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Friday, March 11, 2022

Colum - The King of the Birds - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

I'm torn between wanting to feature Irish material before next week's St. Patrick's Day and remain with resources related to the current Ukrainian invasion by Russia.  Today's story is an Irish story told by Padriac Colum in The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said .  I hope it's prophetic of the Ukrainian people managing to use their wits and limited resources to fight back against what would seem the obvious ruler over them and other countries.

(There's a bit of a "frame" before the story begins.  It starts after the dividing line.)

The King of the Birds

The thirteen little wrens sat on the Apple-yard wall in the King's Garden and their mother was there to teach them to fly. One called them the little wrens, but really each one was as big as their mother. She had a tail, however, that was most cunningly cocked and they had no tails, and the consequence was that when they made their little flights they always went sideways. Moreover, their beaks were still yellow and wide and open and this is always a sign of the young bird.

"All I ask of you," said the mother, "is that when you go into the World you remember that you are the Children of the King of the Birds."

"Now why does our Mother call us the Children of the King of the Birds?" said one little wren to the other. "I think we're really very small. And I think our Mother is very small. And there's our Father behind that ivy-leaf and he's very small too."

"And wherever you go, be sure to conduct yourselves like the Children of the King of the Birds," said the Mother.

"It's because we were reared in such a fine nest," said another little wren. "No other birds in the world had ever a finer nest than we have had. That's the reason we're called the Children of the King of the Birds."

"Men call the Wren the King of the Birds," said the Father Wren, as he flew up on a tree, "and surely men ought to know who is the King of the Birds."

"Why do men call the Wren the King of the Birds?" said the little wrens.

"I will tell you," said the Mother. "As we fly from the wall to the tree, and from the tree back to the wall, I will tell you why men honor the wren as the King of the Birds."

She spent a whole day telling the little wrens the story and the Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said was there, and he heard the whole of it.—

The King of the Hither-side of the Mountain conquered the two villages of Half-a-Loaf and Windy-Gap, and the very day he conquered he ordered the two Headmen to come before him.

"You two Headmen are to see that your villages, Half-a-Loaf and Windy-Gap, send me my rightful tribute," said the King to them.

"There isn't much we can send...." said the Headman of Half-a-Loaf.

"A string of salmon," said the Headman of Windy-Gap.

"A basket of plover's eggs," said the Headman of Half-a-Loaf.

"No," said the King, "the tribute that each of your villages must send me is the King of the Birds."

The two Headmen went back to their villages, and that very day each told at the council what tribute the King had ordered them to send. "The King of the Birds," said the people of Half-a-Loaf, "that's the Eagle surely." "The King of the Birds," said the people of Windy-Gap. "What Bird might that be? We'll have to give thought to this."

The people of Windy-Gap thought about it and thought about it, but the people of Half-a-Loaf declared there was no doubt at all about it—the Eagle was the King of the Birds. And while the people of Windy-Gap were thinking and pondering the people of Half-a-Loaf were sending their young men off to catch an eagle.

But an eagle is a hard fowl to catch, and the people of Half-a-Loaf found they had to send all of their young men out and to send them out every day. And the young men climbed high hills and stony ditches, and they searched the east and they hunted the west; they went out at sunrise and they came back at sunset, but never an eagle did they bring with them.

"It may be that the Eagle is the King of the Birds," said the people of Windy-Gap, "but we had better consider it."

They thought about it from sunrise to sunset; they thought about it while they plowed their fields and sowed them, while they spun their cloth and made their coats, while they mended their nets and mended their shoes, while they thatched their roofs and planted their apple-trees.

And in Half-a-Loaf there was few left to plow the fields and sow them, to spin cloth and to make coats, to mend nets and to mend shoes, to thatch roofs and to plant apple-trees—there was few left to do these things for all the young men were out on the mountain hunting for an eagle.

"The people of Windy-Gap will be ruined," said the people of Half-a-Loaf, "they have done nothing yet to catch the Eagle. When the King gets no tribute from them he'll come down and sell them and their village. Call the young men back that have gone into the fields to work and send them up the mountain again."

At last the people of Half-a-Loaf caught their Eagle—a great golden Eagle he was. They built for him a shed and they fed him on what lambs they had that year.

"We're safe anyway," said the people of Half-a-Loaf, "but the unfortunate folk in Windy-Gap have lost their chance. They'll not have time to catch an eagle now."

The time was coming near when the two villages would have to send their tribute to the King.

"We have our Eagle," said the people of Half-a-Loaf, "But O, Bad Fortune! we have hardly a crop growing. This will be a hard year for us—we haven't lambs to grow into sheep even."

"We have our crops," said the people of Windy-Gap, "but, Bad Cess to it! What are we to do about paying our tribute to the King?"

And still they couldn't decide whether it was the Eagle or the Cuckoo or the Woodpecker that was King of the Birds. They were still considering it when the King's Messenger came to bid them come with their tribute to the King's Castle.

What were the people of Windy-Gap to do? They searched round and about but no bird at all could they find. And then as he was being marched off the Headman put his hand under the thatch of his house and took out a Wren that was sheltering there. He put the Wren under his hat and went off with the King's Messenger.

