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The Man Who Would Be King

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 "white Raja" of Sarawak in Borneo, and by the travels of American adventurer Josiah Harlan, who claimed the title Prince of Ghor.

The story was first published in The Phantom Rickshaw and other 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 Stories in 1895, and in numerous later editions of that collection.

A radio adaption was broadcast on the show Escape on July 7, 1947. In 1975, it was adapted by director John Huston into a feature film, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the "kings", and Christopher Plummer as Kipling.

Plot summary

The narrator of the story is a British journalist in India - Kipling himself, in name only. 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 isn't 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 favor, 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: mustering an army, taking over villages, and dreaming of building a unified nation. The Kafiris, who were pagans, not Moslems, acclaimed Dravot as a god (the son of Alexander the Great). The Kafiris practiced a form of Masonic ritual, and the white men knew Masonic secrets that only the oldest priest remembered.

Their schemes were dashed when Dravot decided to marry a Kafiri 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 "Not god, not devil, but a man!" All the Kafiris turned against the white men. One chief 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 Kafiris cut the ropes, and fell to his death. Carnehan was crucified between two pine trees. When he survived for a day, the Kafiris let him go, and 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, but 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.

Trivia

  • J.M. Barrie described the story as "the most audacious thing in fiction".
  • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Storyteller" was based on the short story, according to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion.
  • "The Man Who Would Be King" is the name of a 2004 song written by Peter Doherty and Carl Barât of The Libertines for their self-titled second album. The songwriters are known fans of Kipling and his work. It is a reflection 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 former 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. The Sleeper recalls the story as "one of the best stories in the world.
  • The two main characters also appear in the graphic novel "Scarlet Traces"
  • The animated film The Road to El Dorado also seems to be based on the short story, although it is set in Mexico rather than Afghanistan, and ends with the two con men successfully escaping after being uncovered as mortals.

See also

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