The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (IV)

The review strikes back… don’t worry, almost finished now.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is a big topic, because it’s essentially a microcosm of British Imperialism – and it’s important to note, in light of the general sentiment toward Kipling, that he presents all this in extremely problematic terms. He seems willing to approve of the genuine ambition to improve the lot of ‘backward’ peoples, yet he also undermines notions of the irreconcilable otherness of the native, while at the same time suggesting that much evil, as well as good, can come from dragging the native down to the low and conniving level of the British, and questioning how – and in what ways – succesful integration can ever occur. Above all, he locates the causes of imperialism, and of how that imperialism runs it course on the ground, in the psychology of the individual invader as the ultimate self-made man. For all that the British system attempts to eliminate the individual, reducing each man to a surname, rank, and posting, turning barbaric, prejudiced, semi-animalistic humans (like the Rajah of Degumber) (and can I tie in here the earlier discussion of high-school fashion police? Because the criticism directed at the eponymous ‘Second-Rate Woman’, and to a lesser degree at other social failures, particularly in the Deodars stories, is precisely that by failing to keep up with the latest fashions – by failing to conform, by remaining as  a distinct and identifiable individual – she lowers herself to the level of a ‘Thing’ or a ‘creature’: to be uncivilised in even the most minor way is to be an animal, a thing less of pity than of horror and fear. If a woman can wear he supplément incorrectly, what else might she be capable of doing? Referring to somebody by their first name? Eating babies? It’s the thin end of the wedge!)… where was I? The problem with all this darned parentheses is that I come out of them with only the mildest awareness of my surroundings… oh yes, there I am… for all that the British system attempts to eliminate the individual, converting bestial human beings into sublime, impartially rationalistic agents and mechanisms of orderly governance, in the home and in the empire, for all that it seeks to transform flawed people into what are essentially flawless avatars of Empire, through whom the Empire’s will flows into the world, Kipling insists that men and women are always no more and no less than men and women. (In this light I’d draw the attention back to the ghost stories, the pinnacle of unreason, of “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw” and “My Very Own Ghost Story”; it’s also worth pointing out in passing, I think, that “The Man Who Would Be King” is very much framed and presented as a ghost story with no ghosts). Even the great men who expand the bounds of the Empire are doing it only for their own reasons – and they are not always good reasons. Nor, of course, are they necessarily bad reasons. Dravot and Carnehan (and indeed the narrator) are, like many Kipling characters, not easily pigeonholed into moralistic categories. They are portrayed as brave, clever, hard-working (in their own way), and ultimately noble and valiant of heart, with considerable capacity for altruism and a firm (if warped) moral compass; and yet at the same time we never forget that these are deceitful, avaricious, vainglorious, naïve, manipulative, coercive, lustful (in many ways) and potentially extremely brutal men.

And that’s one of the problems of the story, because by the end I really didn’t know who to root for. In some stories, that would be good – in longer stories perhaps, where sentiments can develop more fully and leave the reader conflicted – but here I just felt detached.

Which brings me to the other side of the matter. Because as well as a nexus of themes, “The Man Who Would Be King” is also a story on the page… and unfortunately that side of the thing fails to live up to the other. It’s a tale that grows in power once the reader has finished reading it, or at least a tale that works better in the mind than on the page.

A lot of this is the fault of the structure. As I said above, this is a ghost story, so there is a great deal of attention paid to provenance. As a result a good third or more of the story has passed by, explaining to us the details of who the narrator is and how they came by this story, before we actually come to the events themselves. This first part of the story is actually the best written by far. In fact, parts of it are extraordinary – I’m thinking here particularly of the couple of pages where Kipling autobiographically describes, with both clinical detail and poetically suppressed passion, the life of a newspaperman in India. Strange to say, but it’s both the most artistically sophisticated and the most emotionally unaffected passage in the book, and is almost worth reading the story for by itself. Yet none of this does much to advance the plot.

