to write
downward, in order to meet the comprehension of children. He has
generally suffered the theme to soar, whenever such was its tendency,
and when he himself was buoyant enough to follow without an effort.
Children possess an unestimated sensibility to whatever is deep or high,
in imagination or feeling, so long as it is simple, likewise. It is
only the artificial and the complex that bewilder them.
Lenox, July 15, 1851.
THE GORGON'S HEAD
INTRODUCTORY TO "THE GORGON'S HEAD."
Beneath the porch of the country-seat called Tanglewood, one fine
autumnal morning, was assembled a merry party of little folks, with a
tall youth in the midst of them. They had planned a nutting expedition,
and were impatiently waiting for the mists to roll up the hill-slopes,
and for the sun to pour the warmth of the Indian summer over the fields
and pastures, and into the nooks of the many-colored woods. There was a
prospect of as fine a day as ever gladdened the aspect of this beautiful
and comfortable world. As yet, however, the morning mist filled up the
whole length and breadth of the valley, above which, on a gently sloping
eminence, the mansion stood.
This body of white vapor extended to within less than a hundred yards of
the house. It completely hid everything beyond that distance, except a
few ruddy or yellow tree-tops, which here and there emerged, and were
glorified by the early sunshine, as was likewise the broad surface of
the mist. Four or five miles off to the southward rose the summit of
Monument Mountain, and seemed to be floating on a cloud. Some fifteen
miles farther away, in the same direction, appeared the loftier Dome of
Taconic, looking blue and indistinct, and hardly so substantial as the
vapory sea that almost rolled over it. The nearer hills, which bordered
the valley, were half submerged, and were specked with little
cloud-wreaths all the way to their tops. On the whole, there was so much
cloud, and so little solid earth, that it had the effect of a vision.
The children above-mentioned, being as full of life as they could hold,
kept overflowing from the porch of Tanglewood, and scampering along the
gravel-walk, or rushing across the dewy herbage of the lawn. I can
hardly tell how many of these small people there were; not less than
nine or ten, however, nor more than a dozen, of all sorts, sizes, and
ages, whether girls or boys. They were brothers, sisters, and cousins,
together with a few of their young acquaintances, who had been invited
by Mr. and Mrs. Pringle to spend some of this delightful weather with
their own children, at Tanglewood. I am afraid to tell you their names,
or even to give them any names which other children have ever been
called by; because, to my certain knowledge, authors sometimes get
themselves into great trouble by accidentally giving the names of real
persons to the characters in their books. For this reason, I mean to
call them Primrose, Periwinkle, Sweet Fern, Dandelion, Blue Eye, Clover,
Huckleberry, Cowslip, Squash-blossom, Milkweed, Plantain, and Buttercup;
although, to be sure, such titles might better suit a group of fairies
than a company of earthly children.
It is not to be supposed that these little folks were to be permitted by
their careful fathers and mothers, uncles, aunts, or grandparents, to
stray abroad into the woods and fields, without the guardianship of some
particularly grave and elderly person. O no, indeed! In the first
sentence of my book, you will recollect that I spoke of a tall youth,
standing in the midst of the children. His name--(and I shall let you
know his real name, because he considers it a great honor to have told
the stories that are here to be printed)--his name was Eustace Bright.
He was a student at Williams College, and had reached, I think, at this
period, the venerable age of eighteen--years; so that he felt quite like
a grandfather towards Periwinkle, Dandelion, Huckleberry, Squash-
blossom, Milkweed, and the rest, who were only half or a third as
venerable as he. A trouble in his eyesight (such as many students think
it necessary to have, nowadays, in order to prove their diligence at
their books) had kept him from college a week or two after the beginning
of the term. But, for my part, I have seldom met with a pair of eyes
that looked as if they could see farther or better than those of Eustace
This learned student was slender, and rather pale, as all Yankee
students are; but yet of a healthy aspect, and as light and active as if
he had wings to his shoes. By the by, being much addicted to wading
through streamlets and across meadows, he had put on cowhide boots for
the expedition. He wore a linen blouse, a cloth cap, and a pair of
green spectacles, which he had assumed, probably, less for the
preservation of his eyes, than for the dignity that they imparted to his
countenance. In either case, however, he might as well have let then
alone; for Huckleberry, a mischievous little elf, crept behind Eustace
as he sat on the steps of the porch, snatched the spectacles from his
nose, and clapped them on her own; and as the student forgot to take
them back, they fell off into the grass, and lay there till the next
Now, Eustace Bright, you must know, had won great fame among the
children, as a narrator of wonderful stories; and though he sometimes
pretended to be annoyed, when they teased him for more, and more, and
always for more, yet I really doubt whether he liked anything quite so
well as to tell them. You might have seen his eyes twinkle, therefore,
when Clover, Sweet Fern, Cowslip, Buttercup, and most of their
playmates, besought him to relate one of his stories, while they were
waiting for the mist to clear up.
"Yes, Cousin Eustace," said Primrose, who was a bright girl of twelve,
with laughing eyes, and a nose that turned up a little, "the morning is
certainly the best time for the stories with which you so often tire out
our patience. We shall be in less danger of hurting your feelings, by
falling asleep at the most interesting points,--as little Cowslip and I
did last night!"
"Naughty Primrose," cried Cowslip, a child of six years old; "I did not
fall asleep, and I only shut my eyes, so as to see a picture of what
Cousin Eustace was telling about. His stories are good to hear at
night, because we can dream about them asleep; and good in the morning,
too, because then we can dream about them awake. So I hope he will tell
us one this very minute."
"Thank you, my little Cowslip," said Eustace; "certainly you shall have
the best story I can think of, if it were only for defending me so well
from that naughty Primrose. But, children, I have already told you so
many fairy tales, that I doubt whether there is a single one which you
have not heard at least twice over. I am afraid you will fall asleep in
reality, if I repeat any of them again."
"No, no, no!" cried Blue Eye, Periwinkle, Plantain, and half a dozen
others. "We like a story all the better for having heard it two or
three tunes before."
