Return to the fairy tales - book one
THE FLYING SHIP
A retelling by J. Kearns
In the original, an idiot boy comes in possession of a flying ship, meets certain trials, manages not to be murdered by the king, and wins the hand of the princess. I have made the champion of the story a young heroine, rather than a hero, and, somewhat fed up with heroes or heroines making peace with evil kings and marring their offspring, I offer a different ending than the one normally expected. A very fun story.
here was an old couple and they had two sons and a daughter. The two elder sons were very clever, but the girl was--how to put this politely?--well, she was a regular dunce.
There was once a man named John Duns Scotus and there were people who attacked his writings because they thought they were stupid. Hence, the word dunce for stupid. I don't know the writings of this John Duns Scotus, but I think most everyone has heard of the word dunce. How would you like to be remembered in the way John Duns Scotus is remembered?
The two clever sons were appreciated by their parents for their cleverness, but the youngest daughter was always getting in the way, and her parents had no patience with her. She was always following her brothers and parents around and asking them, "Why this?" and "Why that?" It was one question after another like she didn't know anything. "Why does the sun rise in the east and set in the west?" "Why is the sky blue and not green?" "Why do cats meow and dogs bark?" "Why do we have five fingers on each hand and not four or seven?" "Why are there twelve notes in a musical scale?" "How can light be made up of both waves and particles?" "Why do I have to go to bed so early?"
One day, it was announced in the village that the king had issued a decree offering his daughter, the princess, in marriage to whoever should build a ship that could fly. The two older sons, who were so incredibly clever, decided if nothing was ventured, nothing was gained, and told their parents they were going to go travel around and see if they could learn from watching various winged insects and birds how to build a ship that could fly.
"If a bird can figure out how to fly, then one of you should certainly be able to as well. You're both much cleverer than birds," their parents said.
"Can I come with you?" the girl asked. "I could help."
But the brothers only laughed.
Their parents gave them new sets of clothes, some food and money and many best wish kisses. The husband and wife even cried tears of loss and of pride as they stood on their stoop and waved farewell to the two clever youths as they set off to explore the world of winged things.
When her elder brothers had gone, the poor simpleton began to pester her mother that she should give her a new set of clothes as well, and food and money and let her go off to try her luck at finding out how to build an air ship like her brothers.
"The king has promised his daughter to whoever can build the ship," the elderly mother protested. "You can't marry a princess! Are you so stupid you don't know that?"
"I'm not sure I really care about marrying the king's daughter," the simpleton replied. "I'm also not sure I'd want to marry someone who looks down on peasants. She can marry someone else if she prefers. I just want to go out in the world like my brothers to try my luck at finding out how to build an air ship."
"You, of all people, would never learn how to build an air ship," the mother replied.
"Why not?" asked the girl.
"What would become of a dolt like you," her mother said. "You don't have the good sense to save yourself from drowning if you fell face first into a puddle of water nose deep."
But the girl kept repeating, "I will go, I will go, I will go!" So, seeing that nothing could be done with her, her mother gave her a crust of bread and a bottle of water and sent her off on her way.
When the simple girl had gone a short distance she met a little greenish colored man. If eating lots of carrots can give your skin an orange tint, she considered, then maybe a diet of greens would make you green. They said, "Hello!", "Hello!" to one another, and the little man asked the girl where she was going. She told the little man, "I'm going to the King's Court. He has promised to give his daughter to whoever can make a flying ship."
"Do you want to marry the king's daughter?" the little green man asked.
"I don't care so much about that," said the girl. "All I want to do is make an air ship because I think it would be fun to fly through the air rather than have to walk. It would be great fun to look down from the ship and watch everyone else walking, especially my brothers."
"And can you make such a ship?" the man asked.
"If I could I'd have made it already. Maybe later," the girl said.
"Then why are you going to the King's Court?"
"Can't tell," the girl said.
"Can't tell, or won't tell," the man asked.
"What do you mean by that?" the girl said.
