Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The King’s Indian” is in the tradition of narratives using journey motifs and naïve young protagonists to explore initiations into the worlds of self-discovery and values. Dr. Flint may intend his quest to reveal one kind of truth, but for Jonathan Upchurch, it is a voyage of faith and love. Such themes are fitting for a story by the author of On Moral Fiction (1978), who insists that writers should create in their art an affirmation of life.

Mr. Knight, as his name suggests, sees only darkness around him; his faith ended by science, he wonders if the world is merely mechanical. The real Captain Dirge loses his life because he misplaces his faith, believing in the brimstone demon Flint. After saving Upchurch from annihilation, Billy More warns him to “banish all thought of Nowhere by keeping yer mind from belief in it. . . . If ye must think, think of Faith itself. . . . Faith, that’s the secret! Absolute faith like a seagull’s.” Upchurch decides that one is the slave either of some purposeless power or of “some meaningful human ideal.” He can discover that ideal, and therefore faith, only through love.

“Human consciousness,” Upchurch explains, “is the artificial wall we build of perceptions and conceptions, a hull of words and accepted opinions that keeps out the vast, consuming sea.” Melville’s Captain Ahab wants to smash through this wall by conquering a giant whale; Flint plans to do the same by finding the time warp; Upchurch has a simpler solution: “A mushroom or one raw emotion (such as love) can blast that wall to smithereens.”

Flint bursts into flames because his only vestige of humanity, his love for his daughter, has been consumed by his own overwhelmingly evil nature. Upchurch’s victory seems ironic because Miranda has lost her beauty, but such is mere appearance, like the stage magic of her father. Faith must go beyond mere surfaces: “no more illusions, no more grand gestures, just humdrum love.” Miranda also recognizes the power of love. “You’re so wall-eyed!” she exclaims to Upchurch. “Jonathan, I love you. . . . You’re grotesque.” Armed with love and faith, Upchurch ignores the “solemn white monster” who appears out of the sea, and he implores his crew of ruffians, “We may be the slime of the earth but we’ve got our affinities!”