And it is a truth, as regards children, that a story seems often to
deepen its mark in their interest, not merely by two or three, but by
numberless repetitions. But Eustace Bright, in the exuberance of his
resources, scorned to avail himself of an advantage which an older
story-teller would have been glad to grasp at.
"It would be a great pity," said he, "if a man of my learning (to say
nothing of original fancy) could not find a new story every day, year in
and year out, for children such as you. 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."
"Well, well, well, well, Cousin Eustace!" cried all the children at
once; "talk no more about your stories, but begin."
"Sit down, then, every soul of you," said Eustace Bright, "and be all as
still as so many mice. At the slightest interruption, whether from
great, naughty Primrose, little Dandelion, or any other, I shall bite
the story short off between my teeth, and swallow the untold part. But,
in the first place, do any of you know what a Gorgon is?"
"I do," said Primrose.
"Then hold your tongue!" rejoined Eustace, who had rather she would have
known nothing about the matter. "Hold all your tongues, and I shall
tell you a sweet pretty story of a Gorgon's head."
And so he did, as you may begin to read on the next page. Working up
his sophomorical erudition with a good deal of tact, and incurring great
obligations to Professor Anthon, he, nevertheless, disregarded all
classical authorities, whenever the vagrant audacity of his imagination
impelled him to do so.
THE GORGON'S HEAD.
Perseus was the son of Danae, who was the daughter of a king. And when
Perseus was a very little boy, some wicked people put his mother and
himself into a chest, and set them afloat upon the sea. The wind blew
freshly, and drove the chest away from the shore, and the uneasy billows
tossed it up and down; while Danae clasped her child closely to her
bosom, and dreaded that some big wave would dash its foamy crest over
them both. The chest sailed on, however, and neither sank nor was
upset; until, when night was coming, it floated so near an island that
it got entangled in a fisherman's nets, and was drawn out high and dry
upon the sand. The island was called Seriphus, and it was reigned over
by King Polydectes, who happened to be the fisherman's brother.
This fisherman, I am glad to tell you, was an exceedingly humane and
upright man. He showed great kindness to Danae and her little boy; and
continued to befriend them, until Perseus had grown to be a handsome
youth, very strong and active, and skilful in the use of arms. Long
before this time, King Polydectes had seen the two strangers--the mother
and her child--who had come to his dominions in a floating chest. As he
was not good and kind, like his brother the fisherman, but extremely
wicked, he resolved to send Perseus on a dangerous enterprise, in which
he would probably be killed, and then to do some great mischief to Danae
herself. So this bad-hearted king spent a long while in considering
what was the most dangerous thing that a young man could possibly
undertake to perform. At last, having hit upon an enterprise that
promised to turn out as fatally as he desired, he sent for the youthful
The young man came to the palace, and found the king sitting upon his
"Perseus," said King Polydectes, smiling craftily upon him, "you are
grown up a fine young man. You and your good mother have received a
great deal of kindness from myself, as well as from my worthy brother
the fisherman, and I suppose you would not be sorry to repay some of
"Please your Majesty," answered Perseus, "I would willingly risk my life
to do so."
"Well, then," continued the king, still with a curving smile on his
lips, "I have a little adventure to propose to you; and, as you are a
brave and enterprising youth, you will doubtless look upon it as a great
piece of good luck to have so rare an opportunity of distinguishing
yourself. You must know, my good Perseus, I think of getting married to
the beautiful Princess Hippodamia; and it is customary, on these
occasions, to make the bride a present of some far-fetched and elegant
curiosity. I have been a little perplexed, I must honestly confess,
where to obtain anything likely to please a princess of her exquisite
taste. But, this morning, I flatter myself, I have thought of precisely
"And can I assist your Majesty in obtaining it?" cried Perseus, eagerly.
"You can, if you are as brave a youth as I believe you to be," replied
King Polydectes, with the utmost graciousness of manner. "The bridal
gift which I have set my heart on presenting to the beautiful Hippodamia
is the head of the Gorgon Medusa, with the snaky locks; and I depend on
you, my dear Perseus, to bring it to me. So, as I am anxious to settle
affairs with the princess, the sooner you go in quest of the Gorgon, the
better I shall be pleased."
"I will set out to-morrow morning," answered Perseus.
"Pray do so, my gallant youth," rejoined the king. "And, Perseus, in
cutting off the Gorgon's head, be careful to make a clean stroke, so as
not to injure its appearance. You must bring it home in the very best
condition, in order to suit the exquisite taste of the beautiful
Perseus left the palace, but was scarcely out of hearing before
Polydectes burst into a laugh; being greatly amused, wicked king that he
was, to find how readily the young man fell into the snare. The news
quickly spread abroad, that Perseus had undertaken to cut off the head
of Medusa with the snaky locks. Everybody was rejoiced; for most of the
inhabitants of the island were as wicked as the king himself, and would
have liked nothing better than to see some enormous mischief happen to
Danae and her son. The only good man in this unfortunate island of
Seriphus appears to have been the fisherman. As Perseus walked along,
therefore, the people pointed after him, and made mouths, and winked to
one another, and ridiculed him as loudly as they dared.
"Ho, ho!" cried they; "Medusa's snakes will sting him soundly!"
Now, there were three Gorgons alive, at that period; and they were the
most strange and terrible monsters that had ever been since the world
was made, or that have been seen in after days, or that are likely to be
seen in all time to come. I hardly know what sort of creature or
hobgoblin to call them. They were three sisters, and seem to have borne
some distant resemblance to women, but were really a very frightful and
mischievous species of dragon. It is, indeed, difficult to imagine what
hideous beings these three sisters were. Why, instead of locks of hair,
if you can believe me, they had each of them a hundred enormous snakes
growing on their heads, all alive, twisting, wriggling, curling, and
thrusting out their venomous' tongues, with forked stings at the end!
