The Man Who Would Be King

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Man Who Would Be King)
Jump to: navigation, search
For the 1975 film based on this story, see The Man Who Would Be King (film). For the 1947 radio show adapted from the story, see The Man Who Would Be King (radio show: Escape).
"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 explorer Adolf Schlagintweit.[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. It has been adapted for other media a number of times.

Plot summary[edit]

The narrator of the story is a British journalist in 19th Century India - Kipling himself, in all but name. Whilst on a tour of some Indian native states he meets two scruffy adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan. Softened by their stories, he agrees to help them in a minor errand, but later he regrets this and informs the authorities about them - preventing them from blackmailing a minor rajah. A few months later the pair appear at his newspaper office in Lahore. They tell him of a plan they have hatched. They declare that after years of trying their hands at all manner of things, they have decided that "India is not big enough for them". They plan to go to Kafiristan and set themselves up as kings. Dravot will pass as a native and, armed with twenty Martini-Henry rifles, they plan to find a king or chief to help him defeat enemies. Once that is done, they will take over for themselves. They ask the narrator for the use of books, encyclopedias and maps of the area – as a favour, because they are fellow Freemasons, and because he spoiled their blackmail scheme. They also show him a contract they have drawn up between themselves which swears loyalty between the pair and total abstinence from women and alcohol.

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: traversing treacherous mountains, finding the Kafirs, mustering an army, taking over villages, and dreaming of building a unified nation and even an empire. The Kafirs (pagans, not Muslims) were impressed by the rifles and Dravot's lack of fear of their idols, and acclaimed him as a god, the reincarnation or descendant of Alexander the Great. They show a whiter complexion than others of the area ("so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends") implying their ancient lineage to Alexander himself. 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, however, when Dravot (against the advice of Carnehan) decided to marry a Kafir girl. Kingship going to his head, he decided he needed a Queen and then royal children. Terrified at marrying a god, the girl bit Dravot when he tried to kiss her during the wedding ceremony. 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 this torture for a whole 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, which he swears never to sell. Carnehan leaves carrying the head. 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. No belongings were found with him.[2]


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".[3][4]


J. M. Barrie described the story as "the most audacious thing in fiction". Additional critical responses are collected in Bloom's Rudyard Kipling.[5]


A radio adaption of the story was broadcast on the show Escape on 7 July 1947. It was rebroadcast on 1 August 1948.

In 1975, the story 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.[6]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ Tajikistan & The High Pamirs: A Companion and Guide, Robert Middleton & Huw Thomas, Odyssey, 2008, ISBN 962-217-773-5
  2. ^ "Plot Summary of "The Man Who Would Be King" in Harold Bloom, ed. Rudyard Kipling, Chelsea House, 2004. pp. 18–22.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Narita, Tatsushi. T. S. Eliot and his Youth as 'A Literary Columbus'. Nagoya: Kougaku Shuppan, 2011.
  5. ^ Bloom, Harold, ed. Rudyard Kipling Chelsea House, 2004.
  6. ^ "bogart-bacall-grace-person-to-person-a-look-back". Retrieved 3 July 2012. [dead link]
  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]