In grad school in the '90s I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, and thought it pretty good, and some months ago I read The Light That Failed, which I also enjoyed. So today, while hanging around at the library at Simpson College, I decided to see what Kipling books they had, and took up The Best Fiction of Rudyard Kipling, a 1989 collection with an introduction by a John Beecroft, and read two stories.
“The Man Who Would Be King”
This is a famous story, and the basis for a movie I think I saw parts of when I was a kid. It is quite a good story, with many interesting elements, and worthy of its fame.
A journalist in India narrates the tale, the meat of which is told to him by an unscrupulous adventurer, Peachy Carnahan. Carnahan and his comrade, Dan Dravot, are vagabonds who have been living by their wits, traveling across India working various jobs and working various scams. They come up with and execute a daring scheme: they make their way through difficult terrain to a region of Afghanistan as yet unexplored by Europeans. Equipped with a small arsenal of modern firearms and their British army experience, they are able to set themselves up as kings among the local natives and then found an empire, maintaining order among various tribes and making improvements to agriculture and bridges in the area. By a stroke of luck the natives see them as gods, which also smooths the way for them, as does their “contract” with each other: Carnahan and Dravot have sworn to each other, in writing, to not get distracted by women or alcohol during their dangerous enterprise.
Disaster strikes when Dravot, the better educated and more reckless of the pair, decides to break the contract and take a wife. The natives realize the two British adventurers are not gods after all, leading to a rebellion in which their empire collapses, their supporters among the natives are killed, and the two English adventurers are tortured. Dravot is thrown off a cliff to his death, and Carnahan is crucified, but survives. Carnahan, physically and mentally broken, drags himself to the narrator to relate his tale, and dies soon after.
This is an exciting and tragic adventure story, and Kipling uses it as a vehicle to comment on numerous issues: the risks of imperialism, the folly of hubris, the responsibilities of leadership, the importance of keeping your word, relationships between men who face danger together and the stress women can put on such relationships. As is often the case with Kipling’s work, “The Man Who Would Be King” can provide the 21st century reader insight into life in British India; there is much talk of the class distinctions on a train, the different types of firearms available, the Indian climate and what it was like to run a newspaper in 19th century India. The story also includes the kinds of weird and grisly elements you might expect to find in a science fiction or horror story: the natives discovered by Carnahan and Dravot are described as white and fair haired, a “lost tribe,” and Carnahan retrieves his friend’s severed head and drags it back to the narrator, shockingly revealing it after completing his tale.
A classic, highly recommended to anyone interested in adventure stories or British and Indian history and literature.
“At The Pit’s Mouth”
This is one of those short (just 5 pages in this edition) ironic surprise ending stories whose ending is easy to predict, but it still is a diverting tale. A selfish greedy woman lives in an Indian town while her husband is away for months at a time, working hard to finance his wife’s luxuries. The wife is cheating on her husband shamelessly; her lover will sit with her and read over her shoulder and laugh while she writes love letters to her husband. The people of the town start to talk about seeing these two adulterers together all the time, so the lovers decide to spend their time together in a place people rarely go: the local cemetery. They watch native laborers dig a grave, and then the next day the lover has an accident while riding with the cheating wife – he is killed and buried in the grave they watched being dug. The unfaithful wife goes temporarily insane.
Kipling stories will often provide interesting hints about life in colonial India; for example, in this one, we are told that one reason the cemetery in the story is rarely visited is that British people in India do not stay in one place very long, but “shift and are transferred so often that, at the end of the second year, the Dead have no friends….” Of course, this story also provides a glimpse into late 19th century attitudes about gender roles, and would be a good story to read if you wanted evidence with which to condemn Rudyard Kipling or his society for being sexist. The story also provides a reason to look up the Latin phrase “Tertium Quid,” which, being indifferently educated, I had never encountered before. So those five pages were well worth my time.