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.
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.