The teeth of the Gorgons were terribly long tusks; their hands were made
of brass; and their bodies were all over scales, which, if not iron,
were something as hard and impenetrable. They had wings, too, and
exceedingly splendid ones, I can assure you; for every feather in them
was pure, bright, glittering, burnished gold, and they looked very
dazzlingly, no doubt, when the Gorgons were flying about in the
But when people happened to catch a glimpse of their glittering
brightness, aloft in the air, they seldom stopped to gaze, but ran and
hid themselves as speedily as they could. You will think, perhaps, that
they were afraid of being stung by the serpents that served the Gorgons
instead of hair,--or of having their heads bitten off by their ugly
tusks,--or of being torn all to pieces by their brazen claws. Well, to
be sure, these were some of the dangers, but by no means the greatest,
nor the most difficult to avoid. For the worst thing about these
abominable Gorgons was, that, if once a poor mortal fixed his eyes full
upon one of their faces, he was certain, that very instant, to be
changed from warm flesh and blood into cold and lifeless stone!
Thus, as you will easily perceive, it was a very dangerous adventure
that the wicked King Polydectes had contrived for this innocent young
man. Perseus himself, when he had thought over the matter, could not
help seeing that he had very little chance of coming safely through it,
and that he was far more likely to become a stone image than to bring
back the head of Medusa with the snaky locks. For, not to speak of
other difficulties, there was one which it would have puzzled an older
man than Perseus to get over. Not only must he fight with and slay this
golden-winged, iron-scaled, long-tusked, brazen-clawed, snaky-haired
monster, but he must do it with his eyes shut, or, at least, without so
much as a glance at the enemy with whom he was contending. Else, while
his arm was lifted to strike, he would stiffen into stone, and stand
with that uplifted arm for centuries, until time, and the wind and
weather, should crumble him quite away. This would be a very sad thing
to befall a young mail who wanted to perform a great many brave deeds,
and to enjoy a great deal of happiness, in this bright and beautiful
So disconsolate did these thoughts make him, that Perseus could not bear
to tell his another what he had undertaken to do. He therefore took his
shield, girded on his sword, and crossed over from the island to the
mainland, where he sat down in a solitary place, and hardly refrained
from shedding tears.
But, while he was in this sorrowful mood, he heard a voice close beside
"Perseus," said the voice, "why are you sad?"
He lifted his head from his hands, in which he had hidden it, and,
behold! all alone as Perseus had supposed himself to be, there was a
stranger in the solitary place. It was a brisk, intelligent, and
remarkably shrewd-looking young man, with a cloak over his shoulders,
an odd sort of cap on his head, a strangely twisted staff in his hand,
and a short and very crooked sword hanging by his side. He was
exceedingly light and active in his figure, like a person much
accustomed to gymnastic exercises, and well able to leap or run. Above
all, the stranger had such a cheerful, knowing, and helpful aspect
(though it was certainly a little mischievous, into the bargain), that
Perseus could not help feeling his spirits grow livelier, as he gazed at
him. Besides, being really a courageous youth, he felt greatly ashamed
that anybody should have found him with tears in his eyes, like a timid
little school-boy, when, after all, there might be no occasion for
despair. So Perseus wiped his eyes, and answered the stranger pretty
briskly, putting on as brave a look as he could.
"I am not so very sad," said he; "only thoughtful about an adventure
that I have undertaken."
"Oho!" answered the stranger. "Well, tell me all about it, and possibly
I may be of service to you. I have helped a good many young men through
adventures that looked difficult enough beforehand. Perhaps you may
have heard of me. I have more names than one; but the name of
Quicksilver suits me as well as any other. Tell me what your trouble
is, and we will talk the matter over, and see what can be done."
The stranger's words and manner put Perseus into quite a different mood
from his former one. He resolved to tell Quicksilver all his
difficulties, since he could not easily be worse off than he already
was, and, very possibly, his new friend might give him some advice that
would turn out well in the end. So he let the stranger know, in few
words, precisely what the case was;--how that King Polydeetes wanted the
head of Medusa with the snaky locks as a bridal gift for the beautiful
Princess Hippodamia, and how that he had undertaken to get it for him,
but was afraid of being turned into stone.
"And that would be a great pity," said Quicksilver, with his mischievous
smile. "You would make a very handsome marble statue, it is true, and
it would be a considerable number of centuries before you crumbled away;
but, on the whole, one would rather be a young man for a few years, than
a stone image for a great many."
"O, far rather!" exclaimed Perseus, with the tears again standing in his
eyes. "And, besides, what would my dear mother do, if her beloved son
were turned into a stone?"
"Well, well; let us hope that the affair will not turn out so very
badly," replied Quicksilver, in an encouraging tone. "I am the very
person to help you, if anybody can. My sister and myself will do our
utmost to bring you safe through the adventure, ugly as it now looks."
"Your sister?" repeated Perseus.
"Yes, my sister," said the stranger. "She is very wise, I promise you;
and as for myself, I generally have all my wits about me, such as they
are. If you show yourself bold and cautious, and follow our advice, you
need not fear being a stone image yet awhile. But, first of all, you
must polish your shield, till you can see your face in it as distinctly
as in a mirror."
This seemed to Perseus rather an odd beginning of the adventure; for he
thought it of far more consequence that the shield should be strong
enough to defend him from the Gorgon's brazen claws, than that it should
be bright enough to show him the reflection of his face. However,
concluding that Quicksilver knew better than himself, he immediately set
to work, and scrubbed the shield with so much diligence and good-will,
that it very quickly shone like the moon at harvest-time. Quicksilver
looked at it with a smile, and nodded his approbation. Then, taking off
his own short and crooked sword, he girded it about Perseus, instead of
the one which he had before worn.
"No sword but mine will answer your purpose," observed he; "the blade
has a most excellent temper, and will cut through iron and brass as
easily as through the slenderest twig. And now we will set out. The
next thing is to find the Three Gray Women, who will tell us where to
find the Nymphs."
"The Three Gray Women!" cried Perseus, to whom this seemed only a new
difficulty in the path of his adventure; "pray, who may the Three Gray
Women be? I never heard of them before."
"They are three very strange old ladies," said Quicksilver, laughing.
"They have but one eye among them, and only one tooth. Moreover, you
must find them out by starlight, or in the dusk of the evening; for they
never show themselves by the light either of the sun or moon."
