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. The Kafirs (pagans, not Muslims) were impressed by guns and Dravot's lack of fear of their idols, and acclaimed him as a god, the reincarnation or descendant of Alexander the Great. 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. One chief (whom they have nicknamed "Billy Fish") and 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]


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]


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]

  • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Storyteller" was based on the short story, according to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Déjà Q" the omnipotent Q, stripped of his powers and left to live as a mortal human, sarcastically refers to himself as "The king who would be man."
  • "The Man Who Would Be King", a 2004 song written by Peter Doherty and Carl Barât of The Libertines, appears in their self-titled second album. The songwriters are known fans of Kipling and his work. It reflects on the story, as two friends – who seem to be at the top – drift away from each other and begin to despise each other, mirroring the bandmates' turbulent relationship and eventual splitting of the band shortly after the album's release.
  • In H. G. Wells' The Sleeper Awakes, the Sleeper identifies a cylinder ("a modern substitute for books") with "The Man Who Would Be King" written on the side in mutilated English as "oi Man huwdbi Kin". The Sleeper recalls the story as "one of the best stories in the world".[7]
  • The two main characters appear in the graphic novel Scarlet Traces.
  • The Man Who Would Be King was adapted into a movie released in 1975, starring Sean Connery as Dravot and Michael Caine as Carnehan with Christopher Plummer as Kipling.
  • The title of the 2003 popular science book by J. Michael Bailey, The Man Who Would Be Queen, plays on Kipling's title.
  • Daniel Dravot appears in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series as a functionary of the secret Diogenes Club.
  • "The Man Who Would be King" is a song by Dio on the album Master of the Moon
  • In the video game Civilization V, the achievement for completing the game on any difficulty with Alexander the Great is named "The Man Who Would Be King."
  • The 2000 DreamWorks movie The Road to El Dorado is loosely based on the story.
  • The 20th episode of season 6 of Supernatural is titled "The Man Who Would Be King".
  • The 9th track on Iron Maiden's fifteenth studio album, The Final Frontier, is entitled "The Man Who Would Be King". The song has no apparent connection with the novella apart from the title.
  • In the video game Borderlands 2, one of the main missions is called 'The Man Who Would Be Jack' as a reference to the story.
  • In the album History Will Absolve Me by Billy Woods the third track is called "The Man Who Would Be King"
  • In the Movie X-Men Magneto is seen reading "The Man Who Would Be King" while sitting in his cell.


  1. ^ Tajikistan & The High Pamirs: A Companion and Guide, Robert Middleton & Huw Thomas, Odyssey, 2008, ISBN 962-217-773-5
  2. ^;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

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