And there, before him on the way to the King's Castle was the Headman of Half-a-Loaf. The riders of the village were with him and they bore their golden Eagle most triumphantly.

"Give to my Falconer the King of the Birds," said the King.

The Headman of Half-a-Loaf presented the Eagle.

"It is well," said the King, "and where have you," said he to the Headman of Windy-Gap, "bestowed the King of the Birds?"

The Headman put his hand under his hat and handed over the Wren to the King's Falconer.

"Tush," said the King, "Why do you call this the King of the Birds?"

The Headman of Windy-Gap was going to say "Because his family is great," but he said instead "Because he flies the highest, my lord."

"If it be truth it's unknown to me," said the King, "but it shall be tried out."

Then said he to the Royal Falconer, "Let the Eagle and the Wren soar together. And when the Eagle outsoars the Wren it shall be proved that the Headman of Windy-Gap is a catiff, and his village and everyone in it will be sold to the Saracens. But if it so happens that the Wren outsoars the Eagle, the tribute sent from the village of Windy-Gap must be accepted."

The Eagle and the Wren rose from the same perch and soared up together. Up and up the Eagle went. "So far my father went, but I shall go farther," said the Eagle. Higher and higher he rose. "So far my grandfather went but I shall go farther." Farther and farther he soared. "So far went my great-grandfather, and no eagle again will fly so high." His wings were stiff and tired. "No bird will ever out-soar this flight of mine," said the Eagle.

He went to close his wings so that he might rest them as he went down. But as he did the Wren came from under his wings.

Up went the Wren, down went the Eagle. Up and up went the Wren. He had been resting while the Eagle had been flying, and now he was able to soar past the point the Eagle had reached at his dead-best.

"No bird will ever out-soar this flight of mine," said the Eagle. 


The Eagle flew down and lighted on the Falconer's perch. "Has he flown high, Falconer?" asked the King. "No bird has flown so high," said the Falconer. "By the rime on his wings he has gone into the line of frost."

"The Eagle is King of the Birds and no one can deny it," said the King. "The village of Windy-Gap has not sent me my tribute."

"Mercy," said the Headman of Windy-Gap.

"The village and all in it shall be sold to the Saracens," said the King.

Just then the Wren came down and lighted on the perch beside the Eagle. "Where did the Wren fly to?" said the King. "By my glove," said the Falconer "he soared past the line of frost, and went into the line of snow, for what's on his feathers is a drop of snow."

"The Wren is King of the Birds," said the Headman of Windy-Gap.

"Yes, King of the Birds," said the King, "and, therefore, my lawful tribute."

And so, for ever after the villages sent to the King, not an Eagle, but a Wren as tribute. And in no village ever after were the lands unplowed and the fields unsown, the cloth unspun and the coats not made, the roofs unthatched and the apple-trees unplanted. And in every village in the hollow and on the height the people shouted for the Wren—"The Wren, the Wren, the King of all Birds."


May the present situation change so once again the lands are being plowed (Ukraine has long been the bread basket of Europe and beyond), the fields sown, the cloth spun and coats made, the roofs thatched (and the incredible amount of reconstruction needed), and apple trees and other trees replanted.

For those seeking a picture book version, Jane Goodall created a fable based on her remembrance of a story she and her sister heard nightly.  She doesn't name the book where it was found and probably no longer recalls it.  The incident of the wren hiding in the eagle's wing occurs, but it occurs because there's a contest among the birds.  She uses the fable format to illustrate the idea of teamwork and need for everyone to have a little help now and then.  

Was it the same story?  Did her memory shape her view of it?

Similarly I could swear there's a Native American version, but couldn't find it.

Among storytellers the question of "should we state the moral at the end of a fable or not" is often discussed.  Goodall clearly believes it should, although the Horn Book review faults her for the book being "heavy on message."  The explanation storytellers often give for NOT stating a conclusion to a story is it can and should mean many different things to the many different members of your audience.  Teachers can check this, if they wish, by offering a story and then asking students what the story might be trying to teach.  In a discussion it might become obvious we all hear what we need or want to hear.

Similarly there are many views of the current invasion.  I pray it ends well and actually has an ending since it's stirring up events dating back to times many believed were settled.


This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  

At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it.
Other Public Domain story resources I recommend-
  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key.
  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.

    Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:            
         - David K. Brown -
         - Richard Martin -
         - Spirit of Trees -
         - Story-Lovers - is now only accessible through the Wayback Machine, described below, but the late Jackie Baldwin's wonderful site lives on there, fully searchable manually (the Google search doesn't work), at .  It's not easy, but go to snapshot for October 22 2016  and you can click on SOS: Searching Out Stories to scroll down through the many story topics and click on the story topic that interests you.
       - World of Tales - 
           - Zalka Csenge Virag - doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.
You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links.  Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job.  In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it.  Possibly searches maintained it.  Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine.  It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!
    Somebody as of this writing whose stories can still be found by his website is the late Chuck Larkin -  I prefer to list these sites by their complete address so they can be found by the Wayback Machine, a.k.a., when that becomes the only way to find them.
You can see why I recommend these to you. Have fun discovering even more stories!




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