Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932
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 “fleshed ideal” kisses her walleyed tutor.
Captain Dirge boards every ship that the Jerusalem encounters, and Augusta grows exceedingly distracted each time. Pretending to be one of the slaves after blackening his skin with burnt cork, Upchurch goes along on one of these trips, only to discover Augusta in the same disguise. A sailor on the ship that they are visiting tells Upchurch that Captain Dirge is an impostor, that the real captain is dead, but the sailor is killed before he can say more.
Back on the Jerusalem, Kaskiwah, an American Indian harpooner, gives Upchurch two mushrooms to eat, causing him to have a vision of a ship that appears from beneath the sea bearing a white-bearded man issuing cryptic epigrams. After the man returns to the sea, a huge “pigeon-like thing” also delivers a message to Upchurch: “Fool, retreat!”
Billy More then tells Upchurch the secret of Captain Dirge’s quest. Four years before, three American ships saw the Jerusalem go down near the Vanishing Isles in the Pacific Ocean with only a portrait from the captain’s cabin surviving. When Dirge and his ship arrived in Nantucket to learn that they had been reported dead and to see the painting exactly like the captain’s own, the captain vowed to solve the mystery. Dirge consulted experts in the “praeternatural,” one of whom took special interest because the portrait was of him: Dr. Flint. Dirge’s objective is not whales but “a crack in Time.” Later, Augusta tells Upchurch that their quest is no less than to “understand . . . everything.”
Upchurch begins to complete the puzzle, realizing that Augusta is really Miranda Flint. Wilkins and a seaman named Wolff then lead a mutiny to uncover the rest of the deceit, killing Mr. Knight and Billy More along the way. Jim Ngugi, an African harpooner, saves Upchurch from the same fate, but Miranda is not so lucky, being beaten and raped by Wilkins. Upchurch discovers that Miranda’s magnificent beauty is yet another trickster’s fraud.
Wilkins takes complete control by killing Wolff and reveals the depth of the knavery. The “ghost ship” story is nothing but a hoax arranged by the Jerusalem’s owners with the help of Swami Havananda, Flint’s rival and Wilkins’s true identity. Flint, unaware of the hoax, killed the real captain and Augusta and replaced Dirge with a ventriloquist’s dummy, which he operated in the guise of Jeremiah. Wilkins/Swami Havananda, after revealing his part in all this, kills himself.
Upchurch and Ngugi take charge of the ship and their destiny. After eighteen days of calm near the South Pole, surrounded by icebergs, singing whales, and huge white birds, Flint comes out of hiding. Upchurch sees his antagonist as nothing but “an impotent old goof hardly better than the puppet he scared me with before.” Flint challenges Upchurch to a chess match: Should Upchurch lose, he will become the old hoaxer’s disciple, and if Flint loses, he will give up Miranda. Upchurch, who has claimed not to know the game, surprises Flint with the King’s Indian, an expert’s opening, and the mesmerist bursts into flames, the victim of spontaneous combustion and of his own villainy.
Following a debate about truth, innocence, and similar issues, Upchurch and Miranda make love. The wind finally rises, and so does a giant sad man in white from the sea. Ignoring this vision, Upchurch and his crew set sail for “Illinois the Changeable!”
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