The Man Who Would Be King
is a novella written by Rudyard Kipling in 1888. Kipling is best known for writing on the subject of British colonialism. Some of his most recognizable works are The Jungle Book
(1901) and The White Man’s Burden
(1899). Kipling’s reputation and scholarly discussions of his works have long shifted with the political climate, though largely his work has remained popular into the twenty-first century.
The novella is narrated by an unnamed English newspaper editor living in India. The story opens with the editor reflecting on all the sorts of people his line of work has brought him into contact with, but he is telling a very particular story of his happening to meet a man (or men) that would make himself into a king. The memory starts with the editor traveling on business and having a conversation with a stranger in the Intermediate train compartments. The man is a “Loafer,” a vagabond of sorts who makes a living out of different adventures, sometimes posing as a newspaper correspondent. The man begs the narrator to assist him in passing along a cryptic message to a friend, telling him to find a red-bearded man in the train station and to tell him “he has gone South.” The narrator does this, but also tips off the local authorities that there are men posing as correspondents and the two men are captured.
The editor goes on to explain the seasons in India, especially the summer which is oppressively hot and often leads to sickness. It is during this brutal season that the two men turn up in the newspaper office and declare their intention to make themselves Kings of Kafiristan, a part of Afghanistan. The first man the narrator met is named Peachey Carnehan, and his red-bearded compatriot is Daniel Dravot. They show the narrator a “contrack” (contract) they have drawn up regarding their intentions to make themselves kings, in which they promise each other to avoid alcohol and women until their business is complete. The narrator sends them off with a map and some entries from the Encyclopaedia Britannica believing that they will be killed on this adventure.
The following summer Peachey again turns up in the newspaper office in the middle of the night, but this time he is wretched and alone. The narrator convinces him to tell what happened after he and Daniel left India. Though Peachey is teetering on the verge of madness, he manages the tale. They had barely managed the journey into Kafiristan, and ended up killing and eating first their camels and second their mules. In the mountainous region they came across warring villages and used their guns in order to aid the smaller number of tribesmen to victory. They declared themselves gods and through a bit of luck and cunning on Dravot’s part, found out the secret mark of the gods and used it to convince the people. They trained the men to use guns and created an Army, moving from village to village and doing much of the same. Dravot acted the part of King and concocted many of their plans and it was generally up to Peachey to use the army to execute them. They both began wearing crowns of gold (though Peachey remarks that his was both two small and too heavy).
As winter in the mountains drew near Dravot’s aspirations increased. He believed the people he had conquered were really just like the English in many ways and decided that he would build an Empire to present to Queen Victoria. His confidence in his own rule was so complete that Dravot insisted it was time for him to take a wife. Peachey reminds Dravot of the contract, but he will not reconsider. The priests of the village attempt to talk Dravot out of the plan, but he will not yield. Despite the fact the girl being readied believes she must die in order to marry a god, Dravot insists that she will marry him. On the day of the wedding, the presented bride bites Dravot and draws blood. It is clear they are not gods and the army advances to capture them. A native they call Billy Fish attempts to help them escape, but he is killed. Dravot comes to his senses and offers himself back to the natives. They force him to walk out to the center of a rope bridge and cut the end, causing Dravot to fall to his death. Peachey is crucified, but survives and flees the country. He arrives back in India half mad and carrying one black sack amongst his rags. It is revealed that inside the sack is the decapitated head of Daniel Dravot, still wearing his golden crown. Peachey leaves the office, but the narrator finds him crawling in the blistering sun the following day and arranges to have him taken to an asylum. Peachey dies there, leaving behind no evidence of the head.