But then we get the real story, and here I think the changes in the nature of narrative are painfully clear. Because think how this would work these days. A man tells the narrator a story – and we go inside his eyes, as it were. The man talks in a way entirely out of keeping with his normal manner – it’s an established artistic license that narrators, if the stories are sufficiently long, have all the linguistic ability, and garrulousness, of the author, allowing us to see the events almost first-hand. But Kipling doesn’t do that here. Instead, we get more or less what that sub-narrator would actually say. Which means that details are skipped over en masse, events are told in overly dry and matter-of-fact ways, and both the imagery and the emotive impact are far less than they could be. On the one hand, I do appreciate what Kipling is doing. In keeping with what I said above about individualism, he’s continuing to emphasise the individuality of his characters, he’s keeping the focus on his sub-narrator as a person, not letting us forget him to pass on over the the meat of the adventure itself. But on the other hand, it’s problematic as a narrative, because so much of the import and significance of the story is handed over to the reader by an author who seems to be washing his hands of the matter. Rather than cooking us a meal, he hands us a bunch of ingredients and a picture of what the finished product’s meant to look like and says “here, see if you can make anything out of these”. In part, this is an artefact of the era – both older forms of storytelling in general, and that fin de siècle experimentation with limitated perspectives, replacing the Victorian omniscient narrator with personal and embedded narrators (the layers of provenance here reminded me very much of Conrad writing a little later on – and I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that both authors, much of whose work is carefully channelled through the persona of narrators, are both at times accused of sharing the opinions of their narrators; I wonder how much of this is our modern unfamiliarity with the distancing conventions both writers employ (in other ways, of course, Conrad and Kipling are probably at opposite poles, no pun intended, having responded to their outcast statuses in very different ways; indeed, the foreword to this edition notes, in mentioning Kipling’s liberal use of the word ‘nigger’, that political condemnation of that word among the intelligensia began from within Conrad’s circle about a decade after these stories were written, although Conrad himself famously used it in the title of his The Nigger of the Narcissus)); in part it is probably a device on Kipling’s part, both to frame what should be a historical or political story as instead a story of the ‘macabre’, a ghost story, and hence a work granted a greater political and ethical licence by his audience, and to firmly ground his demythologising of Empire in the flawed nature of individuals. But whatever the reason, and however much I may understand and sympathise with the stylistic decision, I still find it problematic as a way of telling a story. This, of course, says as much about me as about Kipling: grown used to modern authorial spoonfeeding, I find myself frustrated by a story with such potential that seems not to explore it fully. What is going on here, however, is that I think I’m probably meant to do that exploring myself – not just in the sense of thinking about the things Kipling hints at, but even in the prosaic sense of having to put a lot more work into imagining these scenes than I am used to.

Perhaps this is a good time to point out that the film (1975, written and directed by John Huston, starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery, scored by Maurice Jarre, cinematography by Oswald Morris, nominated for 4 Oscars, and those names alone add up to 8 Oscars and 21 nominations…) is really, really good; which is easy to believe as you read the story, because this is a brilliant story to adapt for film. So how much you get out of it depends on how willing you are to work at it: if you try to imagine how you might film the story, it’s pretty impressive, but if you sit back and expect Kipling to do your imagining for you, it is likely to fall flat, even by the standards of the era.


There’s still a lot that could be said about “The Man Who Would Be King”, which, let’s face it, in style and in content could almost have been written for a history-of-literature syllabus. But I’m bored now, and have written already more digressive paragraphs and superfluous parenthesese than one man should be expected to effluse in a single year.

[Diversion: is the extent to which my ‘reviews’ become rambling stream-of-consciousness meanders through every thought that pops into my head a function of the text, showing how a particular text has incited thoughts in me that are too difficult for me to set in line with gentility and grace and a sense of proportion, or is this instead governed by some exogenous factor? Given just how long it’s  taken me to write this ‘review’, there’s clearly more to it than just diet or overstimulating television, but I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all down to the text… interesting, will have to observe the subject more fully in future…]

So, (*sigh of relief*) let’s move on.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is the last of the ‘Rickshaw stories in this collection; the final four stories all come from the collection Wee Willie Winkie. As with Deodars and to a lesser extent ‘Rickshaw, this is a thematic grouping: we’ve had all-out social satire, we’ve had social satire through the medium of ‘macabre’ (or at least creepy) stories, and now we’re onto social satire through the window of childhood.

There are, as I say, four stories in this section: “Wee Willie Winkie” itself, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “His Majesty the King”, and “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”. It’s an interesting quartet, because the stories form interesting pairs: “Winkie” and “Drums” are both stories about politics and war, but “Winkie” and “King” are both stories about the naïvity of children, and “King” and “Black Sheep” are both stories, in different ways, about child abuse.

…well, let me clarify that. Because really, all these stories are about child abuse. It’s tempting to think, in fact, that all of Kipling’s stories are about child abuse. But I’ll get back to that. For now, enough to note that while I don’t know just how abusive Kipling’s childhood really was (and now the review I guess comes back to its beginning, because that childhood stops being merely a background curiosity at this point), it’s clear that in his memory it was unambiguously hellish, and it feels as though the abuse he suffered was like a bell struck with a hammer in his early life, the echoes and reverberations of which continue to sound in hollows and on reflective surfaces throughout his life.

