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Illustrations and Adaptations of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Golden Touch": A Selective Overview

by Dr. John Idol

Dr. John L. Idol, Jr., Professor emeritus, Clemson University
Dr. John L. Idol, Jr., Professor emeritus, Clemson University (photography by Lou Procopio)
Scarcely had he cobbled the last gable to his seven-gabled house when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote J. T. Fields (23 May 1851) about a book he wanted to write. For reasons that will become acceptable, I hope, as this presentation goes forward, I quote the entire paragraph concerning his project.
I mean to write, within six weeks or two months next ensuing, a book of stories made up of classical myths. The subjects are--The story of Midas, with his golden touch--Pandora's Box--The adventure of Hercules in quest of the Golden Apples--Bellerophon and the Chimaera, Baucis and Philemon, Perseus and Medusa--these, I think, will be enough to make up a volume to be sold at 50 or 75 cts, according to the style of publication. As a frame work, I shall have a young college student telling these stories to his cousins and brothers and sisters, during his vacations, sometimes at the fireside, sometimes in the woods and dells. Unless I greatly mistake, these old fictions will work up admirably for the purpose; and I shall aim at substituting a tone in some degree Gothic or romantic, or any such tone as may best please myself, instead of the classic coldness, which is as repellant as the touch of marble. I give you hints of my plan, because you will think it advisable to employ Billings to prepare some illustrations. There is good scope in the above subjects for fanciful designs. Bellerophon and the Chimaera, for instance; the Chimaera a fantastic monster with three heads; and Bellerophon fighting him, mounted on Pegasus--Pandora opening the box--Hercules talking with Atlas, an enormous giant who holds the sky on his shoulders--or, sailing across the sea in an immense bowl--Perseus transforming a king and all his subjects to stone, by exhibiting the Gorgon's head. No particular accuracy in costume need be aimed at. My stories will bear out the artist in any liberties he may be inclined to take. Billings would do these things well enough, though his characteristics are grace and delicacy, rather than wildness of fancy. The book, if it comes out of my mind, as I see it now, ought to have pretty wide success amongst young people; and, of course, I shall purge out all the old heathen wickedness, and put in a moral wherever practicable. For a title, how would these do?--"A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys"--or "The Wonder Book of Old Stories"--I prefer the former. Or "Myths modernized, for my children."--that won't do. (XVI, 436-37)
I underscore three points in this revealing letter, the first Hawthorne's alerting Fields to engage Hammatt Billings to prepare illustrations. Hawthorne knew of Billings' work from a request, several years back, for mythological sketches to accompany some of Billings' drawings. Hawthorne turned down Billings, saying that he one day wanted to do a book of mythological tales, but Billings did agree to do some designs for Hawthorne's True Stories from History and Biography. Hawthorne thus knew the characteristics of Billings' art: "grace and delicacy, rather than wildness of fancy" (437). Billings, of course, was employed to provide designs for each of the tales. He didn't work as swiftly as Fields and Hawthorne would have liked, holding up the press while failing to return Hawthorne's manuscript to the printing office. His designs, engraved for the Ticknor and Fields by a Bostonian engraver named Baker, were indeed graceful and delicate. "Wildness of fancy" would have to await later illustrators. In the several reissues of The Wonder Book by Ticknor and Fields and their successor, Houghton Mifflin, Billings' illustrations enjoyed a long life.

The second point I underscore involves Hawthorne's imaginative conception of what subjects might be illustrated and the manner they could be depicted: "Bellerophon and the Chimaera for instance; the Chimaera a fantastic monster with three heads; and Bellerophon fighting him, mounted on Pegasus--Pandora opening the box--Hercules talking with Atlas. . . -Perseus transforming a king and all his subjects to stone, by ex- hibiting the Gorgon's head. No particular accuracy in costume need be aimed at " (436- 437). Hawthorne's imaginative conceptions were realized in Bellerophon, Pandora, and Perseus, but Hercules was not limned in conversation with Atlas but rather surrounded by a sextet of lovely maidens in the Garden of Hesperides. Oddly, Hawthorne failed to suggest how King Midas and his daughter might be presented. His pictorial genius is as much evident in this tale as in the others. Perhaps he wanted to leave "The Golden Touch" wide open for interpretation by illustrators, for he must have foreseen that dozens of illustrators would eventually be drawn (pun intended) to this tale.

