The narrator, a newspaper correspondent, is traveling by train from Mhow to Ajmir. He is in intermediate class, which is “very awful indeed”—the passengers are “either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty, or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated.” One of these loafers strikes up a conversation with the narrator. When the loafer (later revealed to be Peachey Carnehan) learns that the narrator’s journey will take him to Marwar Junction, he asks the narrator to deliver a message to a friend for him. He asks the narrator to do this “for the sake of my Mother as well as yours”—a code indicating that both men are Masons. The narrator agrees.
It is reasonable to assume that the narrator is a stand-in for Kipling himself, as he worked for several years as a newspaper correspondent in British India. His description of the various classes of train car provides a succinct explanation of the racial hierarchy in British colonial India. At the top are wealthy white Europeans; then are Eurasians (people of mixed European and Asian descent) and loafers (white Europeans who lack the funds to travel in a better class); and then there are natives, whom the narrator considers inherently disgusting.
Carnehan also explains that he is about to embark on a scheme to extort money from the king of nearby Degumber State. His idea is to pretend to be a correspondent for the Backwoodsman and threaten to expose the prince’s murder of his own step-mother. The prince, he says, “Filled her up with red pepper and slippered her to death as she hung from a beam.”
The narrator does not reveal that he actually does work for the Backwoodsman. Carnehan leaves the train, and the narrator explains that the Native States are afraid of this kind of exposure because they don’t understand that no one in the wider world “cares a straw” what goes on there “so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits, and the ruler is not drugged, drunk, or diseased from one end of the year to the other.” He describes the Native States as “the dark places of the earth, full of unimaginable cruelty, touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and, on the other, the days of Harun-al-Raschid.”
The narrator again focuses on the brutality of the Native States. He also credits European colonizers for keeping this cruelty “within decent limits,” suggesting a moral basis for colonialism. In addition, the narrator here equates civilization and technological advancement. Because the Native States are just beyond the reach of the European technology of the railway and the telegraph, they might as well exist in the mythical and cruel world of A Thousand and One Nights, in which Harun-al-Rashid is an important character.
When the narrator arrives at Marwar Junction, he finds the train car of Carnehan’s friend, Daniel Dravot, another British loafer, and delivers the message. However, the narrator becomes concerned that his two new friends will get themselves into trouble if they go through with their plan to blackmail a local state, and he sends a message to have them stopped when they arrive at the border of Degumber State.
The British government of India, tipped off by the narrator, interferes with Carnehan and Dravot’s plan to extort money from the king of Degumber State. This introduces the idea that the British Crown places at least some limits on the exploitation of colonized Indians.
Back at his office, the narrator gets on with his work, though he is often interrupted: “Zenana-mission ladies” ask him to “abandon all his duties” to report on their work in remote villages, “secretaries of ball-committees” ask him to describe their dances, and “strange ladies rustle in and say: ‘I want a hundred lady’s cards printed at once, please.’”
The narrator here dismisses the work of the zenana missions, who provided medical care to Indian women living in purdah (seclusion from the world outside the home). He considers both this missionary work and the ladies’ interest in social occasions to be nothing more than distractions from his duty, betraying deep-seated sexist assumptions.
One night, the narrator is working late when two men arrive at the newspaper office. He recognizes them as the two men from his journey on the train, Carnehan and Dravot. They feel the narrator owes them a favor in return for the “bad turn” he did them by preventing them from reaching Degumber State. They are fed up with India because, as Carnehan explains, “they that governs it won’t let you touch it. They spend all their blessed time in governing it, and you can’t lift a spade, nor chip a rock, nor look for oil, nor anything like that.”
Some historical context: For many years, Britain ruled India indirectly through the British East India Company, but Queen Victoria assumed direct control following the violent Rebellion of 1857, in which Indians rose up against their oppression by the Company. The fact that Indians are now at least nominally British subjects places some limits on Carnehan and Dravot’s ability to exploit the country. Their desire to find a new country to pilfer indicates that they are driven by greed. In addition, this reference to the Rebellion of 1857 provides context for Carnehan and Dravot’s adventure, suggesting that their experiences will parallel those of the British Empire.
Carnehan and Dravot want to stop scraping together a living from odd jobs and extortion. Instead, they will travel to Kafiristan, a country “at the top right-hand corner of Afghanistan,” and set up a kingdom there. They want the narrator to provide books and maps so they can plan their journey. Reading from one of the narrator’s books, Carnehan notes that the Kafirs have “two-and-thirty heathen idols.” He also says that the Kafirs fight one another, “and in any place where they fight a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King.”
