Detested Kite! thou liest! King Lear

The kite, through the ages, has charmed countless poets, sages, mystics, fable- spinners, legend-mongers, a few men of letters and at least one maker of comic strips.

The great Shakespeare invoked the word, ominously, no less than 15 times in 11 of his plays. In the quote above, the mad king chides his faithless daughter Goneril as he strides toward war and oblivion. From other plays come other outbursts -- "you kite! now gods and devils!" from Antony & Cleopatra, or "ravens, crows, and kites, fly o'er" from Julius Caesar -- but, alas, the bard was talking birds, not toys. To be called a kite, in Elizabethan England, was to suffer gravest insult.

The world, it might be argued, is divided into two parts: the folks who merely fly kites, and those who think and write about them. Most people pay so much attention to the former, though, the latter gets lost like a leaf on the wind. It's high time we gave the literary kite its due.

W. Somerset Maugham, for instance, in a short story called "The Kite," devoted many well-chosen words to the hapless Herbert Sunbury, a chap so obsessed with kite-flying that he leaves his wife, and later goes to prison, for the sake of his all-consuming passion.

"I know this is an odd story," Maugham, an avid bridge-player until his death, starts his tale. "I don't understand it myself and if I set it down in black and white it is only with the faint hope that when I have written it I may get a clearer view of it. . ."

As Maugham tells it, Herbert Sunbury's wife, Betty, can't abide her husband's hobby. "Flying a kite, you, a grown man. Contemptible I call it," she scolds him. So Herbert leaves her. At the climactic moment, Betty takes a hatchet to Herbert's beloved box kite -- "I'll kill her," he vows -- and Herbert lands in prison. Not for murder, however, but for refusing to pay her alimony. "I said I wouldn't pay her and I won't," he informs the magistrate, "not after she smashed my kite."

Perhaps as strange a yarn comes from T. Lobsang Rampa, the pseudononymous author of The Third Eye: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama, in a chapter called "Herbs and Kites." His London publisher, Secker & Warburg, thought it necessary to print an odd disclaimer at the beginning of the book: "We feel that here and there he exceeds the bounds of Western credulity. . ."

In any case, whether fact or fancy, Rampa describes a sacred mountain ritual in which Buddhist monks, attended by a Kite Master, climb heavenward at the end of a yak- hair rope, riding a box kite of silk and spruce. Rampa recounts: The third monk to fly was rather cocksure, he was not popular because of his continual boasting. He had been on the trip for three years past, and considered himself the best "airman" ever. Up he went in the air, perhaps five hundred feet up. Instead of sliding down to the vee, he straightened up, climbed inside the box kite, missed his footing and fell out of the tail end: one hand caught on the back cross-strut, and for seconds he hung by one hand. We saw the other hand flailing vainly trying to get a grip, then the kite bobbed, and he lost his hold and went tumbling end over end down the rocks five thousand feet below, his robe whipping and fluttering like a blood-red cloud. The proceedings were a little bit dampened by this occurrence, but not enough to stop flying.

Then there's The Gift of Acabar, a modern fairy tale set in Lapland, by Og Mandino and Buddy Kaye. The protagonist, a Lapp boy named Tulo, takes a one-way ride to the sky:

Jaana screamed first. "Tulo, Tulo, my beautiful brother!" She raced to her uncle and pounded on sight in the gathering dusk, and all that remained visible to the awestruck people of Kavala were the first bright stars of an early spring evening. There are, of course, myriad legends from the Orient, treating warlords who ride kites to spy on the enemy or emperors who launch kites to survey their vast kingdoms, while in mystic philosophies the kite has always been a code word for the soul. Aficionado Jane Yolen, in her book World on a String, quotes the chant, or rather the cheer, of Maori tribesmen in New Zealand during their kite-flying ceremony:

Climb up! Climb up!

To the highest surface of heaven,

To all sides of heaven.

Oh, thou,

Extend thyself

To the seventh division,

To the eighth division,

The world is made one with space.

Where is sacredness? Meanwhile, poets like e.e. cummings ("what a wonderful thing / is the end of the string") and Robert Louis Stevenson ("I saw you toss the kites on high / And blow the birds about the sky") also have grappled with the kite, while Leonard Cohen, in a poem called A kite is a victim you are sure of, seems to have captured the thing:

A kite is a victim you are sure of.

You love it because it pulls

gentle enough to call you master,

strong enough to call you fool;

because it lives

like a desperate trained falcon

in the high sweet air,

and you can always haul it down

to tame it in your drawer. . . If that sounds earthbound, consider the comic strip "Peanuts" and the famous Kite- Eating Tree. Even a casual follower of Charles Schultz' strip knows of Charlie Brown's running battle with the gluttonous plant. In a typical salvo, Charlie warns the tree: "Well, you're not going to get THIS kite, you dirty kite-eating tree! I'll fly it clear over on the other side of town just to spite you! You can STARVE, do you hear?!" In the end, though, Charlie gives up the ghost: "Here, take it!" he sighs, tossing his kite treeward, leaving the rest of us to ponder the larger meanings -- or, better yet, head outdoors.