Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King is a thematic story on many levels. The underlying themes are to live one’s life adventurously, the importance of relationships, and also an allegorical satire of the British Empire. Kipling shows the importance of living life in several ways. The first way is by showing the potential rewards of taking chances, the second is showing how Peachy and Daniel set an example by acting instead of just thinking. Kipling also uses his book to demonstrate the nature of relationships. He does so with his depiction of the Masonic order, the meeting of the characters Peachey and Kipling, and the bond that adventure creates between Daniel and Peachy. Another topic that Rudyard touches on allegorically is the nature of imperialism in British Empire. He allegorically demonstrates imperialism through Peachey and Daniel’s conquest of the savages and the way he shows the character’s beliefs of self-superiority shown.
Actually living life is a topic that Rudyard Kipling touches upon in his book. The main way that Rudyard uses the theme of living life in the book is by showing how rewarding fully living life can be. One situation where the rewards of living “in the moment” are shown is when Peachey asks Kipling to deliver the message to Daniel. Kipling goes out on a limb and takes on the request, taking advantage of the opportunity for adventure. His reward is the experiences and friendships made because he took on the task. Adventure and “living life” are pretty much synonymous in this book. Living in the moment leads to adventure and adventure itself is very rewarding. Therefore Kipling shows that it is rewarding to live in the moment. Everyone would be a little more engaged in life if they realized just how rewarding living in the moment can be.
Another topic explored is the concept of relationships, more specifically the relationship of brotherhood. It’s interesting to see how Kipling takes the concept of the Masonic Order and uses it to display the power of relationship. An example of this is at the beginning of the book where Peachey steals Rudyard’s watch, but upon discovering that they were of the same brotherhood, (the Free-Masons,) he feels obligated to return it. Masonic brotherhood is used again when Peachey simply expects Kipling to comply with his and Daniel’s crazy plan. The Masons may have negative connotations surrounding them, but this book really shows the positive atmosphere of brotherhood that they have created. Relationships are further explored when Peachey meets Kipling for the first time. It’s funny how Peachey reveals so much of his personal plans to Kipling, despite not really knowing anything about him. After immersing Rudyard in his life by requesting that the message be delivered, he effectively creates a relationship with him, be it positive or negative.
From there, the relationship grows just from their interactions throughout the book. One can’t really call their relationship a friendship, but it is still interesting to see how they are connected after their initial meeting on the train. In a way, relationships tie into the first thematic topic as well because friendships are made and strengthened by shared experiences. Imagine how close Peachey and Daniel must have been after first serving together in the British Military, planning the conquest of a small city (explained in the next paragraph,) and actually trekking through the country of Afghanistan in order to get to the small city that they were to conquer.
This short story has many parallels, some obvious and some not. One of the less obvious is the subtle satire of British Imperialism. The first parallel shown between this story and the actual British Empire is the air of superiority that Peachey and Daniel carry. They genuinely expected that they should become kings. This is obviously shared in the British “let’s conquer the world!” attitude. Although all empires must have a firm belief in their superiority, the British are especially good examples of overconfidence. In the story however, Daniel thwarted his own campaign for conquest when he started to believe his own lies; The main lie being that he is the re-incarnated son of Alexander the Great. At first he is just lying so he can become a “God” in the savage’s eyes, but he gets caught up in it enough that he started to believe that indeed he was a supreme being. The way that this became his downfall is when his bride-to-be proved he was only mortal by biting him and drawing blood. Since this book is obviously allegorical of Imperialism it seems that Rudyard is sort of predicting how the British Empire might corrupt its own mission for domination by feeding into its own dogma (Walt, 2009).
If this is the case and Rudyard Kipling was predicting the decline of the British Empire, it would be self-mockingly considering that Rudyard Kipling himself was an Englishman. This leads one to believe that Rudyard Kipling either has a healthy sense of humor, perhaps he doesn’t really consider himself part of the British Empire, or maybe he had an internal conflict with the idea of Imperialism. The last Imperialistic parallel shown in this book is the theme of Imperialistic disillusionment. As stated earlier, what puts a halt to Daniel and Peachey’s conquest is how Daniel fools himself into believing he is a god, and that he does indeed have the right to enforce his will upon the savages. Although negative, one has to also keep in mind that it requires a large degree of overconfidence and self-disillusionment for Peachey and Daniel to even think that the great feat of conquest that they strive for was actually achievable. The British, like many other empires, also fool themselves into believing that their own conquests are somehow moral and justified. It seems then, that perhaps in order for an Empire to be able to gain any power it has to have some dogma, realistic or not, to ride upon.
As one can see, Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King is a great story that manages to be chock-full of thematic meaning as well. The themes shown range from advice such as living one’s life in the moment and taking opportunities for adventure, to exploring the relationship of brotherhood and shared experience, to the allegorical portrayal of the British Empire.