By noting the Kafirs’ “heathen idols,” Carnehan and Dravot demonstrate their belief in their cultural and spiritual superiority to the people they wish to rule. In addition, their plan relies on the assumption that the Kafirs are constantly fighting among themselves, which reinforces the idea that the people of Kafiristan are violent and uncivilized.
The narrator believes Carnehan and Dravot’s plan is foolish and says they will be “cut to pieces” before they reach the border of Kafiristan. To show him that they are serious, they explain that they have signed a contract: until they are kings, neither man will “look at any Liquor, nor any Woman black, white, or brown.” Before the narrator leaves to go to bed, Carnehan and Dravot tell him to make sure he goes down to the market the next day.
The narrator’s assumption that Carnehan and Dravot will die in Afghanistan further underscores that the world beyond British control is violent and uncivilized.Carnehan and Dravot’s contract consists of a moral code. Their idea of morality is fundamentally sexist, as it assumes that women are somehow inherently immoral. However, they seem to believe that their contract legitimizes their colonization of Kafiristan. Kipling thus suggests that moral uprightness is necessary if colonialism is to be justified.
At the market, it takes the narrator some time to recognize Dravot and Carnehan, as they have disguised themselves as a mad priest and his servant. They are loading up a caravan of camels with toys, which, they say, they intend to sell in Kabul. The narrator, tipped off by a pointed comment from Dravot about becoming a king, finally sees through the disguise, and he goes with them a little way from the market. Before they part ways, Dravot tells the narrator to feel under the camel bags. He feels the butt of a Martini rifle, and Dravot says they have twenty of them with ammunition. The narrator says farewell. Ten days later, he hears from a native correspondent that the two men have made it past the border of British India. However, he doesn’t expect ever to see them again.
The success of Dravot and Carnehan’s disguise suggests that their plan may be more plausible than the narrator first believed. The presence of the Martini rifles confirms this idea: Carnehan and Dravot will be bringing with them the best of British military technology. Kipling again is emphasizing the superiority of European technology, which may be enough to give Carnehan and Dravot an edge over the “uncivilized” Kafirs.
Three years pass, and then, one night, Carnehan shows up at the newspaper office once more. He has changed so much that the narrator doesn’t recognize him at first: “He was bent into a circle, his head was sunk between his shoulders, and he moved his feet one over the other like a bear. I could hardly see whether he walked or crawled.” Carnehan asks for whisky and gulps it down. He says, “I was the King of Kafiristan—me and Dravot—crowned Kings we was!” After assuring the narrator that he is not mad, though he thinks he will be soon, Carnehan begins the tale of his adventure with Dravot in Kafiristan.
Carnehan’s pitiful condition makes it clear that something has gone horribly wrong, and he immediately asks for whisky, indicating that he no longer is bound by his contract with Dravot. Kipling thus ties together Carnehan and Dravot’s downfall and their abandonment of their moral code.
Carnehan and Dravot (in Carnehan’s story) make their way into the mountains. When the terrain becomes too mountainous for their camels, they kill and eat them. Two men come along on mules and try to rob Carnehan and Dravot, but Dravot breaks one man’s neck, and the other runs away. Carnehan and Dravot continue through the mountains on the mules. Carnehan implores Dravot “not to sing and whistle so loud, for fear of bringing down the tremenjus avalanches. But Dravot says that if a King couldn’t sing it wasn’t worth being King.”
The two strangers’ immediate decision to rob Carnehan and Dravot once again portrays the people who live outside of European rule as violent and uncivilized. Dravot’s violence, on the other hand, is justified—this time as self-defense.Dravot’s absurd claim to be immune to the forces of nature demonstrates his hubris.
Just after Carnehan and Dravot run out of food and have to slaughter the mules, they see twenty men chasing ten others down a slope. Carnehan notes that these Kafirs are “fair men—fairer than you or me—with yellow hair and remarkable well built.” Carnehan and Dravot fire their rifles at the larger group. Dravot kills one at two hundred yards, and the rest flee. Carenhan and Dravot approach the ten men, one of whom fires “a footy little arrow” at them. Dravot fires over their heads, and the men surrender at once.
