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Transportation, Fairy Tale Style

Transportation, Fairy Tale Style
  • Russian Folk-Tales (by )
  • A Plain and Literal Translation of the A... Volume Vol. 3 (by )
  • Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit ... (by )
  • The Magic Carpet (by )
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (by )
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Written in a pre-industrial age, transportation in fairy tales typically finds itself restricted to walking on one’s own two feet, riding on horseback or in a carriage pulled by horses, or sailing on a ship. Modern writers, particularly those who write within the genre of historical fiction or pre-industrial, or steampunk fantasy, also rely on those standard forms of transportation, although they often get it wrong.

In his books, David Eddings’ characters often refer to distance in leagues. How long is a league and does Eddings refer to the English standard in that unit of measurement? Regardless, the English-speaking world defines a league as three miles on land. A nautical league is 3.452 miles (or 5.556 kilometers). Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea puts adventuring characters 71,120 miles beneath the Earth’s surface. Universe Today answers the question as to how many miles one would have to travel to the center of the Earth: 3,958.8 miles. Of course, since Earth isn’t a perfect sphere, that distance actually ranges from 3,949.9 miles to 3,963.2 miles. That 13.3 mile difference still doesn’t come close to 20,000 leagues.

Evocative as such fictional distances may be, other earthbound constraints make authors stumble. For instance, authors of historical romances—Regency romances in particular—enjoy playing with elopment. Whether the hero and heroine dash off to marry before someone’s disapproving parents can stop them or the villain abducts the heroine to compromise her virtue and thus force the transfer of her dowry to his greedy hands, such stories often include a race from London to Gretna Green.
The race taken at speeds as fast as a carriage can go for an extended period of time, would have traveled at least 326.2 miles (approximately 525 km). Assuming smooth roads in good repair, no equipment failures, and a succession of speedy teams of horses, the loaded carriage might be able to reach speeds of 15 miles per hour and sustain that for, perhaps, two miles before fatigue set in. Therefore, the fleeing couple would be forced to change teams of horses frequently or proceed at a slower pace to prevent from killing the horses. Therefore, the hasty journey from London to Gretna Green would take at least nine days, probably longer. That might allow sufficient time for pursuers to catch up to rescue our heroine from a fate worse than death; however, ruination would occur within hours even if the heroine were robbed of nothing more than a few hours of discomfort rattling over bumpy roads.

So, walking is slow. Horses are slow. What about ships? If you need a speedy getaway, head for the sea. Prehistoric ships basically come in three basic types: the Chinese junk with sails divided into horizontal slats, a stern-mounted rudder, and multiple masts; the scull, which was mainly used in canals and propelled by sculling; and galleys and drakkars, which combined a large sail with side oars. 
In the Renaissance, shipbuilding advanced to larger vessels. Merchants and the military used cogs for commerce and war. Those gave way in the 15th century to the 3-masted caravel with an average speed of about four knots, enabling it travel about 90 to 100 miles in a single day in good, if not ideal, conditions. In the 16th century, caravels gave way to larger carracks that held greater tonnage and accommodated a larger crew. Carracks averaged about 80 miles per day.

Carracks, competing with galleons, which were usually half the size, found themselves soon rendered obsolete by frigates and clippers. In the 19th century, clippers reigned as the go-to method for fast, seaworthy travel often capable of reaching and sustaining speeds of 20 knots while carrying heavy loads of cargo. A clipper could travel from London to Shanghai in 100 days or from New York to San Francisco in 120 days or from San Francisco to Hong Kong in 45 days.

The problem with ships, however, is that they can only go where the water’s deep enough to accommodate them. So, what’s next? What can the fairy tale character of the pre-industrial age ride that is swift, comfortable, and not prone to fatigue or the vagaries of nature?


From the literature of Arabia and India to the Bible and Russian folklore to the wit of Mark Twain, magic carpets offer that stylish, fictional alternative to slow, uncomfortable, and perilous mundane travel. In One Thousand and One Nights, Prince Hussein travels from Bisnagar (India) to magical, faraway places. King Solomon of biblical fame was said to ride his carpet from Damascus to Medina in a single day. The witch Baba Yaga helps Russian folk hero Ivan the Fool with a gift of a magic carpet. In “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” Mark Twain’s protagonist employs a magic carpet to travel to, from, and throughout heaven.

By Karen M. Smith
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