"But," said Perseus, "why should I waste my time with these Three Gray
Women? Would it not be better to set out at once in search of the
"No, no," answered his friend. "There are other things to be done,
before you can find your way to the Gorgons. There is nothing for it
but to hunt up these old ladies; and when we meet with them, you may be
sure that the Gorgons are not a great way off. Come, let us be
Perseus, by this time, felt so much confidence in his companion's
sagacity, that he made no more objections, and professed himself ready
to begin the adventure immediately. They accordingly set out, and
walked at a pretty brisk pace; so brisk, indeed, that Perseus found it
rather difficult to keep up with his nimble friend Quicksilver. To say
the truth, he had a singular idea that Quicksilver was furnished with a
pair of winged shoes, which, of course, helped him along marvellously.
And then, too, when Perseus looked sideways at him, out of the corner of
his eye, he seemed to see wings on the side of his head; although, if he
turned a full gaze, there were no such things to be perceived, but only
an odd kind of cap. But, at all events, the twisted staff was evidently
a great convenience to Quicksilver, and enabled him to proceed so fast,
that Perseus, though a remarkably active young man, began to be out of
"Here!" cried Quicksilver, at last,--for he knew well enough, rogue that
he was, how hard Perseus found it to keep pace with him,--"take you the
staff, for you need it a great deal more than I. Are there no better
walkers than yourself, in the island of Seriphus?"
"I could walk pretty well," said Perseus, glancing slyly at his
companion's feet, "if I had only a pair of winged shoes."
"We must see about getting you a pair," answered Quicksilver.
But the staff helped Perseus along so bravely, that he no longer felt
the slightest weariness. In fact, the stick seemed to be alive in his
hand, and to lend some of its life to Perseus. He and Quicksilver now
walked onward at their ease, talking very sociably together; and
Quicksilver told so many pleasant stories about his former adventures,
and how well his wits had served him on various occasions, that Perseus
began to think him a very wonderful person. He evidently knew the
world; and nobody is so charming to a young man as a friend who has that
kind of knowledge. Perseus listened the more eagerly, in the hope of
brightening his own wits by what he heard.
At last, he happened to recollect that Quicksilver had spoken of a
sister, who was to lend her assistance in the adventure which they were
now bound upon.
"Where is she?" he inquired. "Shall we not meet her soon?"
"All at the proper time," said his companion. "But this sister of mine,
you must understand, is quite a different sort of character from myself.
She is very grave and prudent, seldom smiles, never laughs, and makes it
a rule not to utter a word unless she has something particularly
profound to say. Neither will she listen to any but the wisest
"Dear me!" ejaculated Perseus; "I shall be afraid to say a syllable."
"She is a very accomplished person, I assure you," continued
Quicksilver, "and has all the arts and sciences at her fingers' ends.
In short, she is so immoderately wise, that many people call her wisdom
personified. But, to tell you the truth, she has hardly vivacity enough
for my taste; and I think you would scarcely find her so pleasant a
travelling companion as myself. She has her good points, nevertheless;
and you will find the benefit of them, in your encounter with the
By this time it had grown quite dusk. They were now come to a very wild
and desert place, overgrown with shaggy bushes, and so silent and
solitary that nobody seemed ever to have dwelt or journeyed there. All
was waste and desolate, in the gray twilight, which grew every moment
more obscure. Perseus looked about him, rather disconsolately, and
asked Quicksilver whether they had a great deal farther to go.
"Hist! Hist!" whispered his companion. "Make no noise! This is just
the time and place to meet the Three Gray Women. Be careful that they
do not see you before you see them; for, though they have but a single
eye among the three, it is as sharp-sighted as half a dozen common
"But what must I do," asked Perseus, "when we meet them?"
Quicksilver explained to Perseus how the Three Gray Women managed with
their one eye. They were in the habit, it seems, of changing it from
one to another, as if it had been a pair of spectacles, or--which would
have suited them better--quizzing-glass. When one of the three had kept
the eye a certain time, she took it out of the socket and passed it to
one of her sisters, whose turn it might happen to be, and who
immediately clapped it into her own head, and enjoyed a peep at the
visible world. Thus it will easily be understood that only one of the
Three Gray Women could see, while the other two were in utter darkness;
and, moreover, at the instant when the eye was passing from hand to
hand, neither of the poor old ladies was able to see a wink. I have
heard of a great many strange things, in my day, and have witnessed not
a few; but none, it seems to me, that can compare with the oddity of
these Three Gray Women, all peeping through a single eye.
So thought Perseus, likewise, and was so astonished that he almost
fancied his companion was joking with him, and that there were no such
old women in the world.
"You will soon find whether I tell the truth or no," observed
Quicksilver. "Hark! hush! Hist! hist! There they come, now!"
Perseus looked earnestly through the dusk of the evening, and there,
sure enough, at no great distance off, he descried the Three Gray Women.
The light being so faint, he could not well make out what sort of
figures they were; only he discovered that they had long gray hair; and,
as they came nearer, he saw that two of them had but the empty socket of
an eye, in the middle of their foreheads. But, in the middle of the
third sister's forehead, there was a very large, bright, and piercing
eye, which sparkled like a great diamond in a ring; and so penetrating
did it seem to be, that Perseus could not help thinking it must possess
the gift of seeing in the darkest midnight just as perfectly as at
noonday. The sight of three persons' eyes was melted and collected into
that single one.
Thus the three old dames got along about as comfortably, upon the whole,
as if they could all see at once. She who chanced to have the eye in
her forehead led the other two by the hands, peeping sharply about her,
all the while; insomuch that Perseus dreaded lest she should see right
through the thick clump of bushes behind which he and Quicksilver had
hidden themselves. My stars! it was positively terrible to be within
reach of so very sharp an eye!
But, before they reached the clump of bushes, one of the Three Gray
"Sister! Sister Scarecrow!" cried she, "you have had the eye long
enough. It is my turn now!"
"Let me keep it a moment longer, Sister Nightmare," answered Scarecrow.
"I thought I had a glimpse of something behind that thick bush."
"Well, and what of that?" retorted Nightmare, peevishly. "Can't I see
into a thick bush as easily as yourself? The eye is mine, as well as
yours; and I know the use of it as well as you, or may be a little
better. I insist upon taking a peep immediately!"