Noting that the Martini rifles can kill at two hundred yards emphasizes the sophistication of British technology. By comparison, the Kafirs’ ineffective weapons show that they are technologically less advanced and thus less “civilized” than the British.Carnehan’s insistence that the Kafirs are “fair” introduces a complication: if the Kafirs are white, the racist argument for colonialism does not apply here.
The men lead Carnehan and Dravot back to their village, where there is a group of stone idols. Dravot pretends to show respect to the idols, saying, “all these old jim-jams are my friends.” Neither Carnehan nor Dravot knows the Kafir language, so Dravot gestures to show that he is hungry but then refuses any food until the “boss of the village” brings it to him, which is enough to establish Dravot’s authority. Every morning, Dravot sits by the idols, and the people from the village come to worship him.
Dravot’s attitude toward the gods of the Kafirs is dismissive and contemptuous. The fact that his act works suggests that the Kafirs’ religious beliefs are not very sophisticated, a further demonstration that Kipling regards them as less “civilized” than the British.
One day, men from a nearby village attack. Again using their Martini rifles, Carnehan and Dravot defeat the attackers. They ask the villagers what has caused the conflict between the two villages, and it turns out to be a woman, whom Carnehan describes as “as fair or you or me,” who has been kidnapped. Dravot returns the woman to her original village and brokers a peace between the combatants, bringing both villages under Dravot and Carnehan’s control.
Carnehan and Dravot’s technologically superior rifles again allow them to assert their control over the Kafirs. Their violence, unlike the violence of the Kafirs, serves a greater good, allowing them to impose peace. Meanwhile, Carnehan repeats his claim that the Kafirs are white, blurring the racist distinction between colonizer and colonized. The cause of the Kafirs’ conflict is a woman, which once again demonstrates sexist Victorian assumptions.
Dravot tells the Kafirs in the village they have conquered, “Go and dig the land, and be fruitful and multiply.” He also sets up a rudimentary legal system: “he leads the priest of each village up to the idol, and says he must sit there and judge the people, and if anything goes wrong he is to be shot.” The next week, Carnehan says, “they was all turning up the land in the valley as quiet as bees and much prettier.”
Carnehan and Dravot train twenty men to use the Martini rifles, and they conquer another village. As they press onward Dravot’s men become afraid, but when Dravot shoots one of them, the army marches on. They take control of yet another village, and Carnehan stays there with two men while Dravot marches away with the rest of the army. Carnehan makes friends with the local chief—whom they later decide to call Billy Fish—and helps him to conquer one more village nearby. Then, as he is running out of ammunition, Carnehan sends a message to Dravot, saying that he should come back because their kingdom is getting too big for Carnehan to manage on his own. For two or three months, Carnehan waits for Dravot, during which time, he says, “I kept my people quiet.”
The Martini rifles, symbols of British technological sophistication, continue to allow Carnehan and Dravot to subjugate the less “civilized” Kafirs. Furthermore, Carnehan and Dravot’s use of violence again appears justified, as it allows them to impose discipline.
When Dravot finally returns, he is leading an army of hundreds and wearing a golden crown. He tells Carnehan, “I am the son of Alexander by Queen Semiramis, and you’re my younger brother and a God too!” He has a crown for Carnehan as well, which, he says, he had made “at a place called Shu, where the gold lies in the rock like suet in mutton.” He goes on: “Gold I’ve seen, and turquoise I’ve kicked out of the cliffs, and there’s garnets in the sands of the river.”
Dravot’s crown symbolizes that he now has dominion over Kafiristan. His claim to be a god is an act of hubris and the first sign that his ambitions extend beyond merely becoming king. His loving description of the country’s wealth shows that he is motivated primarily by greed rather than a desire to “civilize” the Kafirs, which undermines his moral credibility.
After Carnehan puts on his crown, Dravot says, “we don’t want to fight no more. The Craft’s the trick.” The Craft here refers to Freemasonry; it turns out that the Kafirs are familiar with some Masonic symbols and practice some Masonic rites. Dravot knows enough to impersonate a grand master, and he intends to open a Masonic lodge so that, by convincing the Kafirs of his superior knowledge of Masonic mysteries, he can further cement his authority. Carnehan warns against this, as neither man has ever held an office in a lodge before, and it’s against the law to hold a lodge without a warrant. However, Dravot insists it’s “a master-stroke o’ policy.” The two men instruct the Kafirs to make Masonic aprons and make plans to hold a lodge.
