The Man Who Would Be King
is a story about imperialism. Students of all levels will enjoy reading this story, some of whom will need more teacher guidance than others to understand it. The teacher will be a guide to the extent that he/she points out things which students did not see the first time, very much in the same manner as a local person may do as he gives an out-of-towner a tour of his city. Every student will need guidance through this story; not so much in the vocabulary, but in the ideas that are developed by the narrator.
Kipling in India as a young journalist provided him with the necessary background to write
The Man Who Would Be King
. This parable of the fall of an empire is told from the perspective of a journalist, using time in a masterful way, as only Kipling could. Kipling keeps the tale moving and, simultaneously, spins new tales within it.
The setting of the story is India. The narrator, Kipling, begins to spin his yarn. “Brother to a Prince and fellow to a beggar”, the narrator begins. Kipling uses this line as a lead into his story, relating to the reader that he has yet to be brother to a Prince, having already accomplished the other. He writes that he almost was brother to a Prince once. “I once came near to kinship with what might have been a veritable King”.
The reader is then transported backward in time. (Kipling does this quite often. He seems to ignore time. It is important to note these time switches with your students.) The narrator is on a train in India. Luck had not been kind to him at that time, during which he met another man of similar, or worse, circumstances. The narrator and he converse about many subjects. By the end of the train trip the second man persuaded the first to do him a favor. He was to pass a message on to a friend who was passing through the area. The friend was Daniel Dravot. Peachey Carnehan was the man the narrator was with on the train.
The story is then moved to two years later when the narrator “became respectable”. This is the beginning of part two of this short story. The narrator was now working in a newspaper office in India. His descriptions of the atmosphere, the climate and his thoughts are lucid and honest. They establish a mood. The narrator is not overjoyed by his existence in this part of India. He appears to be bored with it all.
A break in the routine of the day comes with the entrance of Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot into the newspaper office. The two men express their displeasure with the narrator over his alerting the border authorities of their impending arrival. This act was redeemed, however, by the journalist having kept his promise to pass the message along to Dravot. During this visit the two men reveal to the journalist that they re going to cross the frontier “to become kings”. They swore off women and drink, and even drew up a “Contrack” which stated their goals.
The next day the journalist rode to the Kumharsen Serai to see the two men off on their adventure. Peachey and Dravot joined up with a caravan that was forming, and that was the last that the journalist would see of both of them alive. The journalist probably thought that was the last he would ever see of them, for crossing the frontier was extremely dangerous. Surely, they would be killed and forgotten.
The story then jumps two years ahead to when Peachey appears in the newspaper office. He is not immediately recognized by the journalist. This was not due to the journalist’s poor memory, however. Peachey was grotesque. With prompting by Peachey the journalist then remembers who the man is. The journalist is anxious to hear Peachey’s story.
The story that is told is the portion that relates to imperialism. The exploits of Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot mirror imperialist characteristics in the real world: exploitation of the indigenous people and other natural resources, incitement of skirmishes between neighboring people for greater control over all, complete and utter disregard of cultural differences. This is hardly a complete list. Through discussion students and teacher could develop a lengthy list. It is at this point where the literary and the history objectives of this unit intersect. Through this piece of literature students can discover the tendencies of imperialism.
I think this story will be well received by students. The teacher will have to adjust strategies to fit their needs. The plan for teaching requires the students to read this story several times. New information can be extracted with each reading. The teacher is the best judge with regards to the length of each assignment and the work required. The biggest “demon” to be on the alert for is students growing weary with repeated readings.