The Man Who Would Be King

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For the 1975 film based on this story, see The Man Who Would Be King (film).
"The Man Who Would Be King"
Author Rudyard Kipling
Country United Kingdom, India
Language English
Genre(s) Adventure
Published in The Phantom 'Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales
Publication type Anthology
Publisher A H Wheeler & Co of Allahabad
Publication date 1888

"The Man Who Would Be King" (1888) is a novella by Rudyard Kipling. It is about two British adventurers in British India who become kings of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. The story was inspired by the exploits of James Brooke, an Englishman who became the first White Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo; and by the travels of American adventurer Josiah Harlan, who was granted the title Prince of Ghor in perpetuity for himself and his descendants. It incorporates a number of other factual elements such as locating the story in eastern Afghanistan's Kafiristan and the European-like appearance of many of Kafiristan's Nuristani people, and an ending modelled on the return of the head of the explorer Adolf Schlagintweit to colonial administrators.[1]

The story was first published in The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (Volume Five of the Indian Railway Library, published by A. H. Wheeler & Co of Allahabad in 1888). It also appeared in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories in 1895, and in numerous later editions of that collection.

A radio adaption was broadcast on the show Escape on 7 July 1947 and again on 1 August 1948. In 1975, it was adapted by director John Huston into a feature film of the same name, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the adventurers and Christopher Plummer as Kipling.

As early as 1954, Humphrey Bogart expressed the desire to star in "The Man Who Would Be King" and was in talks with director John Huston.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The narrator of the story is a British journalist in India—Kipling himself, in all but name. While on a tour of some Indian native states he meets two scruffy adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan. He rather likes them, but then stops them from blackmailing a minor rajah. A few months later they appear at his office in Lahore. They tell him their plan. They have been "Soldier, sailor, compositor [typesetter], photographer... [railroad] engine-drivers, petty contractors," and more, and have decided India is not big enough for them. The next day they will go off to Kafiristan to set themselves up as kings. Dravot can pass as a native, and they have twenty Martini-Henry rifles (then perhaps the best in the world). They plan to find a king or chief, help him defeat his enemies, then take over for themselves. They ask the narrator for the use of any books or maps of the area–as a favour, because they are fellow Freemasons, and because he spoiled their blackmail scheme.

Two years later, on a scorching hot summer night, Carnehan creeps into the narrator's office. He is a broken man, a crippled beggar clad in rags and he tells an amazing story. Dravot and Carnehan succeeded in becoming kings: finding the Kafirs, who turn out to be white ("so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends"), mustering an army, taking over villages, and dreaming of building a unified nation. When Danny is hit by an arrow that lodges in his cross-belt the Kafirs (pagans, not Muslims), believe him to be some sort of immortal and decide to sacrifice him to their god (an elevation of Alexander the Great to Deity). However, when they pull open his Jacket to expose his chest to the dagger they discover his Freemasons locket, the symbol is that used by Alexander and they take this as a sign that he is a descendant of Alexander. The Kafirs practised a form of Masonic ritual, and Dravot's reputation was further cemented when he showed knowledge of Masonic secrets that only the oldest priest remembered.

Their schemes were dashed when Dravot decided to marry a Kafir girl. Terrified at marrying a god, the girl bit Dravot when he tried to kiss her. Seeing him bleed, the priests cried that he was "Neither God nor Devil but a man!" Most of the Kafirs turned against Dravot and Carnehan. A few of his men remained loyal, but the army defected and the two kings were captured.

Dravot, wearing his crown, stood on a rope bridge over a gorge while the Kafirs cut the ropes, and he fell to his death. Carnehan was crucified between two pine trees. When he survived for a day, the Kafirs considered it a miracle and let him go. He begged his way back to India.

As proof of his tale, Carnehan shows the narrator Dravot's head, still wearing the golden crown. Carnehan leaves. The next day the narrator sees him crawling along the road in the noon sun, with his hat off and gone mad. The narrator sends him to the local asylum. When he inquires two days later, he learns that Carnehan has died of sunstroke ("half an hour bare-headed in the sun at mid-day..."). No belongings were found with him.[3]

Influence[edit]

As a young man the would-be poet T. S. Eliot, already an ardent admirer of Kipling, wrote a short story called "The Man Who Was King". Published in 1905 in the Smith Academy Record, a school magazine of the school he was attending as a day-boy, the story explicitly shows how the prospective poet was concerned with his own unique version of the "King".[4][5]

Response[edit]

J. M. Barrie described the story as "the most audacious thing in fiction". Additional critical responses are collected in Bloom's Rudyard Kipling.[6]

In popular culture[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Tajikistan & The High Pamirs: A Companion and Guide, Robert Middleton & Huw Thomas, Odyssey, 2008, ISBN 962-217-773-5
  2. ^ http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-33816_162-57464351/bogart-bacall-grace-person-to-person-a-look-back/?tag=showDoorFlexGridLeft;flexGridModule[dead link]
  3. ^ "Plot Summary of "The Man Who Would Be King" in Harold Bloom, ed. Rudyard Kipling, Chelsea House, 2004. pp. 18–22.
  4. ^ Narita, Tatsushi. "Young T. S. Eliot as a Transpacific 'Literary Columbus': Eliot on Kipling's Short Story". Beyond Binarism: Discontinuities and Displacements: Studies in Comparative Literature, ed. Eduardo F. Coutinho. Rio de Janeiro: Aeroplano, 2009, pp. 230–237
  5. ^ Narita, Tatsushi. T. S. Eliot and his Youth as 'A Literary Columbus'. Nagoya: Kougaku Shuppan, 2011.
  6. ^ Bloom, Harold, ed. Rudyard Kipling Chelsea House, 2004.
  7. ^ Wells, H. G. "The Sleeper Awakes". Ed. Patrick Parringer. England: Penguin Classics, 2005. p 56.

Further reading[edit]

  • Narita, Tatsushi. "Young T. S. Eliot as a Transpacific 'Literary Columbus': Eliot on Kipling's Short Story". Beyond Binarism: Discontinuities and Displacements: Studies in Comparative Literature, ed. Eduardo F. Coutinho. Rio de Janeiro: Aeroplano, 2009, pp. 230–237.
  • Narita, Tatsushi. "Fiction and Fact in T.S. Eliot's 'The Man Who Was King.'" Notes and Queries (Pembroke College, Oxford University), v. 39, no.2 (1992):191–192

External links[edit]