The Man Who Would Be King

by Rudyard Kipling

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King” begins as the narrator, a newspaper correspondent on a business trip, complains about the budget deficit that forces him to travel in “Intermediate class.” In Intermediate, there are “no cushions,” and the population is composed entirely of people the narrator deems lower-class: they are either “Eurasian,” “native,” or “Loafer.” For a time, his train car is empty. Then, at Nasirabad, he is joined by one such loafer, a “huge gentleman in shirt-sleeves,” who regales him with tales of his adventures in India. They discuss postal arrangements, for the narrator’s companion wishes to send his fellow conspirator a message; he begs the narrator to carry it for him and appeals to him as a fellow Freemason. The narrator agrees, so his companion explains the importance o the message. He and his partner are pretending to be correspondents for the Backwoodsman, the same paper the narrator writes for. They intend to blackmail the king of a Native State for “hush money.” Even though the narrator attempts to dissuade him, he agrees to carry the message anyway. After eight days, he meets the loafer’s companion, a man with a “flaming red beard,” on the second-class car at Marwar Junction and passes on the message. Worried that their plot will go awry, the narrator reports, which results in the two men getting deported.

One evening, as the narrator awaits an important telegram to be printed in the morning paper, the two men he had reported appear at his doorstep. They introduce themselves as Peachey Carnahan, the loafer from the train, and Daniel Dravot, his red-haired compatriot; they explain that they have a new plan and ask for information on a region called Kafiristan, where they intend to become kings. Just as before, the pair cannot be dissuaded from their plan, and they even show the narrator a “Contrack” they have drawn up to ensure their success. This contract stipulates that neither man should “look at any liquor, nor any woman,” a seemingly comical clause that foreshadows the story’s end. The next day, he meets the pair—functionally disguised as a mad priest and his servant—and sees them off. Though he briefly hears of their hijinks as they journey to Kafiristan, the narrator hears no more of them for two years. On another late evening, as the narrator awaits yet another important telegram, a decrepit man appears in his office. He does not recognize him, so the man identifies himself as Carnehan. Though he is in terrible mental and physical condition, Carnehan demands the narrator look him in the eyes and tell him the story of his time in Kafiristan.

He and Dravot successfully become kings. In true English fashion, they became an imperial campaign of expansion and conquest, building an army, manufacturing arms, and taking over villages. They portray themselves as gods to the locals, who willingly accept and learn to love their new rulers. Dravot leads the effort, for his charisma and superior language skills endear him to the people, while Carnehan trains the army and organizes much of the empire’s mundane needs. After a few months, as winter forces Dravot to put a stop to his travels and the newly-built empire begins to stabilize, he decides he wants a wife. Despite the protests of Carnehan, who reminds him of their contract, and of Billy Fish, a native who warns the men that it is not proper for a god or a devil to marry a daughter of man. 

Dravot, as expected, heeds neither warning, and a girl is selected to be his bride. On...

(This entire section contains 763 words.)

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their wedding day, he asks for a kiss; instead, she bites him. Upon seeing him bleed, the natives realize that neither Dravot nor Carnehan is a god. Their credibility is destroyed and their nation is in uproar, so the men flee, accompanied by the loyal Billy Fish. They are hunted down and quickly captured, killing Dravot and crucifying Carnehan. When he does not die, his capturers think that he is more god than Dravot was, feed him, give him Dravot’s head, still wearing its crown, then set him loose to walk the long way home during the dead of winter. Miraculously, Carnehan survived the year-long journey and did not lose Dravot’s head, which he reveals to the narrator. Rejecting all offers of aid, Carnehan leaves, citing business elsewhere. The next day, the narrator sees him aimlessly wandering the streets, now completely mad, and drives him to the local Asylum, where he dies two days later.