Rudyard Kipling’s “The man who would be king”

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and other stories by Rudyard Kipling

After our reading group read Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s best and best-known novel, we turned to Kipling’s best and best-known short story, “The Man Who Would Be King.”  

John Huston made a good movie of the story in 1975; it’s unusual for an excellent work of written fiction to be made into an excellent movie.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is the story of two adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnahan, both ex-soldiers of the British Indian Army, and how they reached the inaccessible land of Kafiristan (“land of the heathen”) and established themselves as rulers, only to have everything go horribly wrong.

Dravot and Carnahan sign a “contract” to stick together, refrain from indulgence in alcohol or women and “behave with dignity and discretion.”

They establish their power by demonstrating firearms, whose power to kill at a distance seems like magic, and by their ability to drill troops, which makes them a force that can defeat mere mobs of individual fighters.  

The two men are Freemasons, and the local priests decide they are gods because symbols on their Masonic paraphernalia correspond to ancient sacred symbols known only to the priests.

Everything is fine until Dravot decides to take a wife and establish a dynasty.  The people are horrified because they believe a woman who mates with a god will die.  Dravot chooses a beautiful but unwilling woman.  She bites him, and his bleeding shows that he is a man, not a god.

The story shows Kipling’s gifts as a descriptive writer, an observer of human nature and a storyteller, but it also echoes basic themes of literature.  It is a classic story of hubris being clobbered by nemesis.

It is a classic story of the downfall of a ruler who allowed himself to become a tyrant.  So long as Dravot ruled justly, he was all right.  It was the act of tyranny, taking a woman against her will, that led to his downfall.

It is an echo of Genesis, and of myths and legends, of how people are granted everything they could want, provided they observe one simple rule, and how they fail to keep the rule.  In “The Man Who Could Be King,” the simple rule is the contract—the promises to avoid women, and to behave with discretion.

Kipling’s story is said to have been inspired by the exploits of an American adventurer, Josiah Harlan, who in 1839 marched an army into Hazarajat, in the center of Afghanistan, and proclaimed himself the sovereign Prince of Ghor.  

Like Kipling’s characters, he fancied himself a successor to Alexander the Great.  His reign was short-lived; a year later, a British army invaded Afghanistan and replaced his rule.

There also was Sir James Brooke, the white rajah of Sarawak, who established a family dynasty that ruled the northwest coast of Borneo from 1841 to 1946.  But Brooke was granted his authority by the Sultan of Brunei and Harlan also was acting as agent of Dost Mohammed, then ruler of Afghanistan.  Their stories were not Kipling’s story.


In order to read “The Man Who Would Be King,” I bought a collection of Kipling stories.  I read the other stories, too, and mostly enjoyed them. 

They include two famous stories I’d heard of before.  One is “The Phantom Rickshaw.”  A man has a love affair with a married woman in the resort town of Simla, breaks it off and finds the woman is obsessively in love with him and unwilling to face facts.  If he were a 21st century female, one would say he was the victim of stalking.  Kipling well portrays his sense of frustration and guilt.

The woman dies, but the man sees her ghost following him, in a rickshaw that nobody can see but him.  The only person he trusts enough to hear his story is his doctor, who tells him he is imaging.  The story can be read either way, as a ghost story or as the story of a guilt-induced hallucination.  Eventually, he has a breakdown and tells all; his fiancé breaks off their engagement, his reputation is ruined and he eventually dies.

Other stories—”A Wayside Comedy,” “The Hill of Illusion” and “At the Pit’s Mouth”—also are about the pitfalls of adultery among the British governing classes.  “The Education of Otis Yeere” is about how a sophisticated woman, for her own amusement, takes a devoted, but naive, civil servant in hand and shows him the way to promotion.

The other famous story in the collection is “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” which is about the torments of a six-year-old boy who is sent home to Britain from India to live with a cruel aunt, who treats him as incorrigibly bad and in the process makes him hardened, cynical and dishonest.  

His parents rescue him four years later and their kindness and love pull him back from the brink of sociopathy, but they do not fully understand what happened to him nor do they fully erase the effects of his mistreatment.  It is a convincing account of how small children think.

Kipling himself was taken from India at the age of six to live with abusive foster parents who probably were models for the characters in the story.

Two stories—”With the Main Guard” and “Black Jack”—are about his famous soldiers three, Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd.  

These are the only stories in which the language of the characters is presented in phonetic spelling.  Victorian authors often did this to distinguish between the incorrect language of the uneducated lower class and the King’s English of the educated middle class and upper class.

I find this irritating, but I don’t think King intended ridicule.  I think he was showing off his ability as a linguist to accurately depict Mulvaney’s Irish accent, Ortheris’s Cockney accent and Learoyd’s Yorkshire accent.  

“With the Main Guard” is the only story in the collection I disliked.  In it, Mulvaney and Ortheris cheer up a depressed Learoyd by reminiscing about a battle they’ve been in.  They recall killing and being killed in the same language someone might recall a hard-fought high school football game.  

