The Man Who Would Be King
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"The Man Who Would Be King" (1888) is a short story by Rudyard Kipling concerning two British ex-soldiers who set off from 19th century British India in search of adventure and end up as kings of Kafiristan (now part of Afghanistan). The story was inspired by the travels of American adventurer Josiah Harlan.
The story was first published in The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (Volume Five of the Indian Railway Library, published by Wheelers of Allahabad in 1888). It also appeared in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories in 1895, and in numerous later editions of that collection.
In 1975, it was adapted into a feature film by director John Huston, starring Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot, Michael Caine as Peachey Carnehan, and Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling (giving a name to the story's anonymous narrator). The doomed Billy Fish is played by Saeed Jaffrey.
The narrator of the story, an unnamed journalist, meets two scruffy adventurers, ex-soldiers Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who announce that they are off to Kafiristan, in the Afghan mountains, to set themselves up as kings.
Two years later, on a hot summer night, Carnehan creeps into the journalist's office a broken man: a crippled beggar clad in rags. For the rest of the evening, he tells an amazing story. Dravot and Carnehan succeeded in making themselves kings, persuading the natives that Dravot was a god (the son of Alexander the Great), mustering an army, taking over villages, and dreaming of building a unified nation.
Their schemes were dashed when Dravot tried to take a native girl for his wife. Terrified of marrying a god, she resisted, biting him so he bled. At this point, he was seen to be "Not a God nor a Devil, but only a man!" Led by the priesthood, the people turned against their would-be rulers, pursuing them to a gorge. Driving their quarry to ground, they forced Dravot, wearing his crown, to walk a rope bridge and sent him to his death by cutting down the long rope bridge with the bottom far below, and then crucified Carnehan between two pine trees.
Seeing that Carnehan survived a day with wooden pegs driven through his hands and feet, the people concluded it was a miracle and released him. As proof of the veracity of his tale, Carnehan shows the journalist Dravot's head, still wearing his golden crown. He had climbed down that deep bottom and got the head and crown of his friend. He hobbles away in the morning. When the journalist searches for him two days later, he finds that Carnehan has died of exposure to the blistering mid-day sun. No belongings are found with him.
- J.M. Barrie described the story as "the most audacious thing in fiction".
- The explorer Robertson, whom Billy Fish reports as having died, was in real life rescued by a British military force in 1895, after Kipling wrote his story.
- The movie was faithful to the original story until the very end, when it has Carnehan wandering away leaving Dravot's head on Kipling's desk.
- "The Man Who Would Be King" also shares its name with a 2004 song written by Peter Doherty and Carl Barat of The Libertines for their self-titled second album. The songwriters are known fans of Kipling and his work.
- Full text at Project Gutenberg