The polar bear king, "old and monstrous big," lives among the ice of the far North. His coat glistens like silver in the midnight sun. His subjects come to him for advice and guidance. He maintains his own hunting grounds for seals and fish. Most creatures fear him — except of the gulls, white and gray, who feed off his carrion leavings. The wolves claim that the bear is either a magician or protected by a powerful fairy, for nothing seems to harm him.
That good fortune fails him, however, upon his first encounter with men. They come in a boat, navigating through the ice floes; the bear king approaches, sniffing their scent. Suddenly there is a loud Bang! The bear feels the shock of the shot; then his brain becomes numb and he loses consciousness. The humans skin the carcass; taking the pelt, they leave the rest. Yet the bear king is not entirely dead; his magic allows him to return to life.
The gulls have been watching in their thousands, waiting to see if the king was really dead, and a fit meal for them. When he revives, the queen gull orders her subjects to cover him with feathers, in gratitude for past largesse. The gulls pluck soft feathers from under their wings, and drop them to cover the bear. Soon he has a new coat of feathers to replace that one of fur that he has lost.
The bear king remains in seclusion during the six-month polar night. The feathers take root and grow upon him like a natural coat. With the new year, two of his ursine subjects arrive to consult about the hunting season. One of them mocks the king's new coat; the king kills him with a single stroke of his paw. The other bear carries news of the king's transformation to his fellows. They agree that a feathered bear is no fit king for them. A big bear named Woof, who claims to be the strongest among them, says that he will challenge the king for the polar bear crown. Their battle is set for seven days hence.
The queen of the gulls learns that her subjects have observed a large white bearskin, mounted on a carriage in a city to the south. She sends a hundred of her gulls to retrieve it. After four days of searching they find the pelt; they swoop down, seize it, and carry it away to the North.
The day of combat arrives. The feathered king bear confronts Woof, fights him, and breaks his skull "like an egg-shell." The gulls arrive with the pelt, and re-cover the bear king with his own skin, restoring him to his proper state.
"This story teaches us that true dignity and courage depend not upon outward appearance, but come rather from within; also that brag and bluster are poor weapons to carry into battle."
"The King of the Polar Bears" is one of the eight tales in the collection illustrated by Ike Morgan.
It is the briefest story in the book, and arguably the bloodiest, most serious, and most dramatic. As critics have observed, many of the American Fairy Tales reveal a glib irony more suited to an adult than a child audience; "The King of the Polar Bears" lacks that quality.
Apart from the polar bear monarch, other animal royalty populates Baum's works: the Queen of the Field Mice in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the King of the Fairy Beavers in John Dough and the Cherub, the king of the beetles in "The Wonderful Pump," and the hippo queen in "The Laughing Hippopotamus," among others.