The Man Who Would Be King

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Rudyard Kipling (December 30, 1865 - January 18, 1936) is the author of the short story The Man Who Would Be King. The story, told from the perspective of a nameless narrator, is a fictional tale of two vagabond adventurers named Carnehan and Dravot who set out to cross social, racial, and geographic borders on their quest to become Kings of Kafiristan.

About the Author

Rudyard Kipling

Early Life

Rudyard Kipling was born in Mumbai, India (at the time Bombay, British India) on December 30th, 1865. He was named after Rudyard Lake where his parents had first met and which eventually led to their marriage. His family background was very prestigious such that his mother was well known in Victorian society, and his father was a very well educated sculptor. In addition, Kipling had a first cousin who held the title of Prime Minister three times and aunts who were married to well known painters. After leaving boarding school as a child, Kipling eventually found work as an editor of a local newspaper, which sparked his career as a writer. Kipling and his family considered themselves to be Anglo Indian - born on Indian soil but of English descent. This background led to Kipling focusing on the issues of identity, imperialism and national allegiance in his later writings.

Early Travels

As an up and coming author/poet, Kipling began to travel the world as a journalist for the "The Pioneer"in Allahabad [1]. As his career developed, he was able to write, publish, and sell six of his short story books in 1888. One short story in particular was The Man Who Would Be King. Kipling journeyed all over Europe, Asia, and even the States (California specifically) only to find himself back in England where he spent most his life after childhood.

"The Jungle Book" Best Selling Children's Book

Literary Career

During his lifetime, Rudyard Kipling was constantly surrounded by art and literature, which encouraged his writing abilities. Even though his family was filled with political and artistic talent, it became even more so after his marriage to Caroline Balastier in 1892. Her brother was an American writer who had become friendly with Kipling, however he died of typhoid fever not long after forming the acquaintance. After getting married, Kipling moved back to the States and began to focus on writing for a younger audience. Kipling's most famous piece of children's literature, The Jungle Book, was published in 1894, followed by a sequel in 1895. Eventually, Kipling found his way back to England and for winter vacations he would fly to Africa. On these visits he became acquainted with another British author, Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes would inspire Kipling to write a novel titled Kim that would be published in 1901, to be voted one of the best English-language novels of its era. Kipling was awarded the first English language “Nobel Prize for Literature” in 1907. The prize was in recognition of two of his poetry and short story compilations. The pieces were Puck of Pook Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910). A poem in the latter, titled If- was voted one of Britain’s favorite poems in 1995 for the positive advice it gave - “seize the day.”

Plot Summary

The story begins with the narrator, meeting a loafer named Brother Peachy Carnehan while on a train and traveling "Intermediate" class. The narrator's new acquaintance asks him to deliver a message to a companion on reaching the city, and he acquiesces. After delivering the message to Carnehan's red-bearded companion, Dravot, the narrator, who happens to be a journalist, has a slight hardening of heart toward the two men and decides to turn them in to the authorities for impersonating members of his profession and planning to blackmail a rajah. A few months after this incident, the narrator gets a visit from these two loafers and is informed of their plans to establish their own kingdom in Kafiristan. To guide them on their quest, the gentlemen made a “Contrack” which they presented to the narrator:

File:Kipling ManWhoWouldBe RGB.jpg
Cover of "The Man Who Would Be King" by Rudyard Kipling
  This Contract between me and you persuing witnesseth
  in the name of God—Amen and so forth.
    (One) That me and you will settle this matter together:
            i.e., to be Kings of Kafiristan.
    (Two) That you and me will not while this matter is
            being settled, look at any Liquor, nor any
            Woman black, white or brown, so as to get
            mixed up with one or the other harmful.
    (Three) That we conduct ourselves with Dignity and
             Discretion, and if one of us gets into trouble
             the other will stay by him.
                             Signed by you and me this day.
                               Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan.
                               Daniel Dravot.
                               Both Gentlemen at Large.

After hearing the plan and offering Dravot and Carnehan the use of his books and maps, the narrator departs, not to hear of them again for some time.

After a period of two years, the narrator unexpectedly is faced with Carnehan, who has become a “rag-wrapped, whining cripple.” Carnehan unfolds his account of Dravot’s and his adventure. Dravot and Carnehan had amazingly achieved their dream of becoming the Kings of Kafiristan by conquering villages using armies and guns. Through a series of chance events and due to military power, Dravot is perceived by the natives to be a god. When all seemed to be going well, Dravot, going against Carnehan’s disapproval, decided to take a wife for himself in the hope of establishing a dynasty. When Dravot tries to kiss the woman in front of the crowd, she, in fear of marrying a god, bites him and draws blood. The villagers, seeing Dravot bleed realize he is merely a mortal man and decide to overthrow his empire. Although there were some like Billy Fish who maintained loyal, they are eventually all captured. Dravot, once captured was beheaded and fell off a bridge to his death. Carnehan was crucified for his role in deceiving the villagers but he miraculously survived, effectively earning his freedom and safe passage.

Carnehan had brought the head of Dravot, which still had the crown on it, and reveals his tale and memento to the narrator. After Carnehan leaves, the narrator finds him on the roadside, in an insane state, and delivers him to the asylum. Two days later, the narrator goes to the asylum and discovers that Carnehan had died the day before. Nothing was found near him when he died.

