The Man Who Would Be King

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"The Man Who Would Be King"
Short story by Rudyard Kipling
Text available at Wikisource
CountryUnited Kingdom, British India
Genre(s)Adventure, lost world
Published inThe Phantom 'Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales
Publication typeAnthology
PublisherA. H. Wheeler & Co. of Allahabad
Publication date1888

"The Man Who Would Be King" (1888) is a story by Rudyard Kipling about two British adventurers in British India who become kings of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. The story was first published in The Phantom 'Rickshaw and Other Tales (1888);[1] it also appeared in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories (1895) and numerous later editions of that collection. It has been adapted for other media a number of times.

Plot summary[edit]

A caravan in the Khyber Pass c. 1880s

The narrator of the story is a British Indian journalist, correspondent of The Northern Star in 19th century India: Kipling himself, in all but name. Whilst on a tour of some Indian native states, in 1886, he meets two scruffy adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Tolliver Carnehan. Softened by their stories, he agrees to help them in a small errand, but later he regrets this and informs the authorities about them, which prevents them from blackmailing a minor rajah. A few months later, the pair appear at the narrator's newspaper office in Lahore, where 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, so they intend to go to Kafiristan and set themselves up as kings. Dravot, disguised as a mad priest, and Carnehan, as his servant, will go to the unexplored region armed with twenty Martini-Henry rifles and their British military knowledge. Once there, they plan to find a king or chief and help him defeat his enemies before taking over for themselves. They ask the narrator to see books, encyclopedias, and maps about the area as a favor, both because they are fellow Freemasons and because he spoiled their blackmail scheme. In an attempt to prove that they are not crazy, they show the narrator a contract they have drawn up between themselves which swears loyalty between the pair and total abstinence from women and alcohol until they are kings.

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 who has trouble staying focused, but he tells an amazing story: he says he and Dravot succeeded in becoming kings. They traversed treacherous mountains, found the Kafirs, mustered an army, and took over villages, all the while dreaming of building a unified nation or even an empire. The Kafirs were impressed by the rifles and Dravot's lack of fear of their pagan idols, and they soon began to acclaim him as a god and descendant of Alexander the Great; they exhibited a whiter complexion than the natives of the surrounding areas ("so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends"), implying an ancient lineage going back to Alexander and some of his troops themselves. Dravot and Carnehan were shocked to discover that the Kafirs practiced a form of Masonic ritual, and their reputations were cemented when they showed knowledge of Masonic secrets beyond those known by even the highest of the Kafir priests and chiefs.

A Kalash festival

The schemes of Dravot and Carnehan were dashed, however, when Dravot, against the advice of Carnehan, decided it was time to marry a Kafir girl—kingship going to his head, he decided he needed a queen to give him a royal son. Terrified by the idea of 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!" and most of the Kafirs turned against Dravot and Carnehan. A few of their 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, but, when he survived this torture for a whole day, the Kafirs considered it a miracle and let him go. He then slowly begged his way back to India over the course of a year.

As proof of his tale, Carnehan shows the narrator Dravot's severed head and golden crown before he leaves, taking the head and crown, which he swears never to sell, with him. The following day, the narrator sees Carnehan crawling along the road in the noon sun with his hat off. He has gone mad, so 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]

Acknowledged sources[edit]

Map of Kafiristan 1881

Kafiristan was recognized as a real place by at least one early Kipling scholar, Arley Munson, who in 1915 called it "a small tract of land in the northeastern part of Afghanistan," though she wrongly thought the "only source of information is the account of the Mahomedan traders who have entered the country."[3] By then, Kafiristan had been literally wiped off the map and renamed "Nuristan" in Amir Abdur Rahman Khan's 1895 conquest, and it was soon forgotten by literary critics who, under the sway of the New Criticism, read the story as an allegory of the British Raj. The disappearance of Kafiristan was so complete that a 1995 New York Times article referred to it as "the mythical, remote kingdom at the center of the Kipling story."[4]

As the New Historicism replaced the New Criticism, scholars rediscovered the story's historical Kafiristan, aided by the trail of sources left in it by Kipling himself, in the form of the publications the narrator supplies to Dravot and Carnehan:

