This book of Greek Myths takes an unusual approach and covers some material that is not commonly covered in children's stories. It is based on the Odes of Pindar rather than traditional mythology. It includes several well-known stories, such as the tale of Jason and the birth of Castor and Pollux, but also several much lesser known tales, as told by one of the greatest of the Greek Poets of the Classic age.
The name of this book is borrowed from the Ode in which Pindar has enshrined the loveliest of fairy stories—the "leaf-fringed legend" of the Pansy Child. The poet was bidden to prepare that Ode in honour of a friend's victory in the Olympic Games, and he likens his task to the building of a palace. Golden pillars, he says, must bear up the porch of this House of Song, and the glories of the victor shall form those pillars, glittering afar in the sumptuous frontal of the fabric. Now, chief among the victor's glories, was his descent from the namesake of the Pansy, the holy Seer of Olympia, and so, through that Golden Porch, Pindar leads us into Fairyland.
In adding one more to the innumerable collections of stories from the Greek, I have hoped to break fresh ground by reproducing the myths of Pindar's Odes, as far as possible in a free translation, and with such additions only as were needed to form a framework. Some of these legends are already wholly or partly familiar, but several will be new, I think, to English readers.
It may be said that Greek myths, especially as handled by the poet who wove into them his deepest criticisms of life, are misleadingly, if not profanely, entitled fairy tales.
But I would plead that nothing in Greek literature, except the stories of Herodotus, is so steeped in the true fairy atmosphere as are the myths of Pindar. I need not speak of Aeschylus, the creatures of whose Titanic imagination belong to a universe of their own; but consider, for example, the poet of the Odyssey. His wonder-world, though real, lies far away; Odysseus, he makes us feel, has only to get back to Ithaca, and he has no more chance of encountering a Cyclops or a Laestrygon than you or I have. For Pindar, on the contrary, all Hellas is enchanted ground; it was in Arcadia, in Argos, in his own Thebes, that men of old fought uncanny monsters, entertained divinity unawares, and learnt Earth's secrets from talking beasts and birds. What wonder, if for him, living in such a land, and turning from the upheaval of a new era to gaze fondly on an ideal past, that vanished world came alive again! At least, it is one charm of his story-telling that he seems to be describing things he saw happen with his own eyes, and another, that the marvels befall quite simply, and, so to speak, intelligibly, in the natural course of events.
To these essentials of the perfect fairy tale, Pindar adds the accepted dramatis personae—the brave young prince, the wicked king, his foil, and the incomparably beautiful princess. And always, as in fairy tales all the world over, the wicked king comes to a bad end, while the deserving hero lives happy ever after.
The legends of the Trojan War belong of course to a different category, for between the time of Heracles and the time of Achilles the sun of the fairy age has set.
It should perhaps be mentioned that some of the stories here presented are put together from the myths of several Odes, and most contain a good deal not to be found in Pindar. But where I have used other sources, or invented details, I have tried firstly to introduce no version of a myth not undoubtedly current in Pindar's day, and secondly, to remember his maxim, that "disparagement of the gods is a hateful art."
He that erst these legends told
Sang in far-off days of gold,
Ere yet from Earth the bright gods went,
or toiling mortals, prison-pent
Where the frowning cities stand,
Forgot the way to Fairyland.
A blissful child, thro' greenwood bowers
He strayed, amid the April flowers,
And there, 'tis told, he once was found
On pansy pillow sleeping sound,
While the dusky mountain bees
Left for him the clover leas,
Left bluebell copse and crocus mead,
On his dreaming lips to feed.
But, for kisses that they stole,
The wingéd thieves paid wondrous toll,
Hallowing with chrism pure
Those baby lips, their rose-red lure.
Strange the might, as I shall tell,
Hidden in that honey-spell!
For the child, a striping grown,
Still would haunt the forest lone,
Musing, ferny ways along,
The golden themes of antique song—
Wars and perilous wanderings,
Ancient marvels, hero-kings
Vanquishing in dauntless mood
Earth's primaeval dragon-brood,
All glittering quests, all glories won
Since Time's great wheel began to run.
So, like a bee, his aëry thought
Store of secret treasure wrought
From every bud and blossom bright
In Memory's garden of delight.
Many a Summer morn the boy
Ranged the dewy woods in joy;
Many an eve sat, half a-dream,
Where hazels hid a tinkling stream,
While softly to its drowsy chime
His lute's low harmonies kept time.
Then, in some divinest hour,
The magic of the wild-bee dower,
Swift as blaze of slumbering flame,
Sent a rapture thro' his frame.
To the runnel's brink he sprang,
Struck his Dorian lute and sang
Such a song, the nightingale
Hearing, hushed her plaintive tale;
Such a song, the goat-foot Pan
Envied once a child of man!
Yes, the God whose music thrills
Thro' silent places of the hills,
The Watcher of the upland flocks
Who pipes at noon upon the rocks,
Tiptoed near, the boughs among,
Fain to learn that mortal song,
And oft, since then, his reed flung by
To carol it in Arcady.
Great Pan is dead; the woodlands hoar
Ring to his wild notes no more;
And the voice he loved that day
Long from Earth has past away.
Yet still in this her wintry age
Its honey breathes from PINDAR'Spage,
Whereon who looks shall seem to hear
Its very accents warbling clear
Of Thebes or Troy the tale sublime,
Or some green idyll of the prime,
In that sweetest human tongue
Moulded when the world was young.
Ah, might these dissonant echoes vain
Retrieve one cadence of the strain!