Fairy Tale Hidden Treasures: The Valiant Blackbird

With fairy tales, there always seems to be a core of popular tales which many people don’t think beyond. The idea of this blog tour is to share our favourite obscure fairy tales, and get the word out about them!

The tour so far:

Adam Hoffman at Fairy Tale Fandom
Kristin at Tales of Faerie
Zalka Csenge Virág at The Multicoloured Diary
Megan Hicks at Life, the Universe and Everything
Gypsy Thornton at Once Upon a Blog

Whilst travelling a couple of years ago, I came across an antique bookshop. Of course I went inside, and it was there I found William Canton’s True Annals of Fairy-Land. I’d never heard of it before, and it wasn’t overly expensive so I bought it. I still don’t know that much about it – there’s an inscription on the inside cover stating it was awarded to a student at Hulme Grammar School in Manchester for ‘general form work’ in 1924, but the name is illegible and there is no date or place of publication. I’ve found out that William Canton was a British poet and journalist, who lived from 1825-1926. He is best known for his children’s books, one of the most popular being The Invisible Playmate.

I’ve chosen a tale from the True Annals of Fairy-Land for my post. It’s called ‘The Valiant Blackbird.’ In the book, there is a lovely illustration adorning the page it begins on:

The story is about Mr. Blackbird, who is a very good singer and lives with his mate, Mrs. Blackbird. Upon hearing his song, the king wants to keep him in a cage so he can hear it all the time. However, the king’s servants catch Mrs. Blackbird instead by accident. Determined to rescue her, Mr. Blackbird dons a helmet made from a walnut shell, armour made from frog skin and a sword made from a thorn. From the other half of the walnut shell he makes a drum and, beating it, sets out for the king’s palace.

On the way there, he meets a cat and some ants who also have a score to settle with the king. They jump into Mr. Blackbird’s ear to travel with him. Further on, he meets a rope with a club and a river, who also jump into his ear and join the others on the journey to the palace.

When they arrive, the king’s porter lets Mr. Blackbird in, who now refers to himself as General Blackbird in light of the eclectic army hidden away in his ears. The porter laughs at him, but takes him to the king regardless. General Blackbird demands his wife back, but the king refuses and locks him in the hen house for the night thinking they will kill him. But General Blackbird has other ideas. Once alone, he sings:

‘Come out, Pussy, from my ear,
There are fowls aplenty here;
Scratch them, make their feathers fly,
Wring their necks until they die.’  

The cat does exactly this, then goes back into his ear and he sleeps. In the morning, the king sends his servants to retrieve General Blackbird’s body. Instead, they find him singing surrounded by the dead hens.

Outraged, the next night the king locks General Blackbird in the stable with wild horses. Yet again, he sings:

‘Come out, Rope, and come out Stick,
Tie the horses lest they kick;
Beat the horses on the head,
Beat them till they fall down dead.’

The rope and club comply, and the next morning the king sends in his servants again to retrieve General Blackbird’s body. But again, they find him singing and all the horses dead. On the third night, the king has him locked in with the elephants. This time, General Blackbird summons the ants:

‘Come from out my ear, you Ants,
Come and sting the Elephants;
Sting their trunk, and sting their head,
Sting them till they fall down dead.’
 
I’m sure you can guess what happens next! The ants sting. The servants arrive in the morning, and find the elephants dead and General Blackbird singing.
 
On the final night, wanting to find out how General Blackbird has slain his animals, the king has him tied to his bed and watches. He sings one last time:
 
‘Come out, River, from my ear,
Flow about the bedroom here;
Pour yourself upon the bed,
Drown the King till he is dead.’

The river flows, and as the king’s bed begins to float he cries out and tells General Blackbird to take Mrs. Blackbird and begone. Reunited, they live in true fairy tale fashion: happily ever after.

The first time I read this story, I found it pretty amusing that a blackbird could take on a king and win. Such is the world of Faery! But really, the king deserved it. What he did was wrong, and this story goes to show that nature should not be interfered with and especially not for vain reasons. If you would like to, you can read the full story here.

