Jonathan circles the Far Cliffs, watching as his new pupil, Fletcher, flies through the air. Fletcher is strong, light, quick, and best of all, determined. Despite all of his fire, however, Fletcher struggles and often falls and tumbles through the air. Fletcher gets down on himself easily, wondering whether he’ll ever learn how to fly as well as he wants to—Jonathan is a good teacher, though, and reassures Fletcher that with enough practice, he’ll be great.
Jonathan is helping Fletcher to be his truest self, and embrace his individuality and drive towards innovation. Jonathan’s singular goal is to help share the things he has learned up in the other realm with curious, motivated gulls back on Earth. In this passage, Jonathan seems to finally be achieving that goal.
Three months have gone by, and now Jonathan has six other students—all Outcasts. Jonathan explains to his pupils that flying is a tool the gulls can use to grow closer to expressing their true nature and putting aside their own personal limits. Jonathan tries to teach his students that in breaking the chains of their thoughts, they can break the chains of their bodies, but his students are easily exhausted, and unable to break through.
Jonathan now has exactly what he wants—a group of curious but lonely pupils whose individuality he can nurture and whose self-determination he can help to foster.
A month later, despite his students’ slow progress, Jonathan tells them all that the time has come to return to the Flock. One of his pupils, Henry Calvin Seagull, insists that they are no longer welcome among the Flock—they are Outcast, and cannot force themselves back into the group at home. Jonathan insists that each of the gulls, however, is free to go where they wish and be who they want to be. With that, he takes to the sky and begins flying toward the Flock’s home grounds.
Jonathan believes in his students—and in the message that they have collectively committed to—even though his students do not have faith in themselves. Like Chiang, Jonathan does not ask his students to have faith—he simply asks them to recognize that they are already free, capable, and perfect despite their perceptions of their shortcomings.
Jonathan’s students watch him fly away, in turmoil over whether or not they should accompany him. They ultimately decide that if they are not a part of the Flock, they do not have to obey the laws which keep them from it. Moreover, they want to be able to help Jonathan if there is a flight upon his return. Together, the eight students take to the skies and follow Jonathan eastward.
Jonathan’s students no longer feel any allegiance to the Flock they came from—the allegiance they feel is to Jonathan. They are united in this emotion, and fly off in support of him and his vision in spite of their trepidation.
The birds, led by Jonathan, fly speedily and beautifully to the shore where their old Flock is gathered. They land on the sand in front of the Flock, and see a thousand beady eyes staring at them. Jonathan begins critiquing his pupils’ flight, knowing full well his old Flock is watching him intently. Some of the younger gulls of the Flock whisper among themselves admiringly about the Outcast gulls’ flying, but the Elder Gull sends a message throughout the crowd: “any gull who speaks to an Outcast is himself Outcast.”
Jonathan and his pupils show up on the shore of their old Flock’s territory, prepared to confidently, shamelessly bring their innovative ways of thinking to the reluctant birds. The Elder, sensing the threat to their Flock’s tradition, tries to ensure that his Flock will remain true by threatening them with being Outcast—the greatest threat to a gull, despite the freedom it offers.
The Flock begins turning their backs on Jonathan, but he does not seem to notice, and instead begins training his own pupils directly over the beach, encouraging them to fly as quickly and as deftly as they can. Pupils who’d never shone before give standout performances. Fletcher Seagull conquers a complicated slow roll, and the following day, as the public practice continues, manages a triple cartwheel through the air. Jonathan catapults through the air with his students, guiding and encouraging them, while the rest of their flock is “huddled miserably” on the sand.
In the face of being shunned outright, Jonathan continues on with his teaching as if nothing strange at all is going on. He is so committed to spreading his message to the Flock, however reluctant they are to hear it, that he ignores their desire to turn away from him and instead focuses only on improving his pupils’ flight.
After the flying is done, Jonathan and his students gather together on the shore, and he lectures them about his ideas. In the night, a circle forms around his circle of students—other curious gulls from the Flock, shy and nervous to deviate from the norm but helplessly curious as to what Jonathan has to say.
Jonathan’s message finally begins to get through to the Flock, despite the Elder’s attempts to shield them from Jonathan’s new and radical ideas.
Jonathan and his pupils have been back for a month when the first gull from the Flock approaches their group and asks in earnest to learn how to fly. His name is Terrence Lowell Gull, and though he knows he is already rendering himself Outcast in just speaking to Jonathan and his group, he joins them. Kirk Maynard Gull joins their group the following night, helplessly showing a broken wing to Jonathan and asking how he can ever learn to fly with such an impediment. Jonathan insists that with his group, Kirk Maynard is free to be himself, and that nothing will stand in his way. Jonathan proclaims him a free gull, and with that, Kirk Maynard spreads his wings effortlessly and takes to the sky, surprised and delighted by his own triumph.
In this passage, Jonathan is shown to perform miracles which seem divine. In reality, he is just showing the gulls how to believe in themselves, and how to transcend the physical through unity of the mind, the spirit, and the body. Jonathan’s ideas—crazy as they may seem—are shown to work on even the most self-deprecating of gulls, and this “triumph” must appear to the rest of the Flock as incredible, nothing short of magical.
By sunrise, a thousand gulls have positioned themselves apart from the greater Flock, listening to Jonathan as he speaks of the nature of being, the glory of freedom, and the poisonous rituals, superstitions, and limitations that stand in the way of true liberation. The other gulls are afraid of abandoning the Law of the Flock, and some express concerns that they’ll never be able to fly like the “gifted and divine” Jonathan. In response, Jonathan insists that he and his pupils are no more special than the others. The only difference between the two groups is that Jonathan’s pupils “have begun to understand what they really are and have begun to practice it.” With each passing day, the crowd of gulls who gather to question, idolize, and scorn Jonathan and his pupils grows.