  • "Volume INF-KAN of the Encyclopædia Britannica", which, in the ninth edition of 1882, contained Sir Henry Yule's long "Kafiristan" entry.[5] Yule's entry described Kafiristan as "land of lofty mountains, dizzy paths, and hair-rope bridges swinging over torrents, of narrow valleys laboriously terraced, but of wine, milk, and honey rather than of agriculture." He includes Bellew's description of a Kafir informant as "hardly to be distinguished from an Englishman" and comments at length on the reputed beauty of Kafir women.
  • "Wood on the Sources of the Oxus", namely, A Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Source of the River Oxus by the Route of the Indus, Kabul, and Badakhshan (1841) by Captain John Wood (1811–1871), from which Dravot extracts route information.[6]
  • "The file of the United Services' Institute", accompanied by the directive, "read what Bellew says," refers, no doubt, to an 1879 lecture on "Kafristan [sic] and the Kafirs" by Surgeon Major Henry Walter Bellew (1834–1892). This account, like Wood's, was based largely on second-hand native travellers' accounts and "some brief notices of this people and country scattered about in the works of different native historians," for, as he noted, "up to the present time we have no account of this country and its inhabitants by any European traveler who has himself visited them." The 29-page survey of history, manners and customs, was as "sketchy and inaccurate" as the narrator suggests, Bellew acknowledging that "of the religion of the Kafirs we know very little," but noting that "the Kafir women have a world wide reputation of being very beautiful creatures."[7]
  • The narrator smokes "while the men pored over Raverty, Wood, the maps, and the Encyclopædia." Henry George Raverty's "Notes on Káfiristan" appeared in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1859, and it is presumably this work, based on Raverty's contact with some Siah-Posh Kafirs, that is being referenced.[8]

Possible models[edit]

In addition to Kipling's acknowledged sources, a number of individuals have been proposed as possible models for the story's main characters.

  • Alexander Gardner (1785–1877), American adventurer captured in Afghanistan in 1823. Gardner "stated that he visited Kafiristan twice between 1826 and 1828, and his veracity was vouched for by … reliable authorities"[9] "Only Gardner provides the three essential ingredients of the Kipling novel," according to John Keay.[10]
  • Josiah Harlan (1799–1871), American adventurer enlisted as a surgeon with the British East India Company's army in 1824.[11]
  • Frederick "Pahari" Wilson (1817–1883), an English officer who deserted during the First Afghan War and later became "Raja of Harsil."[12]
  • James Brooke, an Englishman who in 1841 was made the first White Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo, in gratitude for military assistance to the Sultan of Brunei. Kipling alludes to Brooke twice in the story: when Dravot refers to Kafiristan as the "only one place now in the world that two strong men can Sar-a-whack" and when Dravot says "Rajah Brooke will be a suckling to us."
  • Adolf Schlagintweit (1829–1857) German botanist and explorer of Central Asia. Suspected of being a Chinese spy, he was beheaded in Kashgar by the amir, Wali Khan. A Persian traveler subsequently delivered his supposed head to colonial administrators, much as Carnehan had brought Dravot's head to the narrator of the story.[13]
  • William Watts McNair (1849–1889), a surveyor in the Indian Survey Department who, in 1883, visited Kafiristan while on furlough disguised as a hakim or native doctor, disregarding Government regulations.[14] His report to the Royal Geographical Society earned him the Murchison Award.[15]


Abdal Kadir, last malik of the Red Kafirs of Kunisht
  • 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".[16][17][18]
  • J. M. Barrie described the story as "the most audacious thing in fiction".[19]
  • Kingsley Amis called the story a "grossly overrated long tale" in which a "silly prank ends in predictable and thoroughly deserved disaster."[20]
  • Additional critical responses are collected in Bloom's Rudyard Kipling.[21]

Adaptations and cultural references[edit]


  • In H. G. Wells' The Sleeper Awakes (1910), 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".[22]
  • The two main characters appear in Ian Edginton's graphic novel Scarlet Traces (2002).
  • The 1975 film version figures in the plot of Jimmy Buffett's book A Salty Piece of Land (2004).
  • Garth Nix's short story "Losing Her Divinity", in the book Rags & Bones (2013), is based on the story.[23]