 

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

7 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Hidden Treasures: The Valiant Blackbird

  1. I haven't heard of that story, but it sounds really interesting! I love how folk and fairy tales can cross over like that 🙂 I'll have a look at your post, too!

  2. I had no idea it was expensive, I didn't pay much for my copy at all! Perhaps it was just a lucky find! I agree, it really should be reprinted. I'm planning on doing more posts about it in the future, because there are some wonderful stories in it. Also a frame story, which is interesting in itself. And the illustrations are beautiful, too.

    Thank you for sharing the notes here, they give the story so much more context. Also, I love the idea of 'secret-librarian-story-tracking skills' – sounds like some kind of special literary ninja power!

  3. This fairy tale is adorable! I remember seeing this book as a kid (I think one of my friends had a copy) but I don't remember ever reading it. And now, it turns out this book is ridiculously expensive! (I know – I went hunting after reading your post.) With stories like this in there, someone clearly needs to reprint it!
    I love the outfit description and the cleverness of the tale in general – and that supposedly ordinary things have strengths you don't expect. That's another of my favorite things in fairy tale – when the ordinary is proved extraordinary, and of greater use than we usually think.
    The link was great too. I'm going to add the notes at the end of the online story for posterity, because the origin aspect is fascinating (and sometimes researching these things requires certain google-fu and secret-librarian-story-tracking skills, some days of which even the best of us fail at):
    NOTES
    (The Valiant Blackbird:
    Told by WAZÍRAN, a Mohammedan servant of Mirzápur, and
    recorded by MIRZA MUHAMMAD BEG.
    A Podna (weaver bird) and his mate lived in a tree–The Raja catches the wife–Podna builds carts of reeds, yokes pairs of frogs, makes kettle-drum, armed with piece of reed, sets out drumming–Meets a Cat–“Where are you going?” “Sarkande ki to gári, do mendak jote jaen, Raja mári Podni, ham bair bisahne jaen” (“My carriage is of reed with two frogs yoked thereto; the King has seized my Podni; I go to take my revenge”). “May I go with you?” “Get into my car”–Meets in same way Ants, Rope and Club, River–Drives into King's courtyard and demands Podni–King orders him to be shut in henhouse–“Nikal billi, teri bári. Kán chhor, kanpati mári” (“Come out, Cat, your turn now: come out of my ear and hit them on the head”)–Cat comes out and kills fowls–Next night shut in stable–“Niklo rassi, aur sonte tumhari bari. Kan chhor, kanpati mari”–Rope ties horses and Club kills them–Next night shut in with elephants–“Niklo chiunti tumhári bári. Kán chhor, kanpati mári”–Ants run up trunks and sting their brains–Next night tied to the Raja's bed–“Niklo darya teri bári. Kán chhor, kanpati mári”–River begins to drown King and bed–“For God's sake, take your wife and go.”

    Here, as in other tales of this collection, we have the incident of the Helping Animals, for which see Tawney, “Katha Sarit Ságara,” ii. 103, 596; Crooke, “Popular Religion and Folk-lore of Northern India,” ii. 202. See N.I.N.Q., iii. § 173.
    (The end)
    W.H.D. Rouse's short story: Valiant Blackbird

  4. Yes! That's one of the things I love about folk and fairy tales – you can follow the similarities like breadcrumbs from one tale to another and eventually you end up going around the world. (I seriously wish I had access to the AT-AU index! I love the whole connect the dots thing and that index is such a great resource for it.)

  5. Thanks! And yes it is similar to Momotaro in that respect. I love how folk and fairy tales work like that – each one can remind you of another, or remind someone else of one you hadn't previously heard of, and then you can just keep going and going, discovering stories.

  6. Fantastic choice. Never heard of this one before. The general's unusual army makes me think a little bit of Momotaro's troops from the classic Japanese story.

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