Mardi, and a Voyage Thither

by Herman Melville

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168

The narrator of the story, a young American sailor, is picked up at Ravavai, a Pacific island, by a whaling vessel, the Arcturion. The voyage of the Arcturion is not a successful one, and when the ship begins to head for the cold climate of the Bay of Kamchatka, the young narrator and his special friend in the forecastle, Jarl, decide to leave the ship. Knowing the captain will not land them anywhere, they provision a small boat and in it escape from the ship under cover of darkness.

Heading westward, the two men hope to reach some hospitable islands. After sailing for many days, they come upon a drifting ship that seems to be a derelict. Finding it in fairly seaworthy condition, they board it. The following morning, a native man and woman are found in the rigging, where they had hidden from the narrator and Jarl. With the help of the natives, who had escaped with the ship from an unfriendly tribe of islanders after the latter had killed the ship’s crew, the narrator and Jarl continue their voyage in search of land.

After many days of voyaging, the vessel is becalmed. In the storm that follows, the vessel is wrecked. Jarl and the narrator, with the native man, Samoa, set out in a little whaleboat. The native woman is killed during the storm. Many days later, they see a sail in the distance. Taking up their oars to aid the force of the sail, they slowly close in on the craft they had spotted. As they draw close, they see it is a strange arrangement of two native canoes with a platform built over them. After some discussion between the native priest in charge of the craft and the narrator, the sailor and Samoa board the native vessel. Once aboard the craft, they discover a beautiful blonde girl, but they have to force a passage through the natives to regain the whaleboat. In the scuffle, they take two of the natives prisoners. From the natives, they learn that the blonde girl is the priest’s prisoner. Going back aboard the native craft, the sailor and Samoa rescue the girl and escape with her from the natives.

The girl, whose name is Yillah, wishes to return to her native islands. The narrator soon falls in love with her, and the girl, in native fashion, returns his affection. The narrator then decides that he will remain with her on her island home. Sighting a group of islands at last, the party heads for the nearest beach. Before they reach the shore, however, natives swim out to the whaleboat and give them an excited welcome. Towing the boat into shallow water, the natives pick it up and carry it ashore on their shoulders. The visitors are completely puzzled by their reception until they learn that the narrator has been mistaken for the natives’ god, Taji, who, according to an ancient prophecy, would one day revisit them in human form. The natives also think that the other three occupants of the whaleboat are deities whom Taji has brought from another world for companionship.

Media, king of the atoll, makes the guests welcome, and Taji, as the narrator is now called, decides to make the best of his position, as long as his godhood put him under no particular constraints. He and Yillah, housed in a splendid grass house, live a life of tranquil happiness, doing no more than the islanders, who in their turn have little to do to make life comfortable. Then, suddenly, unhappiness strikes the island and Taji. He awakes one morning to find Yillah gone without a trace. Within a few days of Yillah’s disappearance, Taji receives a visit from a portentously disguised messenger, who gives the young sailor a set of flower symbols from Queen Hautia, the dark queen of a group of distant islands.

The natives interpret the flower symbols from Hautia to mean that the Queen loves Taji, wishes his presence, and bode him not look for Yillah, his lost love. Not to be dissuaded, however, Taji, accompanied by King Media and a party of his courtiers, including Yoomy the poet-singer and Babbalanja the philosopher, sets sail in a huge, ornate native canoe in search of Yillah. Before the voyagers journeyed far on the ocean, they meet a black canoe containing more emissaries sent to Taji from Queen Hautia. The messengers, again using flower symbols interpreted by Yoomy, bode Taji forget his quest of the fair love and turn his canoe toward the kingdom of Hautia. Taji refuses and continues on his quest.

Taji’s first stop is on the island of Juam, where Taji makes a friend of King Donjalolo, a monarch who tries to escape reality by moving from one bower to another in his island kingdom and by taking no heed of anyone’s happiness but his own and that of people who are in his company. Donjalolo aides Taji in his quest by sending messages around his island kingdom to ask for news of Yillah. After the petty princes come to Donjalolo’s court to report that they know nothing of the girl, Taji decides to set out once more in the canoe, in the company of Media and his courtiers, to continue his search for his lost love. Again, this time in a more menacing fashion, he is accosted at sea by a canoe load of emissaries from Queen Hautia, who demand that he go to her immediately. Again, Taji refuses.

After many days and nights, during which Taji and his companions have lengthy conversations on many branches of knowledge and philosophy, they touch at an island where they visit the temple of Oro and learn of the Polynesian prophet, Alma, who had many years before, according to legend, brought peace, serenity, and love to the islands. Continuing their voyage through the archipelago of Mardi, representing the world and all its ideas, Taji and his party visit Vivenza, modeled on the United States, pass the Cape of Capes, see many other islands, regale one another with many philosophical conversations during the long hours at sea, and are finally becalmed. After the calm, a death cloud passes them. Following that adventure, they land at Serenia, a land that proves too quiet and too good for them.

At last, the only place left to look for Yillah, who has not been found on any one of the many atolls Taji and his companions have visited, is the bower of Queen Hautia herself. Babbalanja the philosopher, who remains in Serenia, tells Taji he will never find the unattainable Yillah, but Taji continues until three emissaries from Queen Hautia meet him and guide him to her land. Taji finds himself entranced by Hautia, who seems in some strange way connected with Yillah, though she invites him to sin; but still he asks in vain for word of Yillah. He is left in that land by the companions of his travels.

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