Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Man Who Would Be King, Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling might be deeply unfashionable these days but I have a weakness for unfashionable writers. He was something that is almost unimaginable these days - an enormously popular writer who also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s also the sort of writer the PC Thought Police would like to stop us from reading.

Kipling was one of the grand masters of the art of the short story and The Man Who Would Be King and other stories gives us five splendid examples.

I’ve been meaning to get round to reading the title story for years, ever since the first time I saw John Huston’s magnificent 1975 film adaptation. It was a remarkably faithful adaptation, but then it’s such a great story and so perfectly suited to cinematic adaptation that there was really no reason to change anything.

A newspaperman in British India in the late 19th century encounters two somewhat disreputable British adventurers. They tell him their plan, which is a simple one. They intend to journey to a remote valley on the borders of Afghanistan and set themselves up as kings. They have pooled their financial resources in order to buy twenty Martini rifles. With their own military backgrounds (they might be rogues but they’re trained soldiers with an appreciation for the virtues of military discipline) and these guns they will teach the inhabitants of the valley the art of modern warfare, whereupon they will undoubtedly be acclaimed as kings.

The journalist takes a certain liking to these two adventurers but there’s not the slightest doubt in his mind they he will never see them alive again.

A couple of years later a broken wreck of a man shambles into his newspaper office and he learns the strange fates of Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot.

Of the other stories in the collection The Phantom Rickshaw is an effective ghost story whilst The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes is a bizarre but excellent piece of weird fiction concerning the place where the dead who aren’t really dead end up.

Without Benefit of Clergy is a tale of a relationship between a British colonial official and an Indian Muslim woman that demonstrates Kipling’s complex and subtle understanding of the problems of colonialism for both sides.

Kipling was an intelligent, humane and perceptive writer who deserves to be more widely read. The Man Who Would Be King and other stories is a pretty good place to start.

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