I’m counting Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would Be King as a short novel (novella?) as opposed to a short story. I don’t know if there is any formal rule about what constitutes each. If anybody out there has any knowledge on this topic, feel free to let me know.
The title of this story has been familiar to me for a long time, but I’ve never been familiar with the plotline. I know a movie was made in the 1970’s with Sean Connery. After reading the story, I might have to see if I can watch it. From what I can tell, it may not exactly follow the book. I’ve also discovered that the Dreamworks animated film, The Road to El Dorado, was based on this story, although only loosely.
The narrator is an English newspaper man in India. The research I’ve done has most believing this person to be Kipling himself. He just doesn’t name himself as such. The narrator encounters two quirky English vagabonds during the first few years of his career. Their names are Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot. They tell him of their rather odd plans to become Kings of Kafiristan, a country by or province of Afghanistan.
A number of years later, when the narrator has become an established newspaper man, Peachey Carnehan comes crawling into his office. He tells the story of their eventual coronation in Kafiristan, in which they not only become Kings, but are looked upon as actual gods. Given the fact that they started out as nothing but vagabonds (with a few guns) the story is humorous because it is so absurd – or perhaps it’s absurd because it’s so funny. Hard to say. It’s also somewhat disheartening to see the villagers so readily accept anyone. Maybe this is the point of what Kipling is trying to get to, but due to the absurdity, I’m not sure.
One of the items in their contract is that they will stay away from liquor and women. This becomes problematic when Dravot decides he needs a wife. The villagers offer up a girl to Dravot who is rather fearful of both the men since they are reported to be gods. When Dravot says ” ‘What’s to be afraid of, lass? Come and kiss me’ “, the girl buries her head in his beard and bites him on the hand. The bite draws blood bringing into question their status as gods – because gods don’t bleed. This is the beginning of their downfall and Dravot is eventually killed. Carnehan survives in order to make his way back to the newspaper man to tell him the story.
I haven’t done a lot of research on the meaning of this story, if their is one. I liked the basic absurdity of the whole thing – and don’t really need to understand anything about it in order to enjoy it. My initial guess is that Kipling is trying to make some sort of statement about the way governements and religions can dupe the “people”, but that seems a little beside the point, so I’ll settle to just enjoy it for what it is. It kind of reminds me of something that Kurt Vonnegut might write.