Carnehan and Dravot’s superior knowledge of Masonry once again demonstrates that they are more “civilized” than the Kafirs, who are portrayed as comparatively ignorant and superstitious. Dravot shows his hubris by claiming an authority he does not legitimately possess, as he is not in fact a grand master.
At the lodge meeting, Dravot says he and Carnehan are “Gods and sons of Alexander, and Past Grand-Masters in the Craft, and was come to make Kafiristan a country where every man should eat in peace and drink in quiet, and specially obey us.” They shake hands with all of the chiefs of Kafiristan, and Carnehan notes that they are “so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends.” Then an old priest reveals that the symbol on Dravot’s apron, the “Master’s Mark,” is carved in a hidden place in the temple, and the Kafirs take this as proof that Dravot and Carnehan are what they claim.
Dravot’s hubris continues to lead him to claim to be a god. He also reveals once again that his motivations are immoral—he is acting based on lust for power rather than a desire to “civilize” the Kafirs. Carnehan again emphasizes his claim that the Kafirs are white, failing to make a racial distinction between colonizer and colonized. The Kafirs’ again are portrayed as less sophisticated than the British, as their failure to see through Dravot’s lies suggests that they are gullible and superstitious.
After the meeting, Dravot makes plans to continue strengthening the army. He also states that he trusts the Kafirs, saying, “I know that you won't cheat me, because you’re white people—sons of Alexander—and not like common, black Mohammedans.”
Dravot’s racism is obvious here. He equates whiteness with honesty, and his belief that the Kafirs are white therefore allows him to trust them.
For the next several months, Carnehan’s work is “to help the people plough, and now and again go out with some of the Army and see what the other villages were doing, and make ’em throw rope-bridges across the ravines which cut up the country horrid.”
Carnehan introduces new agricultural techniques and builds infrastructure, which simultaneously demonstrates the superiority of British technology and suggests that colonization can work to the benefit of the colonized.
Meanwhile, Dravot begins to make grander plans. He holds councils of war with the local chiefs (including Billy Fish), and he sends Carnehan to Ghorband to acquire more rifles, handmade knock-offs of the Martinis. When they return, Carnehan trains more soldiers, noting that “Even those corkscrewed, hand-made guns was a miracle to them.”
The fact that even substandard versions of British rifles are “a miracle” to the Kafirs shows that they are technologically less advanced than Europeans.
After Carnehan’s return, Dravot takes him aside to speak privately in a grove of pine trees. “I won’t make a Nation!” Dravot says, “I’ll make an empire!” The soldiers aren’t black, he insists, but English, and “They only want rifles and a little drilling.” He continues, “we shall be Emperors—Emperors of the Earth!” While he speaks, he paces back and forth, “chewing his beard in great hunks.” Furthermore, because the kingdom is becoming so large, Dravot says, he needs more help to govern it than Carnehan can provide.
Dravot’s ambition continues to grow—now he wants to be an emperor. Operating under the racist assumption that only white people are capable of building an empire, he claims that the Kafirs are white, in which case the only thing that distinguishes them from their colonizers is the lack of advanced technology.
Carnehan is distressed by this and tells Dravot he’s done all he could: “I’ve drilled the men and shown the people how to stack their oats better; and I’ve brought in those tinware rifles from Ghorband—but I know what you’re driving at. I take it Kings always feel oppressed that way.”
Carnehan again attempts to justify his colonial project by claiming to have brought “civilization” to the Kafirs. He even goes so far as to suggest that colonialism, as a moral duty, weighs more heavily on the colonizers than on the colonized.
Dravot tells Carnehan that he wants a wife. Carnehan objects and reminds Dravot of their contract, but Dravot says the contract no longer applies, as they are now kings. He says that the two of them can have their pick of the local girls, adding, “Boil ’em once or twice in hot water, and they’ll come out like chicken and ham.” Carnehan again urges Dravot to have nothing to do with women, but Dravot says he’s not speaking of women in general but of a wife, “a Queen to breed a King’s son for the King.” Carnehan reminds Dravot of a Bengali woman he once lived with who ran off with a servant and half a month’s pay. Dravot insists that this will be different, as his wife will be white. Carnehan tries one more time, noting that “The Bible says that Kings ain’t to waste their strength on women.” Dravot doesn’t listen but walks “away through the pine-trees looking like a big red devil, the sun being on his crown and beard and all.”