More and more members of the Flock are attracted to Jonathan’s message because they have seen the physical results of his doctrine take hold. Though some are afraid to break with tradition and go against the grain of the Flock, Jonathan allows his method to speak for itself. He becomes a controversial figure—as beloved as he is hated—but has succeeded, just by getting the other gulls riled up, in his mission of bringing innovation and other ways of thinking to the traditional, stunted Flock.
One morning, Fletcher reports to Jonathan that the word in the Flock is that Jonathan is perhaps the Son of the Great Gull himself—either that, or he is “a thousand years” ahead of his time. Jonathan sighs, realizing that to the Flock, he is being set up to be either the devil or god. Fletcher muses that Jonathan and his pupils are merely ahead of the fashion.
Jonathan has grown more humble as time has gone by. He does not want his message to be misinterpreted or glorified—he just wants to spread knowledge to those who want it.
One morning, during flight practice, Fletcher narrowly misses striking a young bird on its first flight. To avoid slamming into the youngster at two hundred miles per hour, he diverts his path—into a solid cliff of granite. The rock is, to Fletcher, “a giant hard door into another world.” When he awakens, he is adrift in a strange sky. The voice within, the one he heard on the first day he met Jonathan, speaks to him. He realizes that the voice is Jonathan. Fletcher is surprised that he hasn’t died, and the voice answers that all Fletcher did was “change [his] level of consciousness.”
Fletcher, in this passage, has a near-death experience—and, simultaneously, an experience of his mind and body, united, transcending his physical form. The fact that it is Jonathan’s voice who guides him through the experience seems to imply that it is because of Jonathan’s tutelage that Fletcher has been able to transcend the physical and enter this metaphysical space at all.
The voice tells Fletcher that he has a choice: he can either stay on this new level, which is “quite a bit higher” than the one he left, or he can return to the Flock and keep working with them. Fletcher says that he wants to go back to the Flock. The voice tells Fletcher he can go, and urges him to remember that one’s body is “nothing more than thought itself.”
Like Jonathan, Fletcher makes the choice to return to his earthly Flock and complete the duties he feels toward them rather than ascend on by himself. This suggests that Fletcher may go on to one day fill Jonathan’s shoes.
When Fletcher awakes back on the shore, a crowd has gathered around him. Some proclaim him the Son of the Great Gull—others say he is a devil who has come to break up the Flock, and try to peck at him and harm him. Jonathan appears over Fletcher and asks if he would like to leave the squawking Flock, who have quickly seized on the idea that he is a devil and turned against him. Together, Fletcher and Jonathan transport a half-mile away. Jonathan wonders aloud why it is so hard to convince a bird that he is free. Fletcher is astounded by how quickly the two of them moved, and asks Jonathan how he accomplished the shift—Jonathan tells Fletcher that like everything else, the maneuver takes only practice.
Fletcher, having selflessly chosen to come back to Earth, finds a rather hostile welcoming committee upon waking up. This passage serves to show how groupthink functions, and begins to set the stage for a meditation on the misinterpretation of doctrine. In this case, the Flock is split over how to interpret Fletcher’s reanimation, choosing to focus on what it means and assign a value to it rather than simply take in the miracle of the fact that it happened.
By the morning, the Flock has forgotten its insanity, but Fletcher has not—he asks Jonathan how it will be possible to love the Flock when they so angrily turned against Fletcher himself. Jonathan tells Fletcher that it takes practice to see the good in each gull, and to help them see it in themselves. Jonathan says that Fletcher has become a leader in his own right—Jonathan wants to leave and allow Fletcher to take over helping the other gulls to see the light. Jonathan tells Fletcher that Fletcher doesn’t need him as an instructor anymore. Now, Fletcher must be his own instructor.
Fletcher’s near-death experience has, at least in Jonathan’s eyes, prepared him to take the next step in his journey. Jonathan wants his pupil to fly on his own—literally, and figuratively. This conflates Jonathan with his previous teacher, Chiang, who left Jonathan when he was ready to be a leader.
Jonathan’s body begins to shimmer in the air and become transparent. He begs Fletcher not to let the others spread “silly rumors” that he is a god. He urges Fletcher to look with his understanding, not his eyes, in order to see the way to fly. Jonathan vanishes, leaving Fletcher alone on the shore.
As Jonathan departs the Earth, he makes his wishes for his legacy clear. In the pages that follow, Bach will chart how Jonathan’s humble request to be remembered as just another gull will be denied.
Fletcher reluctantly ascends to the sky and faces his brand-new group of students. He is devastated by Jonathan’s disappearance, but begins the lesson anyway. He urges his pupils to understand that “a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom,” and that each gull’s body is nothing more than the sum of their thoughts. The birds, who thought they’d be learning about flight, are confused by Fletcher’s lesson. Seeing their disappointment, he moves onto the practical part of the lesson, realizing suddenly that Jonathan had never been more divine than Fletcher himself. As Fletcher looks out at his pupils, he sees them all as they really are, and loves what he sees.
Fletcher never quite believed that Jonathan was divine, but he always saw his mentor as peerless and in some ways untouchable in terms of talent and skill. In this passage, Fletcher realizes that Jonathan was, all along, just a hopeful, sometimes scared gull like him. Fletcher is uncertain at first that he will be as good a teacher as Jonathan was, but this passage implies that his love for his students will allow him to successfully continue what Jonathan started.