Vintage Reads #8 – The King’s Fifth

The-Kings-Fifth-book-coverAimed at younger readers, this 1966 novel by Scott O’Dell deals with the primary MacGuffin of my own novel, Golden Heart; the fabled land of Cibola.

Set in 1540, the protagonist – a young, Spanish cartographer named Estéban – relates his tale from his prison cell in Vera Cruz, New Spain. Accused of withholding the ‘King’s Fifth’ (one fifth of all treasure found in the New World belonged to the King of Spain), Estéban awaits his trial. His narrative tells of an expedition to find the seven golden cities of Cibola which parallels the real 1540 expedition of Francisco de Coronado. Instead of writing a blog post about the history of the Cibola expeditions, I’ll let Lazarus Longman himself sum up the facts for you in this excerpt from Golden Heart.

Lazarus sighed and began the tale from the beginning. “I know that in fifteen-thirty-six four survivors from a Spanish shipwreck resurfaced in Mexico. With them was a Moorish slave called Estevanico; the first African to set foot in America. They had been wandering for eight years throughout the Southwest and had heard tales of a wealthy land to the north. The Spaniards in Mexico, who had recently amassed vast wealth from plundering the Aztec and Inca empires, became convinced that there must be a third golden empire in the northern continent. The Spanish had their own legend of seven bishops who fled Spain with all their wealth during the Moorish invasion hundreds of years previously. They believed that these bishops had set up seven golden cities in an unchartered land to the west. With the stories told by Estevanico and his companions, it seemed possible that these cities were somewhere in the American Southwest.

“The Viceroy of New Spain sent out an expedition under a Franciscan monk called Marcos de Niza who, with Estevanico as his guide, headed north to find this golden empire. Estevanico was an impetuous fellow by all accounts, who kept running on ahead and sending back promising clues. It seemed that they were drawing near to their goal. In one letter he said that he had found a fabulous city called Cibola, the first of many of its kind. Then, Estevanico drops off the map.”

“De Niza tried to catch up with him,” said Katarina, demonstrating that she too had been filled in on the fairy tale. “But he came across several members of Estevanico’s party who were bloodied and beaten. They told him that the Moor had been killed at Cibola.”

“Correct,” said Lazarus. “De Niza dared not enter the city and only saw it from a distance. When he returned to Mexico City, he told what he had seen but mentioned nothing of gold. This did not perturb the Spaniards, who were more convinced than ever that this Cibola and its sister cities must be the golden empire they sought. Another expedition was organized with de Niza as a guide and the governor of Nueva Galicia—a man called Coronado—as its leader.

“Coronado,” put in Vasquez. “Now there’s a fella I heard tell of.”

“And with good reason,” said Lazarus. “Not just because you share his name. Francisco Vazquez de Coronado was the fellow who exposed the whole thing as a fraud, however inadvertently. When he and de Niza arrived at Cibola, they found only a meager Zuni pueblo called Hawikuh. With Coronado and his men cursing de Niza as a phony, a battle broke out with the Zuni warriors, and the pueblo fell to the Spaniards.”

“So Coronado and his pals hadn’t found Cibola, then?” asked Vasquez.

“That’s a matter of opinion,” said Lazarus. “There is no doubt that they found the city Estevanico had dubbed Cibola, but nobody had ever said anything about it being a city of gold. That was just in the imaginations of the Spaniards. And it was a myth the Zuni and other pueblo peoples were happy to propagate. Soon Coronado was heading out again on instructions given to him by the defeated Zuni, that golden cities lay further north east. He got as far as Kansas before giving up and returning in debt and in disgrace.”

As well as naming his main character after Estevanico the Moor, Scott O’Dell draws other parallels to the real life expeditions such as the character of Captain Blas de Mendoza, an unscrupulous conquistador, who is based on Antonio de Mendoza, a member of Coronado’s expedition. Another character is the young native girl called Zia who joins Esteban and his companions and serves to expose the madness the lust of gold drives men to.

The book also loosely inspired one of my favorite childhood shows; the 1982 cartoon The Mysterious Cities of Gold. While it retained characters like Esteban, Mendoza and Zia, the plot was drastically different. Not only was it set in South America, but a brief stop over in the Galapagos Islands results in another addition to their party; Tao, the sole remaining descendant of the sunken empire of Mu (or Hiva). The plot blends history with science fiction, mixing real life figures such as Pizarro (who conquered the Inca Empire) with a story including aliens, mythology and solar-powered ships and flying machines.


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