The third point I underscore reflects why the volume itself, and, particularly "The Golden Touch," continue to be valued, read, and illustrated. "I shall . . . put in a moral wherever practicable" he promised Fields, and that promise he kept, perhaps more obtrusively in "The Golden Touch" than elsewhere in his recasting of mythological tales. So palpable is the moral that Edgar Poe, had he lived to see the publication of The Wonder Book for Girls and Boys and Tanglewood Tales, surely would have flung Hawthorne into Boston's frog pond amongst all those moralizing writers croaking out their maxims and adages there. But it is just this heavy moralizing that, in part, accounts for the popularity of "The Golden Touch," not only in a redacted form as an illustrated book for children but also as a skit for children, a fairy tale, or a vehicle for teaching American sign language. In shortened and adapted forms it also can be found on the Internet as moralistic fare for children.

Although Hawthorne scholars inform us that the immediate source for Hawthorne's story of King Midas was Charles Anthon's A Classical Dictionary: Containing an Account of the Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors, his ultimate source, one well known, apparently, to a few illustrators of "The Golden Touch," was Ovid's The Metamorphoses. Ovid gives two accounts of him, the first involving his befriending of Silenus, who, in traveling with Dionysus to enjoy the wine-god's visits amongst this followers, hoists far too many cups and ends up in King Midas's gardens. After ten days of reveling with Silenus, perhaps matching him cup for cup, Midas restores Silenus to Dionysus, who, in gratitude, pledges to honor any request Midas makes of him. However sorrowful he may be with Midas's wish that everything he touches turns to gold, Dionysus grants it. At first delighted with his power of transforming all he touches to gold, Midas soon grows sad and disillusioned, for he can't eat or drink because food and water become gold; even wine itself can't wet his thirsting lips and throat, for, it, too, is gold. Learning from his mistake, he prays that Dionysus remove what now is a curse. Pitying him, Dionysus does suggest a remedy. If Midas will leap into the river Pactolus, he will be cleansed. Naked, he jumps into the river, which indeed cleanses him but henceforth finds itself beautified with golden sand.

Ovid's second tale about King Midas gives an account of his turning to nature following his hard-won lesson that riches won't bring happiness. He becomes an admirer of Pan, a mistake, as things turn out, for as a judge in a music contest between Pan and Apollo, Midas declares Pan the winner. His choice offends Apollo, who punishes him by causing the ears of an ass to sprout from his head, ears that King Midas tries to conceal by wearing a purple turban. That Hawthorne (or at least Eustace Bright, the narrator of "The Golden Touch") knew this account appears in the dismissive remark of Eustace: "And though he once was fond of music, (in spite of an idle story about his ears, which were said to resemble those of an ass,) the only music for poor Midas now, was the chink of one coin against another" (VII, 41).

Ovid says nothing about any children, much less a sprightly daughter named Marygold. She is the invention of Eustace, whose delight in naming children we see in his choice of Clover, Sweet Fern, Buttercup, and Primrose for his young auditors. Hawthorne takes a similar delight in christening his collegiate narrator, for "Eustace" derives from Greek and means "rich in corn" or "fruitful." As his narrative opens, Eustace declares that Midas "had a little daughter, whom nobody but myself ever heard of, and whose name I either never knew, or have entirely forgotten. So, because I love odd names for little girls, I choose to call her Marygold" (VII, 40). She will become a motivating factor in King Midas' life--for she inspires his monomaniacal obsession to acquire wealth and brings on his deepest regret for his folly after his touch has trans- muted her to gold. And, of course, she figures prominently in the art work of illustrations of this tale.

It is to the illustrations that, at last, I turn. The order of my selective overview of illustrations roughly follows publication dates.