"Ah, yes, if that's the case," said the little man, "come, sit down beside me. We'll rest for a bit and have something to eat. Give me what you have got in your satchel. You at least set out with some food didn't you?"
The simple girl was ashamed to show what she had in her satchel, which was only an old crust of bread. But she thought it better not to act inhospitably, so she opened the satchel to give the little man her crust of bread, and could scarcely believe her eyes. There, instead of the hard crust, were two fresh large rolls, some cold lunch meat, and two great heads of green, leafy lettuce. Trying to not act surprised, so the little man wouldn't think she didn't know what was in her own satchel, she shared the rolls and lunch meat and lettuce with him.
After eating all the lettuce, the little man licked his lips and said, "Now, go into the wood over there, stop in front of the first tree, bow three times, then strike the tree with your axe, fall on your knees on the ground with your face on the earth and remain there untill you are raised up. You will then find a ship at your side. Step into it and fly to the king's palace. My only demand is if you meet anyone on the way, be hospitable enough to take that person with you."
"An axe?" the girl scratched her head. "I don't have an axe."
"Of course you do," said the little man. "Now, go over to the wood like I told you."
The girl looked and saw at her side was an axe. Where had that come from? Perhaps she had been carrying it and forgot about it. That was just as plausible, if not more so, than it appearing out of thin air.
The simple girl thanked the man very kindly, bade him farewell, and went across the road to the wood.
When she got to the first tree she stopped in front of it. She bowed three times. She struck the tree with the axe, then fell on her knees with her face on the earth and promptly fell asleep. When she woke up and realized what had happened, it seemed a little strange to her, but she reasoned that perhaps she only needed a nap.
Rubbing her eyes, she stood and blinked, and blinked again, then blinked once more for good measure, for at her side was a ready-made ship. It was not the kind of ship you saw on the sea, but it was certainly an air ship for it was hovering a little off the ground. This was before the time of any type of aircraft, or even dirigibles, those ships that are like great big football shaped balloons such as you see flying over baseball parks. The girl should have been drop-dead surprised when she saw the craft, but as the little, old man had told her to expect it she was simply (yes, simply) excited at her good fortune.
The girl climbed into the silver ship, and the ship rose and rose, and in another minute was flying through the air. The simple girl, remembering that she must be on the look-out for anyone traveling on the road below, looked down out of the ship and saw, on the highway beneath her, a man who was kneeling with his ear pressed to the damp ground. "Hello," she called out to him, "what are you doing down there?"
"Hello!" the man called back. "Are you an angel riding Ezekiel's chariot?"
The girl replied, "I'm no angel but I can't tell you that this isn't Ezekiel's chariot, for I don't know what Ezekiel's chariot is and I don't know what this is except that it is an air ship. Anyway, what are you doing down there?"
"I'm listening to what is going on in the world," replied the man.
"I'm supposed to give you a ride in my ship," said the girl.
"How do you know that?" the man asked.
"The little green person who gave me the ship told me so."
The man was only too glad not to have to continue walking, and got in the ship with the girl. And the ship flew, and flew, and flew through the air, until again from her outlook the simple girl saw, on the highway below, a man who was hopping on one leg while the other leg was tied up behind his ear--if you can imagine that. The girl hailed him, calling out, "Hello! What are you doing, hopping on one leg with the other tied behind your ear? Are you a contortionist with a circus or an Indian yogi?"
The girl knew that East Indian yogis often put their bodies in peculiar and strenuous positions. You see, the brain has what we can rather say are highways down which one's thoughts travel, and after a while the road map is pretty well set. The highways become habitual. Yogis put their bodies in peculiar and strenuous positions in order to break the habituated highways in the brain.
"Hello!" the man called back to the girl. "Am I sleeping?" "No," the girl called back. "You are wide awake. And I am wide awake too, which is important news for you, since it means I'm not dreaming you."
"It's good to hear that," said the man. "As for what I'm doing, I can't help it. I walk so fast that unless I tie up one leg I would be at the end of the earth in a single bound."