  • The Libertines have a song called "The Man Who Would Be King" on their self-titled second album (2004). 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. Songwriters Pete Doherty and Carl Barât are known fans of Kipling and his work.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Kipling, Rudyard (1888). "The Man Who Would Be King". The Phantom 'Rickshaw and Other Tales. Indian Railway Library no. 5. Allahabad: A. H. Wheeler & Co.
  2. ^ "Plot Summary of "The Man Who Would Be King" in Harold Bloom, ed. Rudyard Kipling, Chelsea House, 2004. pp. 18–22.
  3. ^ Arley Munson, Kipling's India (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, Page & Co. 1915): 90.
  4. ^ "The World; Meet Stan, and Stan, and . . .", Michael Specter, New York Times, 7 May 1995, E:3. cited in Edward Marx, "How We Lost Kafiristan." Representations 67 (Summer 1999): 44.
  5. ^ Henry Yule, "Kafiristan," Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed. (London: Henry G. Allen, 1882): 13:820–23.
  6. ^ John Wood, A Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Source of the River Oxus, by the Route of the Indus, Kabul, and Badakhshan, Performed under the Sanction of the Supreme Government of India, in the Years 1836, 1837, and 1838 (London: J. Murray, 1841)
  7. ^ Henry Walter Bellew, "Kafristan [sic] and the Kafirs: A Lecture Delivered at the United Service Institution," Journal of the United Service Institution 41 (1879): 1. Bellew was also the author of a number of other works on Afghanistan.
  8. ^ H.G. Raverty, "Notes on Kafiristan," Journal of the Asiatic Society 4 (1859): 345.
  9. ^ "B. E. M. Gurdon, "Early Explorers of Kafiristan," Himalayan Journal 8:3 (1936): 26". Archived from the original on 2 October 2017. Retrieved 1 October 2017.
  10. ^ John Keay, The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner (London: Kashi House, 2017). Keay's ingredients are "the location (Kafiristan), the legend (of the Kafirs having once admitted white strangers) and the detail (of these strangers being two Europeans of whom the Kafirs were somewhat in awe)."
  11. ^ Macintyre, Ben The Man Who Would Be King, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002. Macintyre claimed that "Kipling would certainly have been familiar with Harlan's history, just as he would have known of the even earlier exploits of George Thomas, the eighteenth-century Irish mercenary."
  12. ^ Robert Hutchison, The Raja of Harsil: The Legend of Fredrick "Pahari Wilson" New Delhi: Roli Books, 2010. "By then Harlan's exploits had been all but forgotten. The exploits of 'Pahari' Wilson, on the other hand, were still vividily remembered... Wilson fits the character far better than Josiah Harlan."
  13. ^ Finkelstein, Gabriel (June 2000). "'Conquerors of the Künlün'? The Schlagintweit Mission to High Asia, 1854–57". History of Science. 38, pt. 2, no. 120 (2): 197. doi:10.1177/007327530003800203. S2CID 162471795.
  14. ^ W.W. McNair, "A Visit to Kafiristan," Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society 6:1 (Jan. 1884): 1–18; reprinted with additional material in J.E. Howard, ed., Memoir of William Watts McNair: The First European Explorer of Kafiristan (London: D.J. Keymer, 1890).
  15. ^ Edward Marx, "How We Lost Kafiristan." Representations 67 (Summer 1999): 44.
  16. ^ Narita, Tatsushi (2009). Coutinho, Eduardo F. (ed.). "Young T. S. Eliot as a Transpacific 'Literary Columbus': Eliot on Kipling's Short Story". Beyond Binarism: Discontinuities and Displacements: Studies in Comparative Literature. Rio de Janeiro: Aeroplano: 230–237.
  17. ^ Narita, Tatsushi (2011). T. S. Eliot and his Youth as 'A Literary Columbus'. Nagoya: Kougaku Shuppan.
  18. ^ Narita, Tatsushi (1992). "Fiction and Fact in T.S. Eliot's 'The Man Who Was King". Notes and Queries. 39 (2). Pembroke College, Oxford University: 191–192. doi:10.1093/nq/39.2.191-a.
  19. ^ Norman Page, quoted in John McGivering and George Kieffer, eds., Kipling Society notes.
  20. ^ Kingsley Amis, Rudyard Kipling (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), 62, quoted in John McGivering and George Kieffer, eds., Kipling Society notes.
  21. ^ Bloom, Harold, ed. (2004). Rudyard Kipling. Chelsea House.
  22. ^ Wells, H. G. (2005). Parringer, Patrick (ed.). The Sleeper Awakes. England: Penguin Classics. p. 56.
  23. ^ Marr, Melissa; Pratt, Tim, eds. (2015). "Rags & bones : new twists on timeless tales / edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt". National Library of New Zealand. Retrieved 13 December 2023.
  24. ^ "To the Ends of the Earth: The Man Who Would Be King". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  25. ^ "Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall Interview at LA Home, (1954)". CBS News. Retrieved 2 November 2022.
  26. ^ "Gold and Glory: The Road to El Dorado". Gamespot. Retrieved 13 October 2012.

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