“The Gorgon’s Head” by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an 1850s retelling of part of the tale of Perseus of Greek mythology.
“The Gorgon’s Head” was written about 24 years into Hawthorne’s writing career, in 1852. Hawthorne’s style was varied, and at the time this was written, he was becoming known for his romantic works. Nathaniel Hawthorne felt that the stories of ancient mythology could be expanded into excellent children’s works, so he took the old legends and fleshed them out into proper stories, with dialogue, intrigue, some garnish, and maturity. Hawthorne wanted children to read his books, since they would be key to keeping the old myths alive in our culture, but he did not write at a child’s level. Alongside his desire to rejuvenate the old classics, he wanted to encourage his young audience to expand their reading skills and this story is part of that effort.
While Hawthorne would always stay true to the core of the mythical stories he retold, he would take liberties with some of his rewritings, and would often be generous with his own embellishments.
I won’t get into the blow-by-blow detail of the mythical tales of Perseus, as reading Hawthorne’s vivid interpretation of the familiar story is part of the fun of reading this short story.
The story starts off fast-forwarding through the early part of the legend of Perseus, briefly mentioning the infant demi-god Perseus and his mother Danae being cast adrift at sea locked inside a chest, quickly getting to the start of the involvement of King Polydectes. Polydectes fancied Danae, but he viewed the young and strong-willed adult Perseus as an obstacle that had to be eliminated. Polydectes schemes up a plan to rid himself of Persues, sending him on a quest to retrieve the head of the Gorgon Medusa as a wedding gift.
It is interesting to see the changes and embellishments that Hawthorne employs. For example, the Graeae, the three women who share one eye between them and direct Perseus to the Gorgon, are called the Three Gray Women, and individually they are known as “Nightmare”, “Shakejoint” and “Scarecrow”. This name change may possibly be to aid the reader who might trip over how to pronounce “Graeae”. Hermes is called Quicksilver, the Gorgons are described as creatures closer to dragons than women. One significant change is that the original legend has Athena presenting Perseus with the reflective shield that he uses to kill Medusa without directly casting eyes on her, but in Hawthorne’s retelling, Perseus already possesses the shield and Hermes (Quicksilver) urges him to polish it to a mirror-like smoothness. Quicksilver is at Perseus’ side through most of the adventure and Athena does not appear in Hawthorne’s version at all.
The story reads very similarly to the 2010 movie “Clash of the Titans” (RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!) starring Sam Worthington as Perseus and Liam Neeson as Zeus, except Hawthorne’s story does not conclude with the release of any Kraken. Perseus instead returns to Polydectes’ court with the Medusa’s head in a special magical bag and Polydectes, incredulous, demands to see the head of the Gorgon. Reluctantly, Persus obliges and turns Polydectes and his entire court to stone.
Hawthorne’s adaptation of the story of Perseus and the Gorgon is a very exciting read, and your imagination can’t help but come away stimulated by the vivid retelling.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was originally born with the surname Hathorne. He added the “w” to distance himself from his great-grandfather, Massachusetts Judge John Hathorne, who took part in the Salem witch trials. Judge Hathorne was a key figure in the witch trials and the only judge to refuse to express remorse for his actions. Hawthorne was classmates and friends at Bowdoin College with future literary giant Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future President Franklin Pierce. Pierce would appoint Hawthorne United States consul in Liverpool, England the year after this story was first published. Hawthorne continued writing until his death in 1864 and left several works unfinished. The work for which Hawthorne is perhaps most famous is “The Scarlet Letter”, published in 1850.
Published in “A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys” in 1852, “The Gorgon’s Head” is in the Public Domain.