"The earth is round. There is no end that you have to worry about reaching and accidentally falling over into space," the girl called back to him. "Now, tell me, would you like a ride or not? I'm supposed to pick up any I meet on my way." The man made no objections, but joined the two on the ship. And the ship flew on, and on, and on, until suddenly the simple girl, looking down on the road below, beheld a woman aiming with a gun into the distance.
"Hello!" she shouted to the woman. "What are you aiming at? As far as my eyes can see, there is no bird in sight."
"Hello," the woman called back. "What are you doing in that silver ship? Are you dead and on your way to heaven?"
"Of course not," the girl said. "I'm every bit as alive as you are. I just happen to have had the good fortune to bow to a tree, hit it with an axe, kneel with my face on the ground and fall asleep, then wake up to find an air ship at my side. Now, tell me, what are you aiming at?"
The woman answered, "There is no challenge hitting anything I can see within a few miles. My eyes are so sharp, I can hit beast or bird at a hundred miles' distance. That is the kind of hunting I enjoy."
"Come into the ship with us," the girl said. "I'm supposed to pick up anyone I meet along my way on this highway."
The woman asked, "I certainly hope that's not to imply if I don't wish to get on your ship, you will have to kidnap me?"
"I don't know," the girl replied. "It hasn't come to that yet. I have two other gentlemen with me and they were quite glad for the ride."
"And so shall I be," said the sharp-shooter, and boarded the craft.
The ship flew on, farther and farther, until again the simple girl spied a man on the road below. This one was carrying on his back a basket full of bread. Waving to him, she called out, "Hello! Where are you going?"
"Hello!" the man with the bread called back. "I must have a fever and am hallucinating from it. I believe I see you riding in an air ship, but that's impossible."
"You aren't hallucinating, and it's not impossible, for I am indeed on an air ship," the girl replied.
"It's good to hear that. Now, as for your question, I'm on my way to fetch bread for my breakfast."
"Bread? You have got a whole basket-load of bread on your back," the simple girl observed.
"That's nothing," the man told her. "I should finish that in one mouthful."
"You must have a very big mouth, a huge appetite, and the stomach to match it," said the girl
"That I do," said the man.
"Will you come along with me in my ship?" the girl asked.
"As long as you're asking and not demanding," the glutton said, and joined the party.
The ship mounted again into the air, and flew up and onward, until the simple girl saw a man walking by the shore of a great lake. He appeared to be looking for something.
"Hello!" the girl cried out to him. "What are you seeking?"
"Hello!" the man called back. "Are you a good witch or a bad witch? I had heard witches could fly through the air, but I thought they did so on brooms."
The girl answered, "I'm neither a good witch nor a bad witch. Haven't you ever heard that today's magic is tomorrow's science?"
"So, what kind of science is that craft you're on," the man asked.
"I don't have a clue," the girl answered and asked him again what he was seeking.
"I want water to drink, I'm so thirsty," replied the man.
"But there's a whole lake in front of you," the girl called back. "Why don't you drink some of that?"
"That lake is nothing to me," answered the man. "I would drink it up in one gulp."
"You certainly have a gargantuan thirst," said the girl. "Will you come ride with us? I have a man with me who has a gargantuan appetite, a woman who has gargantuan eyesight, and another man who has a gargantuan capacity for hearing. You would fit right in."
"What's your talent?" the man asked.
"I can bow before a tree, strike it with an axe, kneel with my face to the ground and fall asleep, then find an air ship at my side upon waking."
"An extraordinary talent indeed," the man replied, and climbed into the ship.
The ship flew farther and even farther, until again the simple girl looked out and this time saw a man walking through the forest beneath, dragging a bundle of wood.
"Hello!" the girl shouted to him. "Why are you carrying wood through a forest? You are surrounded by all the wood you could ever need."
"Hello," the man called back. "Riding in such a peculiar boat in the sky, are you a devil?"
"No, I'm not a devil," the simple girl said. "I'm a simple girl."
"Glad to hear it," the man replied. "This isn't common wood that I'm dragging. If you throw it on the ground, it will be changed into an army of soldiers."
The girl invited the man, "Come fly with me in the ship."
