Short Story #20: The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

Title:  The Man Who Would Be King

Author:  Rudyard Kipling

Short Story #20 out of 365

Rating:  4 (out of 5 stars)

Date Read1/12/2014
SourceThe World's Greatest Short Stories, Dover Thrift Edition, edited by James Daley.  The story can also be found here on the Gutenberg Project.


Book cover: Worlds Greatest Short Stories - Dover Thrift EdThe narrator while travelling in parts of India encounters a vagabond whom he is convinced into doing a favor for that entails meeting another person and passing along a message.  After performing the act, the narrator returns to his work at a press office.  Eventually, the vagabond and his friend arrive at his door and ask him to see them off the next day, as the two plan to go and conquer Kafiristan to become kings.  The narrator agrees, sees them off the next day, and returns to work.  Two years later, a hovel of a man creeps into his office and it is one of the two men who set out to conquer the wild Kafiristan.  He relates a tale of how both men within a year had conquered Kafiristan through wit and weapons but then the friend tried to take it a step farther and marry a woman (the two had sworn off women and booze for this conquest) but there were concerns among the priests about this action.  When first meeting the wife the priests presented, the woman bites the would-be King (whom is supposed to also be a god).  It becomes clear that he is mortal and so both of the men are attacked by the priests and the army.  Eventually, they are captured and the king is killed.  Peachey (the man who survived) is merely crucified.  He survives this and is let go.  Over the next year, he makes his way back into India through begging.  Upon hearing the tale, the narrator offers help that Peachey halfheartedly accepts.  He dies shortly thereafter.


This was a wild and intriguing tale.  Kipling pulls in a lot of different dynamics from the politics of regions in India as well as the cultural differences among England, India, and other parts of southeast Asia (of course, all imbued with racism and ethnocentrism).  But in some ways, he also offers up a critique of Western approaches to non-Western cultures (again, made problematic by negative representations).  I also found the two vagabonds' attempt at being Machiavellian rather amusing as they slowly build alliances between villages and make demands upon their conquered peoples.

With this story finish, I have completed my first anthology of the year and will be moving on to others.  

For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.

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