There is a comic sidelight.  A sergeant forcibly prevents an inexperienced teenage officer from going into a battle in which he is sure to get killed, much to the boy’s frustration and humiliation.

I realize there is such a thing as love of battle.  It can be a feeling one has met the supreme test of manhood.  Or an intensity of feeling and bonding that ordinary life does not provide.  And also, blood lust is a thing.  

All these things are believable, although I’ve never experienced them myself (nor did Kipling). What I can’t imagine is the all-in-a-day’s work attitude of Kipling’s soldiers three.   

“Black Jack” is Mulvaney’s reminiscence about an incident when he was a corporal.  His barrack-mates planned to kill an abusive sergeant with Mulvaney’s rifle and frame him for it, but he outwitted them.  

I give Kipling credit for his sympathy with the British common soldier.   In “Only a Subaltern,” he also honored the devotion to duty of the officer class.

Some stories are about natives of India.  In “Gemini,” a Hindu moneylender complains about being cheated by his crooked brother.  In “Dray Wara You Dee,” a Muslim tells of his life’s mission to hunt down and kill the man who seduced his wife.  In “The Judgment of Dungara,” a shaman tricks and thwarts a Christian missionary.  In “At Flood Time,” an ardent Muslim lover swims a river at flood level to be with his forbidden Hindu sweetheart.

“The Strange Ride of Marrowbee Jukes” tells of an Englishman who falls into a pit where Hindus are consigned after having been pronounced dead, but awaken before they are thrown on their funeral pyres.  This story and the title story are the only ones in the collection whose plots I didn’t find believable.

“At Twenty Two” was one of my favorites in the collection.  In it, a gang of Hindu coal miners is trapped when the mine floods. One of their number, who is old and blind, but experienced and wise, leads them safety by finding a thin place in the wall between the flooded gallery and a safe gallery.  The irony is that one of the lives he saves is a younger man who later runs off with his young wife.

One of the things I like about this story is how Kiplling into the narrative.  Also, I like his respect for the work of the miners, and also of the mining engineers who supervise their work.

Another story I liked was “On the City Wall.”  The British narrator of the story is infatuated with a beautiful and accomplished prostitute named Lalun.  So is a young Shiite Muslim man named Wali Dad, who is alienated from his religion because of his British education.  Like Rahab in the Book of Joshua, her home is embedded in a city wall.

Hindu-Muslim violence breaks out in the annual festival of Hassan and Hussein, and Wali Dad gets caught up in the frenzy.  Lalun prevails on the narrator to escort an elderly man safely to the city gate.  He learns afterwards that the man is Khem Singh, a former rebel, who was supposed to be under military surveillance.

Kipling stated his political philosophy in a few paragraphs in that story and in the Otis Veere story.  It is that India is held together by the devotion of the Indian Civil Service, whose members work themselves to death in the false hope that India may some day be freed from sickness, famine and war and its people can stand alone as a free nation.

This could never happen, Kipling wrote, but meanwhile ungrateful Indians do all they can to make the lives of the civil servants miserable.   Fortunately security services are alert to prevent any “dreamers of dreams” from going beyond passive-aggressive resistance.

Kipling once wrote a poem about the man who had two sides of his head.  He himself was that man.  With one side, he identified with tough, brutal men of action.  With the other, he was fascinated by the life of India and its varied peoples.

Is this composite picture of India in these stories a true one?  I think the questions are more: How true are these stories?  What do they include and what do they leave out?

With only a couple of exceptions, the characters are believable and the stories are believable.  I’m sure their counterparts existed in real life.  But there were things outside his frame of reference.  He did not understand or sympathize with people like Gandhi and Nehru.  He could not have imagined the India and Pakistan of today.

Correction: In my original post, I wrote that Mulvaney was a sergeant, but all of the “soldiers three” were privates.

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3 Responses to “Rudyard Kipling’s “The man who would be king””

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I keep saying that one cannot judge a person by any other standards than those they grew up with. Anything else is pure self serving, self delusion, thinking, “Well, I wouldn’t have done so.”

    In reality, we might have done far worse. Kipling was a good man.


  2. williambearcat Says:

    Thanks for the stories. The universality of human behavior over 5000+ years is confirmed by the stories we tell.


  3. Nikolai Vladivostok Says:

    Another aspect of The Man Who Would Be King is that the Englishmen thought they could lead and civilize the Afghan tribe because they looked white. In the end their differences were insurmountable. An almost perfect, and perfectly ignored, parable for several Afghan occupations. The characters’ sticky end was reminiscent of the recent withdrawal from Kabul.
    I know Kipling says things in support of colonialism but when I read his work, I sense a deep cynicism about British rule. I may be projecting.
    I loved the stories from Simla. I lived in India for a few months and found that the old, English world has been swept away, leaving only some crumbling, Victorian buildings, cardigans and ghastly bureaucracy. His writing lets us peek into that strange world from across the years.

    Liked by 1 person

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