And so the man dragging the bundle of wood joined the girl and the others on the ship, and away the ship flew on, and on, and on, and once more the simple girl looked out, and this time she saw a woman carrying straw on her back.
"Hello," she called out. "Where are you carrying all that straw to?"
"Hello," the woman called back. "I have never seen an air ship before."
The girl answered, "Well now you have."
"I'm carrying this straw to the village," the woman said.
"Is there no straw in the village?" the girl asked.
"This is quite peculiar straw," the woman animatedly answered her. "If you strew it about even in the hottest summer, the air at once becomes cold, and snow falls, and the people freeze."
"You are right. That is very peculiar straw," the girl said. "There are times when I have thought it altogether too hot and your straw would have come in very handy. But cooling until you're a popsicle seems a bit extreme to me."
The simple girl asked if the woman would join their company as well, and she did.
At last the silver ship, with its strange crew, arrived at the king's court. The king was having his dinner when he saw the ship fly past just outside his window, and he at once sent one of his servants to find out what the huge, strange bird it could be and how it should be classified.
The servant, a little frightened, peeped into the ship and saw the girl and her friends. "What manner of bird is this," the servant asked, "that it is hollow and carries people inside of it. Is it not a bird at all but a flying egg? How should our scientists classify you?"
"This is a flying ship," the girl answered the servant. "Go tell the king a flying ship has arrived at his court."
The servant returned to the king and told him that the bird was not a bird at all, but a strange egg which carried a strange assortment of peasants and was a flying ship. The king remembered his oath, that he would give his daughter's hand in marriage to anyone who would build an air ship, but when he heard that this ship was manned by peasants he thought again about the wisdom or folly of having made such an oath, for he didn't like the idea his daughter might now have to marry a peasant. He thought and he thought about what he should do, and then said to himself, "I know exactly what I shall do. The peasant to whom this ship belongs, I will give him some impossible tasks to perform. That will get rid of him, but we will have to think of a way to make the ship mine."
The king prepared to send one of his servants to tell the peasants that his command was they should fetch him the water of healing that can be found at the world's end, and they should have it back to him before he had finished his dinner.
But while the king was instructing the servant on exactly what he was to say, the first man of the ship's company, the one with the miraculous ears, overheard the king's words all the way from the ship and reported them to the girl.
"Doesn't he want to come see my marvelous ship?" she asked. "What a bother. I arrive with this ship and already he's sending me out to perform his errands. It would take me at least a year, and maybe my whole life to find this healing water, especially because I don't know what he means by this world's edge business. I tell you, the world is round, not flat."
"Never fear," said the man who could run faster than anyone in the world. "I will fetch what the king wants. Though the circle signifies the eternal, I know just where the earth begins and ends."
So, when the servant arrived with the king's request, the simple girl said, "Tell his majesty that his orders shall be obeyed." And forthwith the swift runner unbound the foot that was strung up behind his ear and--whooosh--there he was at the world's edge, where the serpent with the tail in its mouth lives.
Drawing the healing water from its well, this fastest man thought, "Dear me, that was a rather tiring run. I think I'll rest for a bit before starting back. After all, the way kings dine on one course after another after another, it will be some time before he gets to his dessert." The fastest man threw himself down on the grass and was instantly asleep.
In the meantime, all the ship's crew was anxiously waiting his return. "What's keeping him?" the man with the marvelous hearing said. Getting down on his hands and knees, he put his ear to the ground and listened. "I don't believe this!" he exclaimed. "Our runner is lying on the ground, snoring hard. That's a nice sort of fellow to let us down like this."
The sharp-shooter seized her gun, took aim, and, in order to wake the sluggard, fired in the direction of the world's end and beginning.
A moment later, still yawning, the swift runner reappeared with the healing water. "Sorry, I didn't mean to fall asleep on the job."
The king was still eating his dinner when he received the news that the healing water had been procured for him.
What was to be done now? The king thought for a minute of what other kind of impossible task he should ask the owner of the air ship to perform, the more absurd the better. "I know," he said to his servant. "Go tell the owner of that air ship that he and his friends are instantly to eat up twelve oxen and twelve tons of bread."
