John Gardner’s “The King’s Indian” is told by an ancient mariner to his “guest,” later revealed to be Gardner himself. The tale is about hoaxes, according to Jonathan Upchurch, its narrator, as well as “devils and angels and the making of man.” Upchurch promises to answer the question, “Ain’t all men slaves, either physical or metaphysical?”
Upchurch begins with his boyhood infatuation with beautiful seven-year-old Miranda Flint, the stage foil to her mesmerist father, Dr. Luther Flint. Nine-year-old Jonathan experiences visions of birds during one of Flint’s exhibitions, and Miranda’s sharing his screams makes the boy even more obsessed with her. A decade later, Upchurch, a schoolmaster in Boston, saves his money so that he can fulfill his dream of moving to southern Illinois and starting a farm, but some sailors get him drunk and exchange his savings for a sailboat. Impulsively, he decides that “in landlessness alone lies the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God!”—a line borrowed from the greatest of sea narratives, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851)—and he sets sail, only to be overrun by the Nantucket whaler Jerusalem and taken aboard.
Upchurch soon learns that the ship is no ordinary whaler, that—in violation of all New England beliefs—it is carrying slaves, though the crew denies their existence. A second mystery, also denied, is the presence of a woman whose voice “haunted me as once Miranda Flint’s eyes had done.” The mystery is only intensified when Upchurch finally sees the beautiful girl with the humpbacked Captain Dirge and his constant companion, the blind and mysterious Jeremiah.
Upchurch becomes acquainted with the crew, especially the red-bearded Billy More, who rescues him from falling from the rigging of the mainmast. Upchurch suspects that the entire crew, including the taciturn first mate, Mr. Knight, and the garrulous “multi-breed” Wilkins, are mad, perhaps infected by the brooding Dirge. The captain discovers Upchurch’s learning and appoints him tutor to his seventeen-year-old daughter, Augusta. Already in love with her, Upchurch falls even deeper, becoming enraptured by her “unearthly” eyes. Their relationship develops quickly, and soon this...
(The entire section is 932 words.)