  • Hammatt Billings, Ticknor Fields, 1852. Since Hawthorne didn't identify by name a mysterious stranger who one day appeared in Midas' counting room to grant him his fondest wish, Billings, perhaps ignorant of Midas' good deed for Dionysus (Bacchus), depicted the glowing stranger as Mercury, a point apparently raised by Robert Carter, editor of the Boston Commonwealth, when he wrote Hawthorne to offer suggestions for the continuation of The Wonder Book. In responding to Carter, Hawthorne wrote: " I did not convert Bacchus into Mercury, in the story of Midas. The erudite Mr. Billings is solely responsible for that transformation. But I did not see any method of strongly identifying Bacchus--unless on the supposition that King Midas merely fancied himself possessed of the golden faculty, while under the influence of the grape" (XVI, 652-653). As we shall see, Billings was not alone in bringing Mercury and King Midas together.
  • Walter Crane, British born artist and contemporary of William Morris, in an edition of A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, Houghton, Mifflin, 1893, provided Pre-Raphaelite limning of Mercury.
  • Milo Winter, an illustrator born in Indiana, shared his vision of King Midas' counting room in a publication for Rand McNally, 1913.
  • Frederick S. Church, one of the busiest illustrators in the last third of the 19th century, depicted Midas in a headlong plunge into the river in an effort to wash away the golden touch in an edition for Houghton ,Mifflin, 1884.
  • Arthur Rackham renders King Midas as too horrified to look upon what his golden touch has wrought in a celebrated edition of Wonder Book published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1922.
  • Willy Pogany, in a joint edition of Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, published without a date by George W. Jacobs Co., in a manner resembling that of Aubrey Beardley, portrays Midas reclaiming Marygold.
  • Harold Jones, for Franklin Watts, Inc., 1963, depicted a messenger who can't be confused with Mercury, Dionysus, or Bacchus. He seems not to have indulged in wine but gone for crack cocaine or meth instead.
  • Richard Salvucci, in a glow-in-the dark drawing, for a St. Martin's Press edition of "The Golden Touch," makes Midas' headlong plunge into the river something of a belly-buster. This still-in-print version appeared in 1987.
  • Kathryn Hewitt's King Midas and the Golden Touch was published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1987. Her final watercolor drawing presents Marygold as a matron as her children listen to Grandpa Midas.
  • Daniel Horne presents a gleeful Midas transmuting roses to gold in a 1989 publication entitled King Midas and the Golden Touch.
  • Dawn Majewski, drawing for deaf readers, catches Midas' greedy delight as he sees his roses turn to gold. Her work appeared in 1990.

The year 1999 saw the publication of two magnificently illustrated books, one by the Japanese-American artist Kinuko Craft for HarperCollins, the second by Omar Rayyan for Holiday House. Ms Craft's work is notable for its close attention to detail and rich colors; Rayyan's pieces often show his humor. Kinuko's mysterious stranger is clearly a dazzling Dionysus or Bacchus. Rayyan's Midas behaves more like a proud parent who's celebrating his child's role in coaching her soccer team to victory.

Before moving to cinematic and video versions of the tale, I will briefly two more items in the print medium, both of them expanding and modifying the story to the length of a novella. The first is Walt Disney's King Midas, which appeared in 1937 following a film version released in 1935. It is copiously illustrated, becoming, in format, a kind of forerunner of graphic novels. A later, and more imaginative recasting of the tale is Lynne Reid Banks' The Adventures of King Midas, a 1967 publication of Avon Books illustrated by Joseph A. Smith. Reissued in 1993 by HarperCollins, it featured a new set of illustrations, these done by Hilda Offen. Marygold in this retelling becomes Delia. Midas' adventures are many, a kind of junior-league romp through territories that Tolkien might have enjoyed seeing. The b/w drawings of both Smith and Offen are not great specimen of the illustrator's art. Merely serviceable.

