The Man Who Would Be King

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"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 short story 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 (1888).[2] It also appeared in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories (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.[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][6]


J. M. Barrie described the story as "the most audacious thing in fiction". Additional critical responses are collected in Bloom's Rudyard Kipling.[7]


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

Director John Huston adapted the story as a 1975 feature film of the same name, starring Sean Connery as Dravot and Michael Caine as Carnehan, with 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 Huston.[8]

In popular culture[edit]



  • The title of J. Michael Bailey's popular science book, The Man Who Would Be Queen (2003), plays on Kipling's title.
  • In Jimmy Buffett's book Salty Piece of Land, the movie version starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine is referenced several times as a significant plot line to the story.
  • Daniel Dravot appears in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series as a functionary of the secret Diogenes Club.
  • The two main characters appear in by Ian Edginton's graphic novel Scarlet Traces (2002).
  • Garth Nix's short story "Losing Her Divinity", in the book Rags and Bones, is based on the story.
  • 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".[9]


  • 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 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 Man Who Would be King" is a song by Dio on the album Master of the Moon.
  • "The Man Who Would Be King", a 2004 song written by Pete 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.
  • The ninth track on Iron Maiden's 15th 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 rapper Billy Woods' album History Will Absolve Me, the third track is called "The Man Who Would Be King"



  1. ^ Middleton, Robert & Thomas, Huw (2008). Tajikistan & The High Pamirs: A Companion and Guide. Odyssey. ISBN 962-217-773-5. 
  2. ^ "The Man Who Would Be King". Indian Railway Library. A. H. Wheeler & Co of Allahabad. 5. 1888. 
  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 & Coutinho, Eduardo F. (Editor) (2009). "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. 
  5. ^ Narita, Tatsushi (2011). T. S. Eliot and his Youth as 'A Literary Columbus'. Nagoya: Kougaku Shuppan. 
  6. ^ Narita, Tatsushi (1992). "Fiction and Fact in T.S. Eliot's 'The Man Who Was King". Notes and Queries. Pembroke College, Oxford University. 39 (2): 191–192. 
  7. ^ Bloom, Harold (Editor) (2004). Rudyard Kipling. Chelsea House. 
  8. ^ "bogart-bacall-grace-person-to-person-a-look-back". CBS News. Retrieved 3 July 2012. [dead link]
  9. ^ Wells, H. G. & Parringer, Patrick (Editor) (2005). The Sleeper Awakes. England: Penguin Classics. p. 56. 

Further reading[edit]

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