Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2009

The Man Who Would be King, and other stories by Rudyard Kipling

The Man Who Would Be KingHave I read Kipling before?  I’m sure I did as a child.  Perhaps The Jungle Book, or Puck of Pook’s Hill or the Just-So Stories.  Maybe someone read them to me when I had my eye operation in 1959 and wasn’t allowed to read for six months. (What purgatory!)

My mother could recite If (1895) by heart, and quoted it often to her three daughters.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

Kipling in his study 1895

Kipling in his study 1895

Anyway, what I remember of Kipling is Mowgli and the exotic settings in India, and the tragic story of his only son John being killed in the trenches on his first day – after his father had wangled a commission for him despite John’s poor eyesight.   The great writer so closely associated with British imperialism was never the same after that.

The Man Who Would Be King is nowadays a term signifying grandiose ambition, but it comes from this short story of an ordinary man over-reaching himself.  Daniel Dravot is an opportunistic rogue who slips away from the British Raj into the wilds of Afghanistan with his mate Peachey Carnehan.  There they set in place their absurd ambition to be kings and with guile and cunning convince the tribesmen of Kafiristan that they are gods.  The ruse succeeds until Dravot goes too far, and the girl he demands for his pleasure sees through him, not unlike the child who denounces the Emperor who has no clothes. When, in fear of a being she believes to be a god, she bites Dravot and draws blood the game is up.  He dies a gruesome death when the Kafirs cut the ropes of a rope bridge on which he is standing, while Peachey is crucified.  When he is still alive after twenty-four hours, the natives think it is a miracle, and set him free.  When he meets up again with the world-weary narrator he is carrying in his bag Dravot’s shrivelled head, complete with crown. He has lost his wits, able only to give a garbled account of events before wandering away, dying shortly thereafter from sunstroke. 

The real villain of the story, it seems to me, is the weather which drives men mad.  Kipling recreates the misery of the monsoon and its enervating heat as only the yet-to-be-acclimatised can:

It was a pitchy black night, as stifling as a June night can be, and the loo, the red-hot wind from the westward, was booming among the tinder-dry trees and pretending the rain was on its heels.  Now and again a spot of almost boiling water would fall on the dust with the flop of a frog, but all our weary world knew that was only pretence. (p120, Wordwoth Classics Edition, 1994)

I wasn’t planning to read the rest of the stories because the TBR was overwhelming everything else on the bedside table (that’s the bedside TBR, a pale imitation of the real TBR in the Library which now stetches to seven shelves) – but the title of Baa Baa Black Sheep in a collection of stories for adults piqued my interest.  It’s the story of ‘Punch’ and Judy, sent from the warm embrace of Mumma and the Ayah to cold and cheerless England and the not-so-loving care of Aunty Rosa and her hideously unforgiving religion.  While Uncle Harry is alive there is some solace, but once he is gone there is only endless spite and cruelty.  Rosa’s boy Harry bullies Punch mercilessly, carries tales home from school, incites other boys to beat him and manufactures lies for which Punch gets the blame.  The punishments are so extreme that the boy partially loses his sight, a condition exacerbated by reading to escape his misery.

The story is told from the boy’s point of view, charting his blithe optimism and descent into pessimistic misery.  Mumma eventually returns from Bombay and there is restitution and recovery, but the damage is done:

For when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge. (p115) 

Prescient words in 1888 when very little was known about the effects of abuse on young minds.


Shirley Temple in a 1937 adaptation!

Shirley Temple in a 1937 adaptation!

Wee Willie Winkie was another title that intrigued me.  It’s also told through the eyes of a child but from a very different perspective.  It’s about a kind of heroic child beloved by didacts of imperial persuasion in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The child nicknamed Wee Willie Winkie is the precocious son of the Colonel in charge of the 195th Regiment – and he’s been brought up with military discipline.  When he’s naughty his ‘good conduct badge’ is removed and on the occasion of his accidental firing of a week’s hayfeed, the punishment is extended to include being confined to barracks (the house and verandah).

But when the little fellow sees Miss Allardyce, the beloved of his hero Coppy the subaltern.  She is riding off (for reasons not explained) across the river and out of the safety of the cantonment, he breaks his ‘arrest’ to rescue her and bring her back – for he knows there are Bad Goblins there.  He is too little to know that the Goblins he’s been warned about are lawless Pashtun Afghans, but he knows she is in peril.  When he catches up with her, she has sprained her ankle, and so he sets his pony off with a smack on its rump because he knows it will go home and the alarm will be raised.  And then the Pashtun arrive, with plans for kidnap and ransom (and worse, perhaps, unspoken).

The scene that follows betrays Kipling’s imperial arrogance at its worst, and is barely credible.  The little boy, accustomed to ordering natives about, demands that they stop frightening the Miss Sahib and ride for help.  He does this capably because despite his childhood lisp he is fluent in three languages.  Instead of thrashing him and abducting her, they recognise that the boy (born to rule?) is precious to the regiment back in the cantonment and that there will be reprisals from the mighty British Raj if they harm him.  To complete their humiliation, the rescue party arrives in the nick of time and the Pashtun flee.

Now a ‘pukka hero’ Wee Willie Winkie rejects his nickname, and is henceforth known as Percival William Williams, thereby designating his manhood and his status as an ‘officer and a gentleman’….

It’s a good thing I didn’t read this one first, or I might not have bothered with the others.


  1. Kipling was at times outrageous – at least to the modern ear. For example

    But he also left some remarkable poems and stories – perhaps we must be slightly forgiving from the perspective of history.


    • I agree, Tom. It’s easy to criticise any of the old imperialists, and I imagine that if one came from places that were subject to Britain it might be very difficult not to feel bitter, but Kipling was a man of his time. No doubt the future will look back on our time, and take us to task!


  2. […] (I read a similar short story to this in which a British boy singlehandedly quells a riot, in the collection titled The Man Who Would Be King, and no, it’s not […]


  3. […] the search results in the image library in my WordPress account—that takes me to the short story The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling.  Yes, that’s ironic indeed.  Kipling was The Great Imperialist, widely admired as a writer […]


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