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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240

One of Kipling’s most Joseph Conrad-like stories is one of his earliest pieces, “The Man Who Would Be King,” which Henry James called an “extraordinary tale” and which many critics have suggested is a typical Kipling social parable about British imperialism in India. One critic, Walter Allen, calls it a...

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One of Kipling’s most Joseph Conrad-like stories is one of his earliest pieces, “The Man Who Would Be King,” which Henry James called an “extraordinary tale” and which many critics have suggested is a typical Kipling social parable about British imperialism in India. One critic, Walter Allen, calls it a “great and heroic story,” but he says that Kipling evades the metaphysical issues implicit in the story. Although “The Man Who Would Be King” does not contain the philosophic generalizations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, serial; 1902, book), and is perhaps not as subtle a piece of symbolist fiction, it is nonetheless a coherent piece of fabular fiction carefully constructed and thematically significant.

The secret of the story is its tone; indeed, tone and style are everything in the work. The story focuses primarily on the crucial difference between a tale told by a narrator who merely reports a story and a narrator who has lived the story he tells. The first-person, primary narrator is a journalist whose job it is to report the doings of “real kings,” whereas Peachey Carnehan, the inner narrator, has as his task the reporting of the events of a “pretend king.” The primary narrator (Kipling) tells the story of Peachey and Daniel Davrot, which, although it is fiction, is presented as if it were reality. The secondary narrator (Peachey) tells a story of Peachey and Davrot in which the two characters project themselves out of the “as-if” real world of the story into the purely projected and fictional world of their adventure.

The tone of the tale reflects the journalist-narrator’s bemused attitude toward the pair of unlikely heroes and his incredulity about their “idiotic adventure.” “The beginning of everything,” he says, is his meeting with Peachey in a railway train, where he learns that the two are posing as correspondents for the newspaper for which the narrator is indeed a real correspondent. Role-playing is an important motif in the story, for indeed Peachey and Davrot are always playing roles; they are essentially vagabonds and loafers with no real identity of their own. After the narrator returns to his office and becomes “respectable,” Peachey and Davrot interrupt this respectability to tell him of their fantastic plan and to try to obtain from him a factual framework for the country where they hope to become kings. “We have come to you to know about this country, to read a book about it, and to be shown maps,” says Carnehan. “We want you to tell us that we are fools and to show us your books.” The mythic proportions of the two men—or rather their storybook proportions, for “mythic” is too serious a word here for the grotesque adventurers—are indicated by the narrator’s amused awareness that Davrot’s red beard seems to fill half the room and Carnehan’s huge shoulders the other half.

The actual adventure begins with additional role-playing as Davrot pretends to be a mad priest (an ironic image that he indeed is to fulfill later) marching forward with whirligigs (playful crosses) to sell as charms to the savages. The narrator again becomes “respectable” and turns his attention to the obituaries of real kings in Europe until three years later, when Peachey returns, a “whining cripple,” to confront the narrator with his story that he and Davrot have been crowned kings in Kafiristan, exclaiming, “you’ve been sitting here ever since—oh, Lord!” Peachey’s inserted story thus stands in contrast to the pedestrian story of the narrator’s situation and is contrasted with it by its fantastic, storylike nature in which Peachey and Davrot have indeed set themselves up as fictional kings in a real country.

The storylike nature of the adventure is indicated first of all by Peachey’s frequent confusing of himself with Davrot and by his frequent reference to himself in the third person:There was a party called Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan that was with Davrot. Shall I tell you about him? He died out there in the cold. Slap from the bridge fell old Peachey, turning and twisting in the air like a penny whirligig.

Moreover, Peachey and Davrot often speak to the people Davrot calls the “lost tribe” in biblical language. The purpose of these biblical allusions is to give Peachey’s tale an authoritative story framework, indeed the most basic and dignified story framework in Western culture. Davrot becomes king by moving from fighting to craft via Masonic ritual, a ritual that reaffirms Davrot’s superior position and controls his followers. Since Davrot has projected himself into the role of god as king, however, and thus assumes a position in the kingdom as the fulfillment of prophecy and legend, he is bound to this particular role. It is only when he wishes to escape the preestablished role and marry a native girl that his world falls apart. When he is bitten by his frightened intended bride, the cry of the people, “Neither God nor Devil, but a man,” breaks the spell and propels Davrot and Peachey back into reality again.

The fact that Peachey and Davrot are really double figures is indicated not only by Peachey’s reference to himself as suffering Davrot’s fate but also by the fact that, if Davrot is the ambiguous god-man, then it is Peachey who must be crucified. Kipling finds it necessary of course to make this split, for the god-man must not only die but also be resurrected. Peachey is the resurrected figure who brings the head of Davrot, still with its crown, back to tell the tale to the narrator. Peachey’s final madness and death, and the mysterious disappearance of the crowned head, are the ironic fulfillment of a final escape from external reality.

It seems clear from the seriocomic tone and the parodic use of biblical story and language that what Kipling is attempting in “The Man Who Would be King” is a burlesque version of a basic dichotomy in the nature of story itself. The narrator, who deals with real events in the world, tells a story of someone, who in turn tells a story of fantastic events in which the real world is transformed into the fabular nature of story. Davrot and Peachey project themselves into a purely story-world, but once they are accepted there, they cannot break the code of the roles that they have assumed. When they do make such an effort, the story they have created, and thus the roles they have played, become apparent as fictional roles only and crumble like a pack of cards. The man who would be a king can be a king only in the pretend world of story itself, and then only as long as story-world or story-reality is maintained. A story character cannot be human, for when he or she attempts to become real—when the character begins to take his or her story status as true reality—the story ends. It is little wonder that “The Man Who Would be King” has such a comic tone, for truly what Kipling is playing with here is not the nature of empires but the nature of story. If one wishes to read this tale as a parable of the tenuous and fictionally imposed nature of British imperialism, then such a reading is possible, but only because the story is primarily about the essentially tenuous nature of the fable world itself.

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