A short time ago, I was favored with a flying visit from my young friendEustace Bright, whom I had not before met with since quitting the breezymountains of Berkshire. It being the winter vacation at his college,Eustace was allowing himself a little relaxation, in the hope, he told me,of repairing the inroads which severe application to study had made uponhis health; and I was happy to conclude, from the excellent physicalcondition in which I saw him, that the remedy had already been attendedwith very desirable success. He had now run up from Boston by the noontrain, partly impelled by the friendly regard with which he is pleased tohonor me, and partly, as I soon found, on a matter of literary business.
It delighted me to receive Mr. Bright, for the first time, under a roof,though a very humble one, which I could really call my own. Nor did I fail(as is the custom of landed proprietors all about the world) to parade thepoor fellow up and down over my half a dozen acres; secretly rejoicing,nevertheless, that the disarray of the inclement season, and particularlythe six inches of snow then upon the ground, prevented him from observingthe ragged neglect of soil and shrubbery into which the place had lapsed.It was idle, however, to imagine that an airy guest from MonumentMountain, Bald Summit, and old Graylock, shaggy with primeval forests,could see anything to admire in my poor little hillside, with its growthof frail and insect-eaten locust trees. Eustace very frankly called theview from my hill top tame; and so, no doubt, it was, after rough, broken,rugged, headlong Berkshire, and especially the northern parts of thecounty, with which his college residence had made him familiar. But to methere is a peculiar, quiet charm in these broad meadows and gentleeminences. They are better than mountains, because they do not stamp andstereotype themselves into the brain, and thus grow wearisome with thesame strong impression, repeated day after day. A few summer weeks amongmountains, a lifetime among green meadows and placid slopes, with outlinesforever new, because continually fading out of the memory — such wouldbe my sober choice.
I doubt whether Eustace did not internally pronounce the whole thing abore, until I led him to my predecessor’s little ruined, rustic summerhouse, midway on the hillside. It is a mere skeleton of slender, decayingtree trunks, with neither walls nor a roof; nothing but a tracery ofbranches and twigs, which the next wintry blast will be very likely toscatter in fragments along the terrace. It looks, and is, as evanescent asa dream; and yet, in its rustic network of boughs, it has somehow encloseda hint of spiritual beauty, and has become a true emblem of the subtileand ethereal mind that planned it. I made Eustace Bright sit down on asnow bank, which had heaped itself over the mossy seat, and gazing throughthe arched windows opposite, he acknowledged that the scene at once grewpicturesque.
“Simple as it looks,” said he, “this little edifice seems to be the workof magic. It is full of suggestiveness, and, in its way, is as good as acathedral. Ah, it would be just the spot for one to sit in, of a summerafternoon, and tell the children some more of those wild stories from theclassic myths!”
“It would, indeed,” answered I. “The summer house itself, so airy and sobroken, is like one of those old tales, imperfectly remembered; and theseliving branches of the Baldwin apple tree, thrusting so rudely in, arelike your unwarrantable interpolations. But, by the by, have you added anymore legends to the series, since the publication of the ‘Wonder-Book’?”
“Many more,” said Eustace; “Primrose, Periwinkle, and the rest of them,allow me no comfort of my life unless I tell them a story every day ortwo. I have run away from home partly to escape the importunity of theselittle wretches! But I have written out six of the new stories, and havebrought them for you to look over.”
“Are they as good as the first?” I inquired.
“Better chosen, and better handled,” replied Eustace Bright. “You will sayso when you read them.”
“Possibly not,” I remarked. “I know from my own experience, that anauthor’s last work is always his best one, in his own estimate, until itquite loses the red heat of composition. After that, it falls into itstrue place, quietly enough. But let us adjourn to my study, and examinethese new stories. It would hardly be doing yourself justice, were you tobring me acquainted with them, sitting here on this snow bank!”
So we descended the hill to my small, old cottage, and shut ourselves upin the south-eastern room, where the sunshine comes in, warmly andbrightly, through the better half of a winter’s day. Eustace put hisbundle of manuscript into my hands; and I skimmed through it prettyrapidly, trying to find out its merits and demerits by the touch of myfingers, as a veteran story-teller ought to know how to do.
It will be remembered that Mr. Bright condescended to avail himself of myliterary experience by constituting me editor of the “Wonder-Book.” As hehad no reason to complain of the reception of that erudite work by thepublic, he was now disposed to retain me in a similar position withrespect to the present volume, which he entitled TANGLEWOOD TALES. Not, asEustace hinted, that there was any real necessity for my services asintroducer, inasmuch as his own name had become established in some gooddegree of favor with the literary world. But the connection with myself,he was kind enough to say, had been highly agreeable; nor was he by anymeans desirous, as most people are, of kicking away the ladder that hadperhaps helped him to reach his present elevation. My young friend waswilling, in short, that the fresh verdure of his growing reputation shouldspread over my straggling and half-naked boughs; even as I have sometimesthought of training a vine, with its broad leafiness, and purple fruitage,over the worm-eaten posts and rafters of the rustic summer house. I wasnot insensible to the advantages of his proposal, and gladly assured himof my acceptance.
Merely from the title of the stories I saw at once that the subjects werenot less rich than those of the former volume; nor did I at all doubt thatMr. Bright’s audacity (so far as that endowment might avail) had enabledhim to take full advantage of whatever capabilities they offered. Yet, inspite of my experience of his free way of handling them, I did not quitesee, I confess, how he could have obviated all the difficulties in the wayof rendering them presentable to children. These old legends, so brimmingover with everything that is most abhorrent to our Christianized moralsense some of them so hideous, others so melancholy and miserable, amidwhich the Greek tragedians sought their themes, and moulded them into thesternest forms of grief that ever the world saw; was such material thestuff that children’s playthings should be made of! How were they to bepurified? How was the blessed sunshine to be thrown into them?
But Eustace told me that these myths were the most singular things in theworld, and that he was invariably astonished, whenever he began to relateone, by the readiness with which it adapted itself to the childish purityof his auditors. The objectionable characteristics seem to be aparasitical growth, having no essential connection with the originalfable. They fall away, and are thought of no more, the instant he puts hisimagination in sympathy with the innocent little circle, whose wide-openeyes are fixed so eagerly upon him. Thus the stories (not by any strainedeffort of the narrator’s, but in harmony with their inherent germ)transform themselves, and re-assume the shapes which they might besupposed to possess in the pure childhood of the world. When the firstpoet or romancer told these marvellous legends (such is Eustace Bright’sopinion), it was still the Golden Age. Evil had never yet existed; andsorrow, misfortune, crime, were mere shadows which the mind fancifullycreated for itself, as a shelter against too sunny realities; or, at most,but prophetic dreams to which the dreamer himself did not yield a wakingcredence. Children are now the only representatives of the men and womenof that happy era; and therefore it is that we must raise the intellectand fancy to the level of childhood, in order to re-create the originalmyths.
I let the youthful author talk as much and as extravagantly as he pleased,and was glad to see him commencing life with such confidence in himselfand his performances. A few years will do all that is necessary towardsshowing him the truth in both respects. Meanwhile, it is but right to say,he does really appear to have overcome the moral objections against thesefables, although at the expense of such liberties with their structure asmust be left to plead their own excuse, without any help from me. Indeed,except that there was a necessity for it — and that the inner life ofthe legends cannot be come at save by making them entirely one’s ownproperty — there is no defense to be made.