But here the third sister, whose name was Shakejoint, began to complain,
and said that it was her turn to have the eye, and that Scarecrow and
Nightmare wanted to keep it all to themselves. To end the dispute, old
Dame Scarecrow took the eye out of her forehead, and held it forth in
"Take it, one of you," cried she, "and quit this foolish quarrelling.
For my part, I shall be glad of a little thick darkness. Take it
quickly, however, or I must clap it into my own head again!"
Accordingly, both Nightmare and Shakejoint stretched out their hands,
groping eagerly to snatch the eye out of the hand of Scarecrow. But,
being both alike blind, they could not easily find where Scarecrow's
hand was; and Scarecrow, being now just as much in the dark as
Shakejoint and Nightmare, could not at once meet either of their hands,
in order to put the eye into it. Thus (as you will see, with half an
eye, my wise little auditors), these good old dames had fallen into a
strange perplexity. For, though the eye shone and glistened like a
star, as Scarecrow held it out, yet the Gray Women caught not the least
glimpse of its light, and were all three in utter darkness, from too
impatient a desire to see.
Quicksilver was so much tickled at beholding Shakejoint and Nightmare
both groping for the eye, and each finding fault with Scarecrow and one
another, that he could scarcely help laughing aloud.
"Now is your time!" he whispered to Perseus.
"Quick, quick! before they can clap the eye into either of their heads.
Rush out upon the old ladies, and snatch it from Scarecrow's hand!"
In an instant, while the Three Gray Women were still scolding each
other, Perseus leaped front behind the clump of bushes, and made himself
master of the prize. The marvellous eye, as he held it in his hand,
shone very brightly, and seemed to look up into his face with a knowing
air, and an expression as if it would have winked, had it been provided
with a pair of eyelids for that purpose. But the Gray Women knew
nothing of what had happened; and, each supposing that one of her
sisters was in possession of the eye, they began their quarrel anew. At
last, as Perseus did not wish to put these respectable dames to greater
inconvenience than was really necessary, he thought it right to explain
the matter. "My good ladies," said he, "pray do not be angry with one
another. If anybody is in fault, it is myself; for I have the honor to
hold your very brilliant and excellent eye in my own hand!"
"You! you have our eye! And who are you?" screamed the Three Gray
Women, all in a breath; for they were terribly frightened, of course, at
hearing a strange voice, and discovering that their eyesight had got
into the hands of they could not guess whom. "O, what shall we do,
sisters? what shall we do? We are all in the dark! Give us our eye!
Give us our one, precious, solitary eye! You have two of your own Give
us our eye!"
"Tell them," whispered Quicksilver to Perseus, "that they shall have
back the eye as soon as they direct you where to find the Nymphs who
have the flying slippers, the magic wallet, and the helmet of darkness."
"My dear, good, admirable old ladies," said Perseus, addressing the Gray
Women, "there is no occasion for putting yourselves into such a fright.
I am by no means a bad young man. You shall have back your eye, safe
and sound, and as bright as ever, the moment you tell me where to find
"The Nymphs! Goodness me! sisters, what Nymphs does he mean?" screamed
Scarecrow. "There are a great many Nymphs, people say; some that go a
hunting in the woods, and some that live inside of trees, and some that
have a comfortable home in fountains of water. We know nothing at all
about them. We are three unfortunate old souls, that go wandering about
in the dusk, and never had but one eye amongst us, and that one you have
stolen away. O, give it back, good stranger!--whoever you are, give it
All this while the Three Gray Women were groping with their outstretched
hands, and trying their utmost to get hold of Perseus. But he took good
care to keep out of their reach.
"My respectable dames," said he,--for his mother had taught him always
to use the greatest civility,--"I hold your eye fast in my hand, and
shall keep it safely for you, until you please to tell me where to find
these Nymphs. The Nymphs, I mean, who keep the enchanted wallet, the
flying slippers, and the what is it?--the helmet of invisibility."
"Mercy on us, sisters! what is the young man talking about?" exclaimed
Scarecrow, Nightmare, and Shakejoint, one to another, with great
appearance of astonishment. "A pair of flying slippers, quoth he! His
heels would quickly fly higher than his head, if he were silly enough to
put them on. And a helmet of invisibility! How could a helmet make him
invisible, unless it were big enough for him to hide under it? And an
enchanted wallet! What sort of a contrivance may that be, I wonder?
No, no, good stranger! we can tell you nothing of these marvellous
things. You have two eyes of your own, and we have but a single one
amongst us three. You can find out such wonders better than three blind
old creatures, like us."
Perseus, hearing them talk in this way, began really to think that the
Gray Women knew nothing of the matter; and, as it grieved him to have
put them to so much trouble, he was just on the point of restoring their
eye and asking pardon for his rudeness in snatching it away. But
Quicksilver caught his hand.
"Don't let them make a fool of you!" said he. "These Three Gray Women
are the only persons in the world that can tell you where to find the
Nymphs; and, unless you get that information, you will never succeed in
cutting off the head of Medusa with the snaky locks. Keep fast hold of
the eye, and all will go well."
As it turned out, Quicksilver was in the right. There are but few
things that people prize so much as they do their eyesight; and the Gray
Women valued their single eye as highly as if it had been half a dozen,
which was the number they ought to have had. Finding that there was no
other way of recovering it, they at last told Perseus what he wanted to
know. No sooner had they done so, than he immediately, and with the
utmost respect, clapped the eye into the vacant socket in one of their
foreheads, thanked them for their kindness, and bade them farewell.
Before the young man was out of hearing, however, they had got into a
new dispute, because he happened to have given the eye to Scarecrow, who
had already taken her turn of it when their trouble with Perseus
It is greatly to be feared that the Three Gray Women were very much in
the habit of disturbing their mutual harmony by bickerings of this sort;
which was the more pity, as they could not conveniently do without one
another, and were evidently intended to be inseparable companions. As a
general rule, I would advise all people, whether sisters or brothers,
old or young, who chance to have but one eye amongst them, to cultivate
forbearance, and not all insist upon peeping through it at once.
