L. Frank Baum
American Fairy Tales > Chapter 11
Bookmark American Fairy Tales, chapter 11 for future reference.
American Fairy Tales
- by L. Frank Baum
THE KING of the POLAR BEARS
The King of the Polar Bears lived among the icebergs in the far
north country. He was old and monstrous big; he was wise and
friendly to all who knew him. His body was thickly covered with
long, white hair that glistened like silver under the rays of the
midnight sun. His claws were strong and sharp, that he might walk
safely over the smooth ice or grasp and tear the fishes and seals
upon which he fed.
The seals were afraid when he drew near, and tried to avoid him; but
the gulls, both white and gray, loved him because he left the
remnants of his feasts for them to devour.
Often his subjects, the polar bears, came to him for advice when ill
or in trouble; but they wisely kept away from his hunting grounds,
lest they might interfere with his sport and arouse his anger.
The wolves, who sometimes came as far north as the icebergs,
whispered among themselves that the King of the Polar Bears was
either a magician or under the protection of a powerful fairy. For
no earthly thing seemed able to harm him; he never failed to secure
plenty of food, and he grew bigger and stronger day by day and year
Yet the time came when this monarch of the north met man, and his
wisdom failed him.
He came out of his cave among the icebergs one day and saw a boat
moving through the strip of water which had been uncovered by the
shifting of the summer ice. In the boat were men.
The great bear had never seen such creatures before, and therefore
advanced toward the boat, sniffing the strange scent with aroused
curiosity and wondering whether he might take them for friends or
foes, food or carrion.
When the king came near the water's edge a man stood up in the boat
and with a queer instrument made a loud "bang!" The polar bear felt
a shock; his brain became numb; his thoughts deserted him; his great
limbs shook and gave way beneath him and his body fell heavily upon
the hard ice.
That was all he remembered for a time.
When he awoke he was smarting with pain on every inch of his huge
bulk, for the men had cut away his hide with its glorious white hair
and carried it with them to a distant ship.
Above him circled thousands of his friends the gulls, wondering if
their benefactor were really dead and it was proper to eat him. But
when they saw him raise his head and groan and tremble they knew he
still lived, and one of them said to his comrades:
"The wolves were right. The king is a great magician, for even men
cannot kill him. But he suffers for lack of covering. Let us repay
his kindness to us by each giving him as many feathers as we can
This idea pleased the gulls. One after another they plucked with
their beaks the softest feathers from under their wings, and, flying
down, dropped then gently upon the body of the King of the Polar
Then they called to him in a chorus:
"Courage, friend! Our feathers are as soft and beautiful as your own
shaggy hair. They will guard you from the cold winds and warm you
while you sleep. Have courage, then, and live!"
And the King of the Polar Bears had courage to bear his pain and
lived and was strong again.
The feathers grew as they had grown upon the bodies of the birds and
covered him as his own hair had done. Mostly they were pure white in
color, but some from the gray gulls gave his majesty a slight
The rest of that summer and all through the six months of night the
king left his icy cavern only to fish or catch seals for food. He
felt no shame at his feathery covering, but it was still strange to
him, and he avoided meeting any of his brother bears.
During this period of retirement he thought much of the men who had
harmed him, and remembered the way they had made the great "bang!"
And he decided it was best to keep away from such fierce creatures.
Thus he added to his store of wisdom.
When the moon fell away from the sky and the sun came to make the
icebergs glitter with the gorgeous tintings of the rainbow, two of
the polar bears arrived at the king's cavern to ask his advice about
the hunting season. But when they saw his great body covered with
feathers instead of hair they began to laugh, and one said:
"Our mighty king has become a bird! Who ever before heard of a
feathered polar bear?"
Then the king gave way to wrath. He advanced upon them with deep
growls and stately tread and with one blow of his monstrous paw
stretched the mocker lifeless at his feet.