Dravot announces his intention to abandon the contract, which symbolizes his moral code. Carnehan’s objections are both sexist and racist: he views women, and especially non-European women, as distracting and untrustworthy. Dravot’s joke about boiling the Kafir women to make them “come out like women and ham” (i.e., white) suggests that his claims about the whiteness of the Kafirs may not be entirely reliable: if they were already white, there would be no need for boiling. By noting Dravot’s desire to establish a dynasty and drawing attention to his symbolic crown, Kipling makes a connection between Dravot’s lust for power and his decision to abandon his moral code.
However, when Dravot tells the council that he wants a wife, Billy Fish tells him he’ll have to ask the girls. Dravot flies into a rage, claiming that his marriage is a matter of state, and Carnehan says he can tell Dravot is “going against his better mind.” Billy Fish explains that the Kafirs believe that any woman who marries a god will die, and he tells Carnehan privately that he believes there will be trouble if Dravot goes through with his plan.
The priests finally comply with Dravot’s demand, choosing a girl for him to marry. She is terrified, but Dravot doesn’t seem to care. When he tries to embrace her, she bites him so hard he bleeds. The priests, seeing his blood, howl that he is not a god after all but only a man. This revelation immediately sparks a rebellion: the priest tries to cut Carnehan, and the army begins to fire.
Dravot’s sexism is evident in his callous indifference to his bride’s fear. Kipling also clearly identifies two causes of the rebellion: 1) Dravot’s abandonment of the contract, which gives a woman a chance to bite him, and 2) Dravot’s hubris, which led him to impersonate a god.
Billy Fish and his men, who remain loyal to Carnehan and Dravot, help them to flee the village, though many of Billy Fish’s men are killed in the process. Dravot, even as Carnehan drags him away, continues to rant about being an emperor. Carnehan says he believes Dravot “began to go mad in his head at that hour.” Billy Fish, Carnehan, and Dravot manage to escape for a few days, but the rebels finally catch up with them.
The rebels slit Billy Fish’s throat, and they march Dravot and Carnehan to a rope bridge. They prod Dravot toward the bridge, and, after saying farewell to Carnehan, he walks out onto it. They cut the ropes, and Dravot falls to his death in the ravine. Carnehan says, “I could see his body caught on a rock with the gold crown close beside.”
Billy Fish’s death echoes the fate of Indians who remained loyal to the British during the Rebellion of 1857, many of whom died in the fighting. Kipling thus emphasizes that a loss of moral authority harms not only the colonizer but also the colonized, who no longer have the opportunity to experience what Kipling sees as the benefits of European civilization. Kipling also notes that Dravot’s immoral actions have lost him not only his life but also his crown—that is, his right to rule.
The rebels crucify Carnehan between two trees, but when he survives the night, they decide it’s a miracle and cut him down. They give him Dravot’s head and crown as a gift and tell him to go home. Carnehan says that he never thought of selling the crown during his journey home, even though he was starving.
Kipling again portrays the Kafirs as superstitious, as there is no real reason to assume that Carnehan’s survival is a miracle. Carnehan continues to cling to the idea of his moral right to rule (as symbolized by Dravot’s crown) even though it has cost him everything.
In the newspaper office, as Carnehan brings his story to an end, he opens a bag and shakes Dravot’s head onto the narrator’s desk. The crown also falls from the bag, and Carnehan places it on the dead man’s head.
Carnehan, by placing the crown on Dravot’s severed head, shows his refusal to admit that he and Dravot have failed. He does not recognize his responsibility or learn a moral lesson from his experiences. By analogy, Kipling is suggesting that the British have not learned from the Rebellion of 1857.
Later in the day, the narrator finds Carnehan crawling through the street, singing to himself, “The Son of Man goes forth to war, / A golden crown to gain.” The narrator takes him to an asylum. However, when the narrator asks later what has become of him, the asylum superintendent informs him that Carnehan has died of heatstroke due to being “bareheaded” under the midday sun. The narrator asks whether Carnehan had any possessions when he died, but the superintendent says he did not.
Carnehan’s song emphasizes the symbolism of the crown. It is the fact that Carnehan is bareheaded that leads to his demise, and after his death, his crown is nowhere to be found. As the final consequence of Dravot’s moral failure, then, Carnehan has lost his glory and right to rule as well as his life.