Once more, the man with the sharp ears overheard the king's words and reported them to the simple girl. "Alas," she sighed. "What is the meaning of this task? Certainly it must mean something more than it appears to, it is such a ridiculous demand. Anyway, what am I to do? It would take us a year, possibly our whole lives, to eat up twelve oxen and twelve tons of bread. Already my stomach feels quite ill."
"Never fear," said the glutton. "I'm so hungry, twelve oxen and twelve tons of bread will scarcely be enough to fill me."
Twelve roasted oxen and twelve tons of bread were brought to the ship. The glutton sat down to eat and at one sitting, all by himself, he devoured it all. "I wish they'd brought some more. It seems my hunger is never satisfied," he said, licking his fingers.
"Oh no," said the sharp-eared man, his ear to the ground, "the king has already come up with our next chore. He's ordered that forty casks of wine, containing forty gallons each, are to be drunk up on the spot by the owner of the air ship and his party."
"Alas," exclaimed the simple girl, "what am I to do? It would take us a year, possibly our whole lives even, to drink so much wine."
"Never fear," said the thirsty comrade. "I'll drink it all up at one gulp, see if I don't." And sure enough, when the forty casks of wine containing forty gallons each were brought to the ship, they disappeared down the thirsty comrade's throat in no time. "I'm still thirsty," he said afterward. "It seems I'm never satisfied. I should have been glad to have two more casks."
Then the king sent an order to the owner of the air ship that he was to have a bath in a bathroom at the royal palace, and after that the betrothal to his daughter would take place.
"I don't believe I want to marry the king's daughter," the simple girl said, but went anyway as she'd been commanded to do.
Now, the bathroom was built of iron, and the king gave orders that it was to be heated to such an intense degree it would suffocate the owner of the air ship. The sharp-eared man heard this and said to the woman with the straw that would freeze the air on the hottest day, "Run, quick, they plan to suffocate our friend with heat." So, just as the simple girl stepped into the bathroom and discovered the iron walls were red hot, immediately behind her entered the woman with the straw. She scattered it about, and the red-hot cooled so the room became cold as the south pole. "You, know, it's so cold that I don't think I'll be able to bear taking a bath," the simple girl said. "Anyway, the water's frozen. It looks like if I'm going to have to marry the king's daughter, it will be with dirty feet." In the morning, when the king's servant opened the door, there she was safe and sound sitting atop the stove with the bath towels wrapped around her for warmth. "It was unbearable," she told the servant. "It's just like a freezer in here."
The girl returned to the air ship where the quick-eared friend informed her the king had now ordered that the owner of the air ship should instantly raise an army for him. "I guess since I didn't take a bath," said the girl, "the king decided he didn't want me to marry his daughter today after all. As if he thinks I have nothing better to do with my time than do all his chores, now he puts this task on me. I fear I'm done for this time. I know nothing about raising armies."
"Have you forgotten about me?" said the friend who had dragged the bundle of wood through the forest. "Remember my special wood?"
In the meantime, the king's servant, who had run all the way from the palace with this new command, reaching the ship panting and out of breath, delivered the king's message.
"I will raise an army for the king," the simple girl said. "But if, after that, the king still refuses to have his daughter marry me, I will wage war against him and carry the princess off by force."
"But I thought you didn't want to marry the princess," the sharp-eared fellow said to the girl after the king's messenger had gone.
"He is an annoying king," replied the girl. "Do you know he has yet to come out and take a look at my fine air ship? And I so wanted to show it off to him. Well, maybe if I marry his daughter he will be forced to give me a personal how-do-you-do, and then he will come out and see what a fine air ship I have. What do you think?"
"I think he will only be more annoyed with you," said the sharp-eared friend.
During the night, the simple girl and her friend who carried the special wood went out together into a big field. The friend with the special wood spread the wood out in all directions, and in a moment a mighty army stood upon the spot, regiment on regiment of foot and horse soldiers. The bugles sounded, the drums were beat, the bag-pipes whined, the chargers neighed, and the multitudes of soldiers presented arms.
