Written when Rudyard Kipling was in his early 20s, “The Man Who Would Be King” was first published in India in 1888. It appeared as the last of four stories collected in The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Tales.
The story is an example of a frame narrative; it consists of two stories, nested one within the other. The unnamed narrator is a correspondent for the Backwoodsman. He is an active character in the outer, frame narrative and a passive observer and transmitter of the inner story. He tells of meeting two adventurers, Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, who have decided to leave an India that “isn’t big enough for such as us” (161). They have entered into a contract to become Kings of Kafiristan, a forbiddingly remote and at that time largely unexplored area in northeast Afghanistan—unexplored, that is, by European colonizing powers. Two years after they set out, a barely recognizable, barely human Peachey returns alone to tell how, by exploiting religious, Masonic, and military ritual, the two initially succeeded in their scheme: “Kings we were with crowns upon our heads—me and Dravot” (168). But, in a failure to understand the importance of the ruse behind the ritual, Dravot sought to establish a dynasty by exploiting yet one more ritual of power, that of intermarriage with the local population. When Dravot’s flesh is ripped by the bite of the woman whom he is intent on marrying, the obscuring veil of power is ripped aside, and the god-kings are exposed as mere men.
The title declaims, and the opening epigraph supports, a theme grounded in the contrasts developed by the story: There are things to be learned and done and not forgotten by the man who really would be king. Ironically, the men who would be kings, Peachey and Danny, are among those least likely to become real kings. They are initially identified by the narrator as loafers and intermediates, referring both to their social and financial status—as when riding in railway coaches—and to their condition of being suspended between the ruled and those who rule them. Yet, the intermediate positions they have occupied, as “[s]oldier, sailor, compositor, photographer, proof-reader, streetpreacher, and correspondents of the Backwoodsman when we thought the paper wanted one” (161), have provided them with the opportunity and wherewithal to exploit each end of the social and political spectrum to prey upon the other for personal gain.
The tale told by Peachey to the narrator both mirrors and parodies the colonial spirit—the motives, efforts, and goals of the British Empire in India. When Kipling wrote the story, Britain was actively competing with Russia for infl uence in central Asia, particularly in Afghanistan. Ostensibly in an effort to protect colonial holdings in India, Britain was, under the guise of geographical survey, making exploratory forays into the Afghan territories. This background intrigue provided knowledgeable contemporaneous readers with a strong sense of presence for the story, which was also given a certain credence by Dravot’s fantasy of receiving a knighthood from Queen Victoria for gifting her with his little empire—a northern buffer with which to protect her own. The root kafir in Kafiristan is an Arabic word loosely translated as unbeliever, or infidel; hence, Kafiristan was, at the time Kipling wrote the story, the land of the unbelievers. In an interesting twist of historical irony, today Kafiristan is called Nuristan; quite literally, it is now the land of the enlightened, having fallen prey to one of the oldest forms of imperialism, religious conversion.
Bauer, Helen Pike. Rudyard Kipling: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Kipling, Rudyard. “The Man Who Would Be King.” In Fictions of Empire, edited by John Kucich, 56–87. New York: Houghton Miffl in Company, 2003.
The Man Who Would Be King. Dir. John Huston. Perf. Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Christopher Plummer. 1975.
Marx, Edward. “How We Lost Kafiristan,” Representations 67 (1999): 44–66.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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