Themes of The Man Who Would Be King

Establishment of Class Hierarchy

"The beginning of everything was in a railway train upon the road to Mhow from Ajmir. There had been a deficit in the Budget, which necessitated traveling, not Second-class, which is only half as dear as First-class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty; or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated. Intermediates do not patronize refreshment-rooms. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat-sellers, and drink the roadside water. That is why in the hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon." - Narrator

"The Native States have a wholesome horror of English newspapers, which may throw light on their peculiar methods of government, and do their best to choke correspondents with champagne, or drive them out of their mind with four-in-hand barouches. They do not understand that nobody cares a straw for the internal administration of Native States so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits, and the ruler is not drugged, drunk, or diseased from one end of the year to the other. Native States were created by Providence in order to supply picturesque scenery, tigers and tall-writing. They are the dark places of the earth, full of unimaginable cruelty, touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and on the other, the days of Harun-al-Raschid." - Narrator

These passages, which appear at the outset of the narrative, are used to establish the role of class hierarchy in late 19th century British Indian society. This racial and monetary social stratification reveals who has worth and is an identifiable subject under the British colonial system. The except also comments on poverty and shows how it is perceived by those untouched by it - viewed as a fault of the individual alone and not as a failing of society as a whole. The deaths of the poor, natives and of loafers are accepted in the story as commonplace, whereas the deaths and hardships of colonials are considered much weightier offenses.


" one has gone there, and they fight, and in any place where they fight a man who knows how to drill men can always be King." - Dravot

"I won't make a Nation, I'll make an Empire! These men aren't niggers; they're English! Look at their eyes--look at their mouths. Look at the way they stand up. They sit on chairs in their own houses. They're the Lost Tribes, or something like it, and they've grown to be English..." - Dravot

These excerpts are connected to how Dravot and Carnehan took over Kafiristan - by having superior weapons and by using force. Superstition on the part of the natives also enabled the two men to take over. This is imperialism as they massed strength and expanded their borders into foreign lands. Rudyard Kipling is critiquing imperialism and the British colonial system as he makes sure to point out how it is weapons and military tactics, not intelligence or compassion that enables an empire to prosper and be a successful imperial power. In addition, Kipling is pointing out whose life matters as he never discusses all the people killed in pursuit of empire and no concern is shown to what is being done to the culture of those villages now under Carnehan's and Dravot's rule. Imperialism and its consequences are major themes of The Man Who Would Be King as this story was written by Kipling at the height of British Empire. Imperialism and national allegiance were a major part of his life and they reappeared in many of his works.


Edward Said

Issues of imperialism and colonialism are further analyzed by Edward Said (Edward Said Engl242) in his book Culture and Imperialism. Like Kipling, Said focuses primarily on British and French imperialism - detailing the negative effects and intense egocentric nationalism that inspires it. Said himself has a similar background to Kipling. Both grew up with conflicted identities - Said growing up Christian in a Muslim Palestine, and by Kipling being British in India. This commonality gives the two authors shared elements in their writings. Said writes in Culture and Imperialism about outcasts and misfits, those who do not fit into social, ethnic or otherwise traditional groupings, a feeling both authors were acquainted with. The misfits of Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King are Carnehan and Dravot. Throughout the story, the two men are attempting to rise out of that category and become something greater in their eyes, and that - during times when imperialism was commonplace - meant becoming kings in their own right.

"Modern" Keyword

In the "Modern" keyword by Chandon Reddy, he writes on the word modern and the concept of modernity and how it has impacted the world by encouraging expansionism and imperialism. These are the same topics that Kipling critiques using fiction. His story has Carnehan and Dravot engaging in imperialism, which was a modern construct during the 19th century. In the text Dravot and his companion deliberate handing over their empire to the Queen of England and they predict they will be honored for their conquest. This shows that in their modernity, imperialism was highly regarded, particularly on the part of the British, and this sentiment encouraged others to partake in imperialism as well, while disregarding the effect it had on native populations.

Lisa Lowe

In "The Intimacies of Four Continents" Lowe discusses the types of intimacy between individuals, nations and cultures, referring to both spacial proximity and to the distinction between the public and private spheres. Carnehan and Dravot experience various forms of intimacy during their adventure. Initially, they experience the relationship between rich and poor with a view from the bottom as loafers. They later develop a level of intimacy with cultures that had never before had contact with white Europeans or outsiders as conquerors on their way to becoming the Kings of Kafiristan. This allowed them to see the world around them from yet another perspective - that of ruler. Like in Lowe's writings, the men are also able to see the racialized division of labor in their empire - with the two whites perceived to be gods whereas the natives were the workers or soldiers. Carnehan and Dravot themselves perpetuated the division and only began to perceive the natives as more than objects once they noticed they looked and acted English. This behavior is consistent with Lowe's analysis that placed the British as viewing the African slave and Chinese Coolie as below that of those of European descent.

Adaptions of The Man Who Would Be King

File:Man who would be king 2.jpg
The movie was released in 1975, starring Sean Connery(Dravot), Michael Caine(Carnehan), Rudyard Kipling(Christopher Plummer)
  • 1947 - The Man Who Would Be King was adapted as a radio program featured on the station Escape.
  • 1975 - John Huston directed The Man Who Would Be King feature film starring Sean Connery as Dravot, Michael Caine as Carnehan and Christopher Plummer as Kipling. To view a clip of the movie courtesy of youtube: View the movie

External Links

Rudyard Kipling at Encyclopedia Britannica

Project Gutenberg

Brief history of the British India

Biography and Works