Film and video adaptations of the tale help keep the tale alive. Hewing close to Hawthorne's text, New Age Video, Inc, in 1985 produced a version using many Drawings by an unidentified artist, all of them stills. Featuring the voice of Hans Conreid as narrator, Diamond Entertainment Corporation in 1991 offered a six-minute retelling, with drawings by an unidentified illustrator. A much more ambitious, and successful production by Rabbit Ears in 1991 turned to Eric Metaxas to recast the tale, to Rodica Prato for some brilliantly rendered illustrations and to Michael Caine as narrator. Adding to its appeal and beauty is the music of Ellis Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma. Although the story undergoes many changes from the original, its imaginative recasting, with echoes of "The Artist of the Beautiful,"surely would have pleased Hawthorne. The video is still available.

As an exercise in video production and as a means of giving students a fuller understanding of the story, one elementary school teacher undertook a production starring students. This adaptation can be Googled. The website is given in my handout.

This video adaptation is merely one among many attempts to dramatize the tale. I don't have time to cover them all. I must ask you to be content with three. The first of them, written by Willard Simms and available through Pioneer Drama Services, departs from Hawthorne's text, retaining the character of King Midas but creating three others named Nicky, Glenna, and Marian. The story line remains much the same as does the moral. For stage effects, there tricks, an overflowing bucket of coins and a disappearing candle trick. The running time is roughly thirty minutes.

As an introduction to Grecian mythology a couple of teachers at Highland Park Elementary School in Austin, Texas, James Park and Sally Corbett, wrote a script for a performance combining most of the Olympians, male and female, with chief figures in the King Midas story. In the skit the gods discuss what the greatest gift is, Aphrodite arguing for beauty, Hera for power, Hades for wealth, other gods for other things. Dionysus, in a move to settle the matter, proposes that a human be asked what he considers the greatest gift. Zeus suggests that King Midas, renowned for his wealth, be asked the question. Of course, we know what Midas will say and we know what he will do once he receives the gift. And we know that he will come to regret his decision and pray that Dionysus grants him the power to reverse it, especially after he can't eat or drink or caress his precious daughter. The skit ends with these words. "Believe me, my daughter, I'd trade my whole kingdom for one of your hugs." (They embrace.)

Far more ambitious than either of these two dramatic renderings is that of Michele L. Vacca, whose play for children is called King Midas and the Miraculous Golden Touch, a work for eight named characters and a host of unnamed ones who appear as the king's servants or subjects. Once again, the main story-line remains Hawthornean, but characterization and stage effects are free-wheeling, or should I say, engagingly creative. A list of the principals, with some descriptive words, suggests the range and nature of the creativity: Midas, the ruler of Myopia, is so self-absorbed in accumulating and counting his wealth that he neglects his duties, largely turning them over to his wife, Miranda, who is wise and competent, fully capable of running the country while Midas spends his time with Sir Calvin the Calculating, his accountant, who says repeatedly, "I love counting." His accountant has a title: Baron De La Toadie. Marygold, beloved, kind, generous, perceptive, and deeply concerned about her father's obsession with gold, enjoys flowers and playing with her teddy bear, named Benjamin. A cliche-spouting wise woman of Myopia, Sylvia the Sybil, constantly warns Midas about choosing wisely. He's too Distracted to listen, especially when he and the court are entertained by Lester the Jester, obviously a descendant of Lear's Fool and Lorelei of the Lea, sing and dance. then there's the Mysterious Stranger, who gives the gift and reverses it, who also serves as narrator. Vacca describes him as "a combination of audience/actor liaison and deus ex machina character."

If properly produced, the stage effects with thunder, fog, darkness, sudden transfor- mations, and sleight of hand could be dazzling. The audience would find it morally persuasive as well, if more than a little heavy-handedness on that score could be overlooked. The play had a limited, but successful, run at the Clemson Little Theater last year.

"The Golden Touch" has done more than yeoman service in keeping Hawthorne's name green among school children. The story told, the images evoked, the emotional ties explored, the greed revealed and condemned, the wisdom that happiness often lies in enjoying the simple things of life, all combine to make this a tale irresistible to illustrators, dramatists, and readers alike. My exploration of it leads me to believe that the only other Hawthorne work greener in the consciousness of American readers is The Scarlet Letter.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12324/

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