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...
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