Quicksilver and Perseus, in the mean time, were making the best of their
way in quest of the Nymphs. The old dames had given them such
particular directions, that they were not long in finding them out.
They proved to be very different persons from Nightmare Shakejoint, and
Scarecrow; for, instead of being old, they were young and beautiful; and
instead of one eye amongst the sisterhood, each Nymph had two
exceedingly bright eyes of her own, with which she looked very kindly at
Perseus. They seemed to be acquainted with Quicksilver; and when he
told them the adventure which Perseus had undertaken, they made no
difficulty about giving him the valuable articles that were in their
custody. In the first place, they brought out what appeared to be a
small purse, made of deer-skin, and curiously embroidered, and bade him
be sure and keep it safe. This was the magic wallet. The Nymphs next
produced a pair of shoes, or slippers, or sandals, with a nice little
pair of wings at the heel of each.
"Put them on, Perseus," said Quicksilver. "You will find yourself as
light-heeled as you can desire, for the remainder of our journey."
So Perseus proceeded to put one of the slippers on, while he laid the
other on the ground by his side. Unexpectedly, however, this other
slipper spread its wings, fluttered up off the ground, and would
probably have flown away, if Quicksilver had not made a leap, and
luckily caught it in the air.
"Be more careful," said he, as he gave it back to Perseus. "It would
frighten the birds, up aloft, if they should see a flying slipper
When Perseus had got on both of these wonderful slippers, he was
altogether too buoyant to tread on earth. Making a step or two, lo and
behold! upward he popt into the air, high above the heads of
Quicksilver and the Nymphs, and found it very difficult to clamber down
again. Winged slippers, and all such high-flying contrivances, are
seldom quite easy to manage, until one grows a little accustomed to
them. Quicksilver laughed at his companion's involuntary activity, and
told him that he must not be in so desperate a hurry, but must wait for
the invisible helmet.
The good-natured Nymphs had the helmet, with its dark tuft of waving
plumes, all in readiness to put upon his head. And now there happened
about as wonderful an incident as anything that I have yet told you.
The instant before the helmet was put on, there stood Perseus, a
beautiful young man, with golden ringlets and rosy cheeks, the crooked
sword by his side, and the brightly polished shield upon his arm,--a
figure that seemed all made up of courage, sprightliness, and glorious
light. But when the helmet had descended over his white brow, there was
no longer any Perseus to be seen! Nothing but empty air! Even the
helmet, that covered him with its invisibility, had vanished!
"Where are you, Perseus?" asked Quicksilver.
"Why, here, to be sure!" answered Perseus, very quietly, although his
voice seemed to come out of the transparent atmosphere. "Just where I
was a moment ago. Don't you see me?"
"No, indeed!" answered his friend. "You are hidden under the helmet.
But, if I cannot see you, neither can the Gorgons. Follow me,
therefore, and we will try your dexterity in using the winged slippers."
With these words, Quicksilver's cap spread its wings, as if his head
were about to fly away from his shoulders; but his whole figure rose
lightly into the air, and Perseus followed. By the time they had
ascended a few hundred feet, the young man began to feel what a
delightful thing it was to leave the dull earth so far beneath him, and
to be able to flit about like a bird.
It was now deep night. Perseus looked upward, and saw the round,
bright, silvery moon, and thought that he should desire nothing better
than to soar up thither, and spend his life there. Then he looked
downward again, and saw the earth, with its seas, and lakes, and the
silver courses of its rivers, and its snowy mountain-peaks, and the
breadth of its fields, and the dark cluster of its woods, and its cities
of white marble; and, with the moonshine sleeping over the whole scene,
it was as beautiful as the moon or any star could be. And, among other
objects, he saw the island of Seriplius, where his dear mother was.
Sometimes, he and Quicksilver approached a cloud, that, at a distance,
looked as if it were made of fleecy silver; although, when they plunged
into it, they found themselves chilled and moistened with gray mist. So
swift was their flight, however, that, in an instant, they emerged from
the cloud into the moonlight again. Once, a high-soaring eagle flew
right against the invisible Perseus. The bravest sights were the
meteors, that gleamed suddenly out, as if a bonfire had been kindled in
the sky, and made the moonshine pale for as much as a hundred miles
As the two companions flew onward, Perseus fancied that he could hear
the rustle of a garment close by his side; and it was on the side
opposite to the one where he beheld Quicksilver, yet only Quicksilver
"Whose garment is this," inquired Perseus, "that keeps rustling close
beside me, in the breeze?"
"O, it is my sister's!" answered Quicksilver. "She is coming along
with us, as I told you she would. We could do nothing without the help
of my sister. You have no idea how wise she is. She has such eyes,
too! Why, she can see you, at this moment, just as distinctly as if you
were not invisible; and I'll venture to say, she will be the first to
discover the Gorgons."
By this time, in their swift voyage through the air, they had come
within sight of the great ocean, and were soon flying over it. Far
beneath them, the waves tossed themselves tumultuously in mid-sea, or
rolled a white surf-line upon the long beaches, or foamed against the
rocky cliffs, with a roar that was thunderous, in the lower world;
although it became a gentle murmur, like the voice of a baby half
asleep, before it reached the ears of Perseus. Just then a voice spoke
in the air close by him. It seemed to be a woman's voice, and was
melodious, though not exactly what might be called sweet, but grave and
"Perseus," said the voice, "there are the Gorgons."
"Where?" exclaimed Perseus. "I cannot see them."
"On the shore of that island beneath you," replied the voice. "A
pebble, dropped from your hand, would strike in the midst of them."
"I told you she would be the first to discover them," said Quicksilver
to Perseus. "And there they are!"
Straight downward, two or three thousand feet below him, Perseus
perceived a small island, with the sea breaking into white foam all
around its rocky shore, except on one side, where there was a beach of
snowy sand. He descended towards it, and, looking earnestly at a
cluster or heap of brightness, at the foot of a precipice of black
rocks, behold, there were the terrible Gorgons! They lay fast asleep,
soothed by the thunder of the sea; for it required a tumult that would
have deafened everybody else to lull such fierce creatures into slumber.