In the morning, when the king awoke, he was startled by these warlike sounds, the bagpipes, the drums, the bugles, the clatter of the horses, and the shouts of legions of soldiers. Stepping to the window, he saw the lances gleam in the sunlight and the glitter of armor and weapons. "It's my own fault," the king thought, "I have undone myself with this last request of mine. I am powerless in comparison with the owner of the air ship."
The king sent to the owner of the air ship royal robes and costly jewels, and commanded the owner to come to the palace to be married to the princess. The simple girl put on the royal robes, which were far too big for her, then went to the palace. When she entered with her friends, the king stared right past her, as if he was expecting someone else. The simple girl said to the king, "Any moment I will be married to your daughter and this is how you treat me. You won't even look at me. I would expect you to be more courteous. You could at least come outside and admire my fine air ship."
"You're the owner of the air ship?" the king said, mouth agape. "All this time I thought you were a man. I shouldn't have worried about my daughter marrying a peasant, for though you may be a peasant, you're also a girl, so certainly you don't want to marry my daughter. What do you want, then? Why didn't you inform me before now you were not a man? Silly dunce, have you no brain at all?"
The simple girl replied, "My mother used to tell me I wouldn't have the good sense to save myself from drowning if I fell face first into a puddle of water nose deep."
The king thought hard about this. He thought very, very hard. He was calling over his servant to go get a bucket of water and pour it out onto the floor when the simple girl said, "I have learned a great trick. Do you want to see me do it? I can breathe through my ears."
Have you ever seen someone breathe through their ears? It is a strange sight. Don't try it at home though. That would be a simpleton thing to do.
Finally someone thought to ask the princess to come to her own wedding. When the princess heard what was going on she adamantly refused to be married to someone so stupid, so that took care of that. In fact, she was so humiliated, she refused to leave her room.
By now, the king had thought things over several times and decided it wouldn't be such a bad idea to have such a resourceful girl as the owner of the air ship on his side. He told the simpleton she must marry him and be his queen.
"No," the simple girl said. "I won't marry you. When I think about it, I realize you have been rather rude to me. Why should I want to marry someone who is so rude to me?" Still dressed in her royal robes and jewels, the simple girl turned on her heel and walked out of the king's court.
"I promise I'll change," the king said, following her out to the air ship. This was very unusual that a girl would refuse to marry a king. It almost never happened in a fairy tale. The king didn't know what to think of it. "You can't turn me down," the king insisted, becoming angry, as the girl, and her friends, climbed back into the air ship. "If you refuse to marry me, I will take your air ship anyway. I hereby declare, by royal decree, that your air ship is mine. I am your king. You are my subject. You must obey! Come down out of that sir ship now! All the land around you that you see, as far as you can see, is mine! Whatever is on it is mine! Its crops are mine! Its people are my subjects! They are mine to command! Your air ship is on my land, and it is, therefore, rightfully mine!"
"If that is how it is with you kings, I think from now on I will live in the air, in my air ship," the simple girl called back, as the ship rose into the sky. "Or do you think you own the air as well? At night, when you look into the sky, do you tell yourself you own every star that you see? The moon? Will you chain the sun and every cloud that passes over your kingdom, and anchor them to the ground and claim them as yours?"
The air ship flew away with the simple girl and her companions.
"I don't think that was an air ship after all," the king said after a bit. "I think that girl and her companions were devils, and the air ship was a devilish apparition. We are very lucky they are gone, yes indeed. Do you see now how cunning I was that I was able to run those devils off?"
On the air ship, the companion with the extremely sharp ears told the simple girl what the king was saying.
The simple girl said, "I have heard that somewhere, hidden by a cloud, is a fairy kingdom in the sky. What say we go look for it?"
And they did. But that's the subject of quite another adventure.
This tale has been rewritten after the Russian tale in
Yellow Fairy Book" edited by Andrew Lang. Follow the link
to view the original tale.
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