The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King
"The Man Who Would Be King"
Author Rudyard Kipling
Country United Kingdom, India
Language English
Genre(s) Adventure
Published in The Phantom 'Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales
Publication type Anthology
Publisher A H Wheeler & Co of Allahabad
Publication date 1888

For the 1975 film based on this story, see The Man Who Would Be King (film)

"The Man Who Would Be King" (1888) is a short story by Rudyard Kipling. It is about two British adventurers in British India who become kings of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. The story was inspired by the exploits of James Brooke, an Englishman who became the first White Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo; and by the travels of American adventurer Josiah Harlan, who was granted the title Prince of Ghor in perpetuity for himself and his descendants. It incorporates a number of other factual elements such as the European-like appearance of many Nuristani people, and an ending modelled on the return of the head of the explorer Adolf Schlagintweit to colonial administrators.[1]

The story was first published in The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (Volume Five of the Indian Railway Library, published by A H Wheeler & Co of Allahabad in 1888). It also appeared in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories in 1895, and in numerous later editions of that collection.

A radio adaption was broadcast on the show Escape on July 7, 1947 and again August 1, 1948. In 1975, it was adapted by director John Huston into a feature film of the same name, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the heroes and Christopher Plummer as Kipling.


Plot summary

The narrator of the story is a British journalist in India–Kipling himself, in all but name. While on a tour of some Indian native states he meets two scruffy adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan. He rather likes them, but then stops them from blackmailing a minor rajah. A few months later they appear at his office in Lahore. They tell him their plan. They have been "Soldier, sailor, compositor [typesetter], photographer... [railroad] engine-drivers, petty contractors," and more, and have decided India is not big enough for them. The next day they will go off to Kafiristan to set themselves up as kings. Dravot can pass as a native, and they have twenty Martini-Henry rifles (then perhaps the best in the world). They plan to find a king or chief, help him defeat his enemies then take over for themselves. They ask the narrator for the use of any books or maps of the area–as a favor, because they are fellow Freemasons, and because he spoiled their blackmail scheme.

Two years later, on a scorching hot summer night, Carnehan creeps into the narrator's office. He is a broken man, a crippled beggar clad in rags and he tells an amazing story. Dravot and Carnehan succeeded in becoming kings: finding the Kafirs, who turn out to be white ("so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends"), mustering an army, taking over villages, and dreaming of building a unified nation. The Kafirs, who were pagans, not Moslems, acclaimed Dravot as a god (the son of Alexander the Great). The Kafirs practiced a form of Masonic ritual and the adventurers knew Masonic secrets that only the oldest priest remembered.

Their schemes were dashed when Dravot decided to marry a Kafir girl. Terrified at marrying a god, the girl bit Dravot when he tried to kiss her. Seeing him bleed, the priests cried that he was "Neither God nor Devil but a man!" Most of the Kafirs turned against Dravot and Carnehan. One chief (whom they have nicknamed "Billy Fish") and a few of his men remained loyal, but the army defected and the two kings were captured.

Dravot, wearing his crown, stood on a rope bridge over a gorge while the Kafirs cut the ropes and fell to his death. Carnehan was crucified between two pine trees. When he survived for a day, the Kafirs considered it a miracle and let him go. He begged his way back to India.

As proof of his tale, Carnehan shows the narrator Dravot's head, still wearing the golden crown. Carnehan leaves. The next day the narrator sees him crawling along the road in the noon sun, with his hat off and gone mad. The narrator sends him to the local asylum. When he inquires two days later, he learns that Carnehan has died of sunstroke ("half an hour bare-headed in the sun at mid-day..."). No belongings were found with him.[2]


J. M. Barrie described the story as "the most audacious thing in fiction". Additional critical responses are collected in Bloom's Rudyard Kipling.[3]

In popular culture

  • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Storyteller" was based on the short story, according to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion.
  • "The Man Who Would Be King" is the name of a 2004 song written by Peter Doherty and Carl Barât of The Libertines for their self-titled second album. The songwriters are known fans of Kipling and his work. It is a reflection on the story, as two friends who seem to be at the top, drift away from each other and begin to despise each other, mirroring the former bandmates' turbulent relationship and eventual splitting of the band shortly after the album's release.
  • In H. G. Wells' The Sleeper Awakes, the Sleeper identifies a cylinder ("a modern substitute for books") with "The Man Who Would Be King" written on the side in mutilated English as "oi Man huwdbi Kin". The Sleeper recalls the story as "one of the best stories in the world."[4]
  • The two main characters appear in the graphic novel Scarlet Traces.
  • The Man Who Would Be King was adapted into a movie released in 1975, starring Sean Connery as Dravot and Michael Caine as Carnehan with Christopher Plummer as Kipling.
  • Overtones of the 1975 film are present in the 1999 picture Three Kings (1999 film), especially paralleled in the ending (the once-greedy Americans turn philantopist at the end, similar to Sean Connery's Dravot)[original research?]
  • The title of the 2003 popular science book by J. Michael Bailey, The Man Who Would Be Queen, is a play on Kipling's title.
  • Daniel Dravot appears in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series as a functionary of the secret Diogenes Club.
  • "The Man Who Would be King" is the name of a song by Dio on the album Master of the Moon
  • In the video game Civilization V, the achievement for completing the game on any difficulty with Alexander the Great is named "The Man Who Would Be King."
  • The 2000 DreamWorks movie The Road to El Dorado is loosely based on the story.
  • The 20th episode of Supernatural season 6 is titled "The Man Who Would Be King".
  • The 9th track on Iron Maiden's fifteenth studio album, The Final Frontier, is entitled "The Man Who Would Be King".


  1. ^ Tajikistan & The High Pamirs: A Companion and Guide, Robert Middleton & Huw Thomas, Odyssey, 2008, ISBN 962-217-773-5
  2. ^ "Plot Summary of "The Man Who Would Be King" in Harold Bloom, ed. Rudyard Kipling, Chelsea House, 2004. pp. 18–22.
  3. ^ Bloom, Harold, ed. Rudyard Kipling Chelsea House, 2004.
  4. ^ Wells, H. G. "The Sleeper Awakes". Ed. Patrick Parringer. England: Penguin Classics, 2005. p 56.

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