The moonlight glistened on their steely scales, and on their golden
wings, which drooped idly over the sand. Their brazen claws, horrible
to look at, were thrust out, and clutched the wave-beaten fragments of
rock, while the sleeping Gorgons dreamed of tearing some poor mortal all
to pieces. The snakes that served them instead of hair seemed likewise
to be asleep; although, now and then, one would writhe, and lift its
head, and thrust out its forked tongue, emitting a drowsy hiss, and then
let itself subside among its sister snakes.
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.
"Now," whispered Quicksilver, as he hovered by the side of Perseus,--
"now is your time to do the deed! Be quick; for, if one of the Gorgons
should awake, you are too late!"
"Which shall I strike at?" asked Perseus, drawing his sword and
descending a little lower. "They all three look alike. All three have
snaky locks. Which of the three is Medusa?"
It must be understood that Medusa was the only one of these dragon-
monsters whose head Perseus could possibly cut off. As for the other
two, let him have the sharpest sword that ever was forged, and he might
have hacked away by the hour together, without doing there the least
"Be cautious," said the calm voice which had before spoken to him. "One
of the Gorgons is stirring in her sleep, and is just about to turn over.
That is Medusa. Do not look at her! The sight would turn you to stone!
Look at the reflection of her face and figure in the bright mirror of
Perseus now understood Quicksilver's motive for so earnestly exhorting
him to polish his shield. In its surface he could safely look at the
reflection of the Gorgon's face. And there it was,--that terrible
countenance,--mirrored in the brightness of the shield, with the
moonlight falling over it, and displaying all its horror. The snakes,
whose venomous natures could not altogether sleep, kept twisting
themselves over the forehead. It was the fiercest and most horrible
face that ever was seen or imagined, and yet with a strange, fearful,
and savage kind of beauty in it. The eyes were closed, and the Gorgon
was still in a deep slumber; but there was an unquiet expression
disturbing her features, as if the monster was troubled with an ugly
dream. She gnashed her white tusks, and dug into the sand with her
The snakes, too, seemed to feel Medusa's dream, and to be made more
restless by it. They twined themselves into tumultuous knots, writhed
fiercely, and uplifted a hundred hissing heads, without opening their
"Now, now!" whispered Quicksilver, who was growing impatient. "Make a
dash at the monster!"
"But be calm," said the grave, melodious voice, at the young man's side.
"Look in your shield, as you fly downward, and take care that you do not
miss your first stroke."
Perseus flew cautiously downward, still keeping his eyes on Medusa's
face, as reflected in his shield. The nearer he came, the more terrible
did the snaky visage and metallic body of the monster grow. At last,
when he found himself hovering over her within arm's length, Perseus
uplifted his sword, while, at the same instant, each separate snake upon
the Gorgon's head stretched threateningly upward, and Medusa unclosed
her eyes. But she awoke too late. The sword was sharp; the stroke fell
like a lightning-flash; and the head of the wicked Medusa tumbled from
"Admirably done!" cried Quicksilver. "Make haste, and clap the head
into your magic wallet."
To the astonishment of Perseus, the small, embroidered wallet, which he
had hung about his neck, and which had hitherto been no bigger than a
purse, grew all at once large enough to contain Medusa's head. As quick
as thought, he snatched it up, with the snakes still writhing upon it,
and thrust it in.
"Your task is done," said the calm voice. "Now fly; for the other
Gorgons will do their utmost to take vengeance for Medusa's death."
It was, indeed, necessary to take flight; for Perseus had not done the
deed so quietly, but that the clash of his sword, and the hissing of the
snakes, and the thump of Medusa's head as it tumbled upon the sea-beaten
sand, awoke the other two monsters. There they sat, for an instant,
sleepily rubbing their eyes with their brazen fingers, while all the
snakes on their heads reared themselves on end with surprise, and with
venomous malice against they knew not what. But when the Gorgons saw
the scaly carcass of Medusa, headless, and her golden wings all ruffled,
and half spread out on the sand, it was really awful to hear what yells
and screeches they set up. And then the snakes! They sent forth a
hundred-fold hiss, with one consent, and Medusa's snakes answered them
out of the magic wallet.
No sooner were the Gorgons broad awake, than they hurtled upward into
the air, brandishing their brass talons, gnashing their horrible tusks,
and flapping their huge wings so wildly, that some of the golden
feathers were shaken out, and floated down upon the shore. And there,
perhaps, those very feathers he scattered, till this day. Up rose the
Gorgons, as I tell you, staring horribly about, in hopes of turning
somebody to stone. Had Perseus looked them in the face, or had he
fallen into their clutches, his poor mother would never have kissed her
boy again! But he took good care to turn his eyes another way; and, as
he wore the helmet of invisibility, the Gorgons knew not in what
direction to follow him; nor did he fail to make the best use of the
winged slippers, by soaring upward a perpendicular mile or so. At that
height, when the screams of those abominable creatures sounded faintly
beneath him, he made a straight course for the island of Seriphus, in
order to carry Medusa's head to King Polydectes.
I have no time to tell you of several marvellous things that befell
Perseus, on his way homeward; such as his killing a hideous sea-monster,
just as it was on the point of devouring a beautiful maiden; nor how he
changed an enormous giant into a mountain of stone, merely by showing
him the head of the Gorgon. If you doubt this latter story, you may
make a voyage to Africa, some day or other, and see the very mountain,
which is still known by the ancient giant's name.
Finally, our brave Perseus arrived at the island, where he expected to
see his dear mother. But, during his absence, the wicked king had
treated Danae so very ill, that she was compelled to make her escape,
and had taken refuge in a temple, where some good old priests were
extremely kind to her. These praiseworthy priests, and the kind-hearted
fisherman, who had first shown hospitality to Danae and little Perseus
when he found them afloat in the chest, seem to have been the only
persons on the island who cared about doing right. All the rest of the
people, as well as King Polydectes himself, were remarkably ill-behaved,
and deserved no better destiny than that which was now to happen.
