I. THE PERIOD OF LEGEND
The blending of fact and fancy which men call legend reached its fullest and richest expression in the golden age of Greece, and thus it is to Greek mythology that one must turn for the best form of any legend which foreshadows history. Yet the prevalence of legends regarding flight, existing in the records of practically every race, shows that this form of transit was a dream of many peoples - man always wanted to fly, and imagined means of flight.
In this age of steel, a very great part of the inventive genius of man has gone into devices intended to facilitate transport, both of men and goods, and the growth of civilisation is in reality the facilitation of transit, improvement of the means of communication. He was a genius who first hoisted a sail on a boat and saved the labour of rowing; equally, he who first harnessed ox or dog or horse to a wheeled vehicle was a genius - and these looked up, as men have looked up from the earliest days of all, seeing that the birds had solved the problem of transit far more completely than themselves. So it must have appeared, and there is no age in history in which some dreamers have not dreamed of the conquest of the air; if the caveman had left records, these would without doubt have showed that he, too, dreamed this dream. His main aim, probably, was self-preservation; when the dinosaur looked round the corner, the prehistoric bird got out of the way in his usual manner, and prehistoric manÄ such of him as succeeded in getting out of the way after his fashion - naturally envied the bird, and concluded that as lord of creation in a doubtful sort of way he ought to have equal facilities. He may have tried, like Simon the Magician, and other early experimenters, to improvise those facilities; assuming that he did, there is the groundwork of much of the older legend with regard to men who flew, since, when history began, legends would be fashioned out of attempts and even the desire to fly, these being compounded of some small ingredient of truth and much exaggeration and addition.
In a study of the first beginnings of the art, it is worth while to mention even the earliest of the legends and traditions, for they show the trend of men's minds and the constancy of this dream that has become reality in the twentieth century. In one of the oldest records of the world, the Indian classic Mahabarata, it is stated that 'Krishna's enemies sought the aid of the demons, who built an aerial chariot with sides of iron and clad with wings. The chariot was driven through the sky till it stood over Dwarakha, where Krishna's followers dwelt, and from there it hurled down upon the city missiles that destroyed everything on which they fell.' Here is pure fable, not legend, but still a curious forecast of twentieth century bombs from a rigid dirigible. It is to be noted in this case, as in many, that the power to fly was an attribute of evil, not of good - it was the demons who built the chariot, even as at Friedrichshavn. Mediaeval legend in nearly every cas,attributes flight to the aid of evil powers, and incites well-disposed people to stick to the solid earth - though, curiously enough, the pioneers of medieval times were very largely of priestly type, as witness the monk of Malmesbury.
The legends of the dawn of history, however, distribute the power of flight with less of prejudice. Egyptian sculpture gives the figure of winged men; the British Museum has made the winged Assyrian bulls familiar to many, and both the cuneiform records of Assyria and the hieroglyphs of Egypt record flights that in reality were never made. The desire fathered the story then, and until Clement Ader either hopped with his Avion, as is persisted by his critics, or flew, as is claimed by his friends.
While the origin of many legends is questionable, that of others is easy enough to trace, though not to prove. Among the credulous the significance of the name of a people of Asia Minor, the Capnobates, 'those who travel by smoke,' gave rise to the assertion that Montgolfier was not first in the field - or rather in the air - since surely this people must have been responsible for the first hot-air balloons. Far less questionable is the legend of Icarus, for here it is possible to trace a foundation of fact in the story. Such a tribe as Daedalus governed could have had hardly any knowledge of the rudiments of science, and even their ruler, seeing how easy it is for birds to sustain themselves in the air, might be excused for believing that he, if he fashioned wings for himself, could use them. In that belief, let it be assumed, Daedalus made his wings; the boy, Icarus, learning that his father had determined on an attempt at flight secured the wings and fastened them to his own shoulders. A cliff seemed the likeliest place for a 'take-off,' and Icarus leaped from the cliff edge only to find that the possession of wings was not enough to assure flight to a human being. The sea that to this day bears his name witnesses that he made the attempt and perished by it.
In this is assumed the bald story, from which might grow the legend of a wise king who ruled a peaceful people - 'judged, sitting in the sun,' as Browning has it, and fashioned for himself wings with which he flew over the sea and where he would, until the prince, Icarus, desired to emulate him. Icarus, fastening the wings to his shoulders with wax, was so imprudent as to fly too near the sun, when the wax melted and he fell, to lie mourned of water-nymphs on the shores of waters thenceforth Icarian. Between what we have assumed to be the base of fact, and the legend which has been invested with such poetic grace in Greek story, there is no more than a century or so of re-telling might give to any event among a people so simple and yet so given to imagery.