The other ran away to his fellows and carried the news of the king's
strange appearance. The result was a meeting of all the polar bears
upon a broad field of ice, where they talked gravely of the
remarkable change that had come upon their monarch.
"He is, in reality, no longer a bear," said one; "nor can he justly
be called a bird. But he is half bird and half bear, and so unfitted
to remain our king."
"Then who shall take his place?" asked another.
"He who can fight the bird-bear and overcome him," answered an aged
member of the group. "Only the strongest is fit to rule our race."
There was silence for a time, but at length a great bear moved to
the front and said:
"I will fight him; I—Woof—the strongest of our race! And I will be
King of the Polar Bears."
The others nodded assent, and dispatched a messenger to the king to
say he must fight the great Woof and master him or resign his
"For a bear with feathers," added the messenger, "is no bear at all,
and the king we obey must resemble the rest of us."
"I wear feathers because it pleases me," growled the king. "Am I not
a great magician? But I will fight, nevertheless, and if Woof
masters me he shall be king in my stead."
Then he visited his friends, the gulls, who were even then feasting
upon the dead bear, and told them of the coming battle.
"I shall conquer," he said, proudly. "Yet my people are in the
right, for only a hairy one like themselves can hope to command
The queen gull said:
"I met an eagle yesterday, which had made its escape from a big city
of men. And the eagle told me he had seen a monstrous polar bear
skin thrown over the back of a carriage that rolled along the
street. That skin must have been yours, oh king, and if you wish I
will sent an hundred of my gulls to the city to bring it back to
"Let them go!" said the king, gruffly. And the hundred gulls were
soon flying rapidly southward.
For three days they flew straight as an arrow, until they came to
scattered houses, to villages, and to cities. Then their search
The gulls were brave, and cunning, and wise. Upon the fourth day
they reached the great metropolis, and hovered over the streets
until a carriage rolled along with a great white bear robe thrown
over the back seat. Then the birds swooped down—the whole hundred
of them—and seizing the skin in their beaks flew quickly away.
They were late. The king's great battle was upon the seventh day,
and they must fly swiftly to reach the Polar regions by that time.
Meanwhile the bird-bear was preparing for his fight. He sharpened
his claws in the small crevasses of the ice. He caught a seal and
tested his big yellow teeth by crunching its bones between them. And
the queen gull set her band to pluming the king bear's feathers
until they lay smoothly upon his body.
But every day they cast anxious glances into the southern sky,
watching for the hundred gulls to bring back the king's own skin.
The seventh day came, and all the Polar bears in that region
gathered around the king's cavern. Among them was Woof, strong and
confident of his success.
"The bird-bear's feathers will fly fast enough when I get my claws
upon him!" he boasted; and the others laughed and encouraged him.
The king was disappointed at not having recovered his skin, but he
resolved to fight bravely without it. He advanced from the opening
of his cavern with a proud and kingly bearing, and when he faced his
enemy he gave so terrible a growl that Woof's heart stopped beating
for a moment, and he began to realize that a fight with the wise and
mighty king of his race was no laughing matter.
After exchanging one or two heavy blows with his foe Woof's courage
returned, and he determined to dishearten his adversary by bluster.
"Come nearer, bird-bear!" he cried. "Come nearer, that I may pluck
The defiance filled the king with rage. He ruffled his feathers as a
bird does, till he appeared to be twice his actual size, and then he
strode forward and struck Woof so powerful a blow that his skull
crackled like an egg-shell and he fell prone upon the ground.
While the assembled bears stood looking with fear and wonder at
their fallen champion the sky became darkened.
An hundred gulls flew down from above and dripped upon the king's
body a skin covered with pure white hair that glittered in the sun
And behold! the bears saw before them the well-known form of their
wise and respected master, and with one accord they bowed their
shaggy heads in homage to the mighty King of the Polar Bears.
* * * * *
This story teaches us that true dignity and courage depend not upon
outward appearance, but come rather from within; also that brag and
bluster are poor weapons to carry into battle.