The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

Melville House has, it seems, chosen Bartleby the Scrivener as a kind of flagship novella for their Art of the Novella series, and Frances is going to start off with that title. I’ve decided on another one for my own kickoff that I think works very well because it is both marvellous and positively chilling: Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.

The narrator of this novella is an English newspaperman in India, traveling to Mhow in an Intermediate compartment—not a very nice way to travel at all. There he encounters a fellow countryman, “a wanderer and a vagabond like myself, but with an educated taste for whiskey.”

He told tales of things he had seen and done, of out-of-the-way corners of the Empire into which he had penetrated, and of adventures in which he risked his life for a few days’ food. “If India was filled with men like you and me, not knowing more than the crows where they’d get their next day’s rations, it isn’t seventy millions of revenue the land would be paying—it’s seven hundred million,” said he; and as I looked at his mouth and chin I was disposed to agree with him.

This man will ask a favor of the narrator, a favor the narrator will be disposed to carry out for reasons that may appear mysterious to the reader. They find out through the use of passwords (and likely through other means mysterious to me as well) that they are both Masons, and thus the narrator is obliged to carry a message to the man’s friend, who will be passing through Marwar Junction in eight days: “He is gone South for the week.”

That might have been the last the narrator saw of either man. He decided to turn respectable, and warned the authorities that the two were on their way to blackmail and impersonate their way into a few rupees. The narrator settles down to the routine of daily newspaper publishing in an Indian city, described wonderfully by Kipling. And one night just as the Sunday edition has gone to press, the two men show up. They finally introduce themselves as Peachey Carnehan—the one the narrator met first on the train—and Daniel Dravot—the one to whom he carried the message. And they have a plan to share. Carnehan complains:

“The country isn’t half worked out because they that governs it won’t let you touch it. They spend all their blessed time in governing it, and you can’t lift a spade, nor chip a rock, nor look for oil, nor anything like that without all the Government saying—‘Leave it alone and let us govern.’ Therefore, such as it is, we will let it alone, and go away to some other place where a man isn’t crowded and can come to his own. We are not little men, and there is nothing that we are afraid of except Drink, and we have signed a Contrack on that. Therefore, we are going away to be Kings.”

The narrator thinks they are mad, and perhaps they are, but go away to be kings they do. They are there to beg maps and books of him, so they can find their way to Kafiristan, which they have determined to be the last available spot on earth for them to conquer. No Englishman has gone so far before, into mountains and among hostile tribes, but the plucky duo, with their Contrack to stay away from Drink and Women until such time as they are kings, manage it through strength, will, and ingenuity—and, of course, through the mercy and machinations of Kipling.

It’s Dravot who is really king, with his ultra-charismatic personality and willingness to subvert the ceremonies of Freemasonry. After Dravot and Carnehan help stop some of the internecine warfare, the villagers begin to follow them, and after they show they know the secret of the Masons, which the natives have kept over many centuries since the time of Alexander, they are worshipped as gods. But it’s very easy to overstep once you’re a god, and very easy to become exactly what you once despised. “I won’t make a Nation,” Dravot tells Carnehan, “I’ll make an Empire!” He insists that the people are “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.” But the two of them aren’t really up to administering an empire, and their partnership begins to break down. The deterioration continues when Dravot insists on taking a wife—clearly against their Contrack. The priests and villagers are against it this time as well, knowing that women who marry gods cannot live. When his bride bites him and draws blood, proving that he is nothing more than a man, the jig is up.

The narrator hears all this from the lips of Peachey himself, who has returned to India under the protection of Dravot’s ghost, half mad at best. The tale is fantastic and full of horror; the two have gone from the absolute top of the world quite literally to the bottom. And surely they’ve made an addition to the set of tales of vagabonds and loafers that will put the rest to shame, until the sun sets on the British Empire.

This is my first novella in the Art of Novella Challenge, hosted by Frances of Nonsuch Book and supported by Melville House. I’ll be reading more throughout the month of August, and if I’m awesome, I may reach the full complement of 22 in the series.

7 comments to The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

  • If anything, reading others posts today has me more excited about my reading August. I was thinking about this one soon. Never read it. And your description here including the words “marvelous” and “positively chilling” have hooked me.

  • Wow, a somewhat Conrad-esque selection from Kipling, it seems! Very intriguing, and that bit where the self-styled kings insist that their subjects are “English” (e.g., I’m assuming, human) is so striking.

    I also like your phrase “He decided to turn respectable.” Maybe someday I will decide to turn respectable. :-)

  • Frances—I had held off on reading other posts until I got this written up, but now the exact same thing is happening to me!

    Emily—Yes, totally Conrad-esque—a few weeks ago, on one of my Conrad posts I assume, Amateur Reader left some comment about the similarities along exactly these lines between Conrad, Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I had just finished reading this so I was like, yes, yes, yes! The racial aspect is quite striking and very interesting.

    I hope never to become respectable myself! And I can only take partial credit; that is a paraphrase from Kipling.

  • Also, I meant to note, if neither of you is familiar with the story, it’s quite a good film starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery as Carnehan and Dravot, respectively.

  • I’m excited to read this book, as I love John Houston’s film interpretation. It sounds like Kipling brings out the darker aspects of the protagonists’ madness; the film, if I recall correctly, is more comedic.

    It sounds like typical Kipling, he was so good at satirising that breed of Englishman that goes misty-eyed for Empire and country.

  • Anthony–Yes, exactly, re: bringing out the darker aspects. And I definitely need to read more Kipling based on that.

  • I just signed up to start reading this via recall the movie fairly well-after having recently been focusing on South Asian literature a lot I will be curious to see how Kipling, right or wrong the poster boy for all anti-colonial people to dislike,really is once I read him myself-I enjoyed your post a lot