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The King Of The Birds

The King Of The Birds [Folk Tales Of Flanders]

The King Of The Birds [Folk Tales Of Flanders]

At one time the birds, like the four-footed animals, were ruled over by the lion, who is the King of the Beasts, but they grew discontented with his dominion and decided to have a king of their own. It was the eagle’s idea: he thought of it one day when he was standing on the lofty crag by his nest, gazing out upon the plain below, and he saw the lion, no bigger than a mouse in appearance, slinking beside a dried-up stream. “Earth-bound creature!” thought the eagle scornfully. “Who are you to reign over us, who cleave the air with wings and fly in the face of the sun! He who is lordliest among the birds should rule the feathered creatures, and surely I am he!”

So thinking, the eagle spread his wings and soared high into the air, and then swooped suddenly down upon the lion, casting sand into his eyes with a harsh scream of defiance.  Having thus relieved his feelings, he sent messengers near and far to assemble all the birds that he might unfold his plan to them.

Such a scurry of wings as there was when the birds came to answer the summons! The sky was black with them, so that the animals on the earth below, fearing a dreadful storm, took shelter in their caves and holes. From north, south, east, and west they came; over mountain, valley, and plain; birds of all sorts and sizes, from the little humming-bird to the condor and the vulture. The ostrich left the burning plains where he loves to roam, and flapping his ridiculous wing, for he could not fly, raced to the meeting-place. All those birds that dwell in the tropical forests, and flash from tree to tree like living jewels in the green twilight; the penguins and skua-gulls from the icy north; the cormorants and shags, and all the hosts of the birds of the sea—if I were to go on naming them I should fill every page of this book and never even begin my story. And as they flew each uttered his own cry, so that what with the calling and the screaming, the whistling, warbling, chirping, and chattering, the air was filled with a mighty sound that echoed to the very ends of the world.

When all the birds were duly assembled the eagle addressed them thus: “Listen, brothers,” said he, “I have called you together in order that we may choose a king, for it is not fitting that the lion, that earth-bound creature, should continue to reign over the free company of the birds. We are distinguished from the beasts by our power of flight, and it therefore seems to me that the crown of sovereignty should be given to the one amongst us who possesses that power in the fullest degree. What do you say? Shall we test this matter, and let him who can fly nearest to the sun be king?”

A confused chorus of cries answered his question, one bird speaking against another.

“What is flight compared to song?” asked the nightingale. “Let the sweetest singer among us reign.”

The canary and the throstle and the blackcap all agreed with the nightingale, but they were shouted down.

The King Of The Birds [Folk Tales Of Flanders]

“Beauty, beauty!” cried the peacock. “That is the test! A king should be resplendent in gay robes!” And he spread his gorgeous tail.

“Aye, there speaks wisdom,” gobbled the turkey, turning red in the face, and strutting up and down. “What do you say, brother,” he asked the cock. “Shall we arrange it so?”  

“A fig for gay feathers!” cackled the ostrich. “Is our king then only to be looked at, or is he to do nothing all day but chirp and twitter foolish songs? As for flying, I found my wings of so little use that I gave up using them long ago. My idea is that we should settle this matter by a running race!”

And so the birds went on quarrelling and disputing until at last the eagle called for silence, and, addressing the company again, insisted upon the adoption of his own plan. He spoke sternly and menacingly, and as all the birds went in fear of his curved beak and sharp talons, no further objections were raised.

It was agreed that the trial should take place at once, and the cock was chosen to give the signal for the start. Very proud of the honour, he stationed himself on a little grassy knoll, and having ascertained that everybody was ready, gave a loud and clarion  call. There was the sound as of a rushing mighty wind as all the birds sprang into the air. Only the eagle remained in his place, looking after the others a little contemptuously. So confident did he feel in his ability to outfly them all, that he allowed them at least five minutes start. Then, very leisurely, he spread his wings and soared. Up, up, up he went; he overtook the stragglers on the fringe of the crowd, passed through the thickest press, outdistanced the foremost flyer of them all. Still up and up he soared, exalting in his strength and power, until the birds flying far below were hidden by the clouds. Then he hung for a moment, motionless on extended wings, for he was a little wearied by his efforts.

All of a sudden he heard, above his head, a tiny twit, twit, twit , and looking up, saw, to his surprise, the golden-crested wren, one of the smallest of the birds, flying merrily above him.

“I have outdistanced you. I am king! I am king!” cried the wren in his joy.

“We will see,” said the eagle grimly; and once again he beat his mighty wings and soared.

At the end of a further five minutes, he stopped again, only to hear, as before, the wren’s cheerful twitter above him. Again and again the same thing happened. Try as he might, the eagle could not outdistance the tiny bird, and at last, worn out with his exertions, he was obliged to give up the contest, and to descend, crestfallen, to the earth again.

The King Of The Birds [Folk Tales Of Flanders]

And how did the little wren, which is certainly not famed for its powers of flight, come to be able to defeat the mighty eagle? By a very simple trick! When the eagle started on its flight the wren was safely perched upon his back. There he clung until the eagle stopped flying, when it was an easy matter to rise from his place and fly a yard or two higher. When the eagle began to fly again, the wren again took its place on his back, and this continued time after time until the great bird was exhausted.

The King Of The Birds [Folk Tales Of Flanders]

Although nobody suspected the trick which the wren had played, the other birds were very indignant when they heard the wren declare that he had won the contest. “You, king!” they cried. “An insignificant thing like you! It would be a disgrace to us if we were to suffer it. We would rather be ruled by the lion! At any rate, he had majesty of deportment and dignity. You have neither grace nor wisdom, strength nor beauty. Away with you before we tear you to  pieces!”

The wren was as perky as you please, and for only answer he flew to the boughs of a tree, whence he looked down on them all with his head on one side, chirping, “I am king! I am king. Bow down and make obeisance!”

A great cry of anger arose. “Kill him! Kill him!” screamed the hawk. “Tear him to pieces!”

“You will have to catch him first!” twittered the wren, and as the hawk made a rush at him, he popped into a hole in the trunk of a tree—a hole so small that nobody could get at him. From the shelter of that safe retreat he continued to gibe at the birds, issuing commands, and asserting that he was their king.

What was to be done? Nobody could get at the wren, and yet all the birds felt that he should be punished for his impudence. A consultation was held, and it was finally decided to set the owl as a guard at the mouth of his hole. “Sooner or later,” said the eagle, “he will have to come out in order to get food, and then we will have him. If, however, he elects to stay where he is, let him; either way our purpose will be served.”

So the owl mounted guard by the hole in the trunk of the tree, and having given him the most careful instructions not on any account to let the wren escape, the other birds flew away. All that day the owl remained vigilant at his post, and though the wren put his head out of the hole a hundred times, he always found his guard keeping careful watch. Night fell, and a great silence fell upon the woods, but still the owl kept awake for hour after hour, watching with unwinking eyes. At last, towards morning, his vigilance relaxed a little. His head sank forward on his breast; and he fell fast asleep. Hardly had his eyes closed than, rip! the wren darted out of his hole, and the next moment he had vanished among the trees.

When the birds returned the next morning they were furious to find that their prisoner had escaped. “Unfaithful servant,” they cried, “you have betrayed your trust!” And they fell upon the owl to put him to death. With some difficulty he managed to escape, but ever since that time the birds chase the owl wherever they see him, for they are still angry with him. To keep out of their way he has to hide  during the day and venture out only at night, when all the other birds are fast asleep.

As for the golden-crested wren, he is known as the Kinglet, or little king, to this day.

The King Of The Birds [Folk Tales Of Flanders]


 

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