Not finding his mother at home, Perseus went straight to the palace and
was immediately ushered into the presence of the king. Polydectes was
by no means rejoiced to see him; for he had felt almost certain, in his
own evil mind, that the Gorgons would have torn the poor young man to
pieces, and have eaten him up, out of the way. However, seeing him
safely returned, he put the best face he could upon the matter and asked
Perseus how he had succeeded.
"Have you performed your promise?" inquired he. "Have you brought me
the head of Medusa with the snaky locks? If not, young man, it will
cost you dear; for I must have a bridal present for the beautiful
Princess Hippodamia, and there is nothing else that she would admire so
"Yes, please your Majesty," answered Perseus, in a quiet way, as if it
were no very wonderful deed for such a young man as he to perform. "I
have brought you the Gorgon's head, snaky locks and all!"
"Indeed! Pray let me see it," quoth King Polydectes. "It must be a
very curious spectacle, if all that travellers tell about it be true!"
"Your Majesty is in the right," replied Perseus. "It is really an
object that will be pretty certain to fix the regards of all who look at
it. And, if your Majesty think fit, I would suggest that a holiday be
proclaimed, and that all your Majesty's subjects be summoned to behold
this wonderful curiosity. Few of them, I imagine, have seen a Gorgon's
head before, and perhaps never may again!"
The king well knew that his subjects were an idle set of reprobates, and
very fond of sight-seeing, as idle persons usually are. So he took the
young man's advice, and sent out heralds and messengers, in all
directions, to blow the trumpet at the street-corners, and in the
market-places, and wherever two roads met, and summon everybody to
court. Thither, accordingly, came a great multitude of good-for-nothing
vagabonds, all of whom, out of pure love of mischief, would have been
glad if Perseus had met with some ill-hap, in his encounter with the
Gorgons. If there were any better people in the island (as I really
hope there may have been, although the story tells nothing about any
such), they stayed quietly at home, minding their own business, and
taking care of their little children. Most of the inhabitants, at all
events, ran as fast as they could to the palace, and shoved, and pushed,
and elbowed one another, in their eagerness to get near a balcony, on
which Perseus showed himself, holding the embroidered wallet in his
On a platform, within full view of the balcony, sat the mighty King
Polydectes, amid his evil counsellors, and with his flattering courtiers
in a semicircle round about him. Monarch, counsellors, courtiers, and
subjects, all gazed eagerly towards Perseus.
"Show us the head! Show us the head!" shouted the people; and there was
a fierceness in their cry as if they would tear Perseus to pieces,
unless he should satisfy them with what he had to show. "Show us the
head of Medusa with the snaky locks!"
A feeling of sorrow and pity came over the youthful Perseus.
"O King Polydectes," cried he, "and ye many people, I am very loath to
show you the Gorgon's head!"
"Ah, the villain and coward!" yelled the people, more fiercely than
before. "He is making game of us! He has no Gorgon's head! Show us
the head, if you have it, or we will take your own head for a football!"
The evil counsellors whispered bad advice in the king's ear; the
courtiers murmured, with one consent, that Perseus had shown disrespect
to their royal lord and master; and the great King Polydectes himself
waved his hand, and ordered him, with the stern, deep voice of
authority, on his peril, to produce the bead.
"Show me the Gorgon's head, or I will cut off your own!"
And Perseus sighed.
"This instant," repeated Polydectes, "or you die!"
"Behold it, then!" cried Perseus, in a voice like the blast of a
And, suddenly holding up the head, not an eyelid had time to wink before
the wicked King Polydectes, his evil counsellors, and all his fierce
subjects were no longer anything but the mere images of a monarch and
his people. They were all fixed, forever, in the look and attitude of
that moment! At the first glimpse of the terrible head of Medusa, they
whitened into marble! And Perseus thrust the head back into his wallet,
and went to tell his dear mother that she need no longer be afraid of
the wicked King Polydectes.
AFTER THE STORY.
"Is not that a very fine story?" asked Eustace.
"O yes, yes!" cried Cowslip, clapping her hands. "And those funny old
women, with only one eye amongst them! I never heard of anything so
"As to their one tooth, which they shifted about," observed Primrose,
"there was nothing so very wonderful in that. I suppose it was a false
tooth. But think of your turning Mercury into Quicksilver, and talking
about his sister! You are too ridiculous!"
"And was she not his sister?" asked Eustace Bright. "If I had thought
of it sooner, I would have described her as a maiden lady, who kept a
"Well, at any rate," said Primrose, "your story seems to have driven
away the mist."
And, indeed, while the tale was going forward, the vapors had been quite
exhaled from the landscape. A scene was now disclosed which the
spectators might almost fancy as having been created since they had last
looked in the direction where it lay. About half a mile distant, in the
lap of the valley, now appeared a beautiful lake, which reflected a
perfect image of its own wooded banks, and of the summits of the more
distant hills. It gleamed in glassy tranquillity, without the trace of
a winged breeze on any part of its bosom. Beyond its farther shore was
Monument Mountain, in a recumbent position, stretching almost across the
valley. Eustace Bright compared it to a huge, headless sphinx, wrapped
in a Persian shawl; and, indeed, so rich and diversified was the
autumnal foliage of its woods, that the simile of the shawl was by no
means too high-colored for the reality. In the lower ground, between
Tanglewood and the lake, the clumps of trees and borders of woodland
were chiefly golden-leaved or dusky brown, as having suffered more from
frost than the foliage on the hillsides.
Over all this scene there was a genial sunshine, intermingled with a
slight haze, which made it unspeakably soft and tender. O, what a day
of Indian summer was it going to be! The children snatched their
baskets, and set forth, with hop, skip, and jump, and all sorts of
frisks and gambols; while Cousin Eustace proved his fitness to preside
over the party, by outdoing all their antics, and performing several new
capers, which none of them could ever hope to imitate. Behind went a
good old dog, whose name was Ben. He was one of the most respectable
and kind-hearted of quadrupeds, and probably felt it to be his duty not
to trust the children away from their parents without some better
guardian than this feather-brained Eustace Bright.
[The end] ________________________________________________
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Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story: Gorgon's Head