“His Majesty the King” is the most simplistic of the stories – it’s about a young boy raised by servants in India, barely communicating with his parents, and in theory it’s about the juxtaposition between the incomprehensible lives of adults, filled with bitterness and recriminations and pettiness, and the relatively carefree lives of children: it’s showing ‘us’ how stupid – and perhaps even evil – we appear to children. But it’s hard to avoid feeling it’s really about how the Victorian system of parent-adult relations is, or at least can be, hideously toxic. His Majesty’s parents (sorry to be repetitive, but note again the lack of personal names. His Majesty does have a name, but he’s mostly just His Majesty. A fine preparation for an adult life in the civil service or the army, where he will again have no name) are not outright evil people, are not really condemned at all, but are… well, my spine creeps at the thought of them. Here’s how the child’s world works:

“At the door of the nursery his authority stopped. Beyond lay the empire of his father and mother – two very terrible people who had no time to waste upon His Majesty the King. His voice was lowered when he passed the frontier of his own dominions, his actions were fettered, and his soul was filled with awe because of the grim man who lived among a wilderness of pigeon-holes and the most fascinating pieces of red tape, and the wonderful woman who was always getting into or stepping out of the big carriage.
To the one belonged the mysteries of the duftar-room, to the other the great reflected wilderness of the Memsahib’s room, where the shiny scented dresses hung on pegs, miles and miles up in the air, and the just-seen plateau of the toilet-table revealed an acreage of speckly combs, broidered hanafitch-bags and white-headed brushes.
There was no room for His Majesty the King either in official reserve or worldly gorgeousness. He had discovered that, ages and ages ago…
…These things were beyond the province of His Majesty the King. He only knew that his father was daily absorbed in some mysterious work for a thing called the Sirkar, and that his mother was the victim alternately of the Nautch and the Burrakhana.”

This is a child who hugged his mother once, and was immediately sent to the nursery as punishment.

I should point out here, I think, the thing I mentioned earlier, about equating the Indian with the English, not in order to make a point about the treatment of Indians, I don’t think, but to undermine the sense of dignity of the English. Note the repetition in two successive paragraphs of “wilderness” – but these “wildernesses” are the very peaks of English civilisation! The “wilderness” of organised bureaucracy, and the “wilderness” of fashion and high society: there can be no doubt, I think, that Kipling believes that his society has become lost. Note how Kipling equates the mysteries of the orient for the English, shown in the use of so many words from other languages, with the mysteries of adulthood for children. On the same page we are told about a longstanding grievance between His Majesty’s parents – it is a described as a skeleton, and then we are told that somebody has “trained it into a household god”, an equivocation of the superstitious rituals of the east with the bitter and dehumanising rituals of the west that would probably manage to offend both sides of that equation.

And do note there also how the lives of these “remote and silent people” are effectively dehumanised, deindividualised, by society: they have no life, no identity, beyond their place in society. What a horrifying expression it is, “his father was daily absorbed in some mysterious work”, if you take it literally. Because I think Kipling does mean it, if not literally, than at least very seriously. His father is absorbed into his work, like a rogue liquid is absorbed into a sponge. And again, isn’t this a turn of phrase redolent of religion? There is some god called the Sirkar, and through its mysterious works the individual worshipper is absorbed. The Englishman becomes one with the Empire. His son is left behind.

Anyway, sorry to be fanciful there. I think my point is that, as a story, “His Majesty the King” may not work all that well – both we and the protagonist are both too far removed culturally from what is going on (ironically, time has moved the reader from the side of the adults to the side of the child, as the adult world described here has become increasingly alien (an amusing inversion: if, as I suggested above, their adults behaved like our children, it’s not too farfetched to suggest that our adults behave much like their children)) – but it is nonetheless a fascinating glimpse both into the society of the day and into the perspective of Kipling as an author.

Oh, but I do want to say in passing: the descriptions of the King’s parents may be awful, but Kipling doesn’t condemn them outright. Kipling doesn’t, on reflection, ever seem to condemn anyone outright. I’ll get back to that. Instead, here’s a thought: this is one of several stories in the collection that suggest that the horribleness of social relations forms a knot that can only be cut through with the most terrible weapons – only times of crisis and fear and pain can smash through the elaborate edifices of absorption, “dull, rankling anger” and “savage contempt”. This is again a fanciful thought, but: is one of the reasons Kipling seems so sanguine at times about war and plague and so forth the belief that death, and the threat of death, is the only thing really powerful enough to teach us about what really matters in life? Repeatedly in this collection, death and the threat of death is almost a divine light shone into murky waters.

One thought on “The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (IV)

  1. […] Very Own Ghost Story”) Part 3 (discussion of “The Man Who would be King”) Part 4 (more discussion of “The Man Who would be King”, plus “His Majesty the […]

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