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Secret Imperialism: The Reader's Response to the Narrator in "The Man Who Would Be King" By Tim Bascom David C. Cook Foundation Past studies of Kipling's story "The Man Who Would Be King" have focused on its narrative technique to varying degrees. More than a third of the story is narrative framework rather than tale, so some mention of technique is to be expected. However, none of these studies has done full justice to the effect the frame has on the reader. Most recently, Manfred Drandt has suggested that Kipling uses the frame ironically, forcing readers to doubt the trustworthiness of the two narrators who tell the story, thus to doubt their own trustworthiness .1 His argument is interesting but belabors one point—that the primary narrator is going mad and that the secondary frame narrator is dependent on this questionable source. As readers, we are aware this story is "doubtful," yet we want to and are able to commit ourselves to it. This is because the fundamental effect of the narrative framework is not so much to make us aware of our gullibility as to let us exercise it—to suspend our realistic expectations and to be drawn into something that would otherwise remain too fantastic for us to consider. Whether the story is true is not so important to us as how it affects us and what we learn from that. To demonstrate more fully how the frame of "The Man Who Would Be King" facilitates this effect on readers, we must focus on the newspaper editor, whose presence dominates the story's frame. He functions in several important ways. He allows an unreal or "impossible" tale to be told. He also gives us a realworld context in which to apply whatever lessons the tale teaches. What is more, he becomes a representative of our self, an "I" who gives us, as readers, a place in the narrative. By doing so he actually invites us to become insiders in the experience he is relaying. For obvious reasons, a strong relationship exists between framed narratives and oral narratives. Robert Kellogg stresses that traditional oral narratives like those told by Odysseus or Boccaccio's narrators are alternatives to "real" life or "real" death—alternatives that keep alive heroic desires when they cannot be acted out in actual circumstances. Furthermore, he suggests that over time our belief in the hero's world has eroded but the modern-day framed story has developed as a concession to the enduring desire for what is super-natural. As he puts it: 162 Bascom: Secret Imperialism in 'The Man Who Would Be King' We are not asked to give full imaginative allegiance to these stories within stories. It is because we cannot do so that Chaucer, Conrad, Joyce and countless other narrative artists provide us with the intervening "pastoral" framework of an imitated oral narrative. . . . We readers know that there are not more heroes, demons, saints, magicians, or gods left in the world; but it comforts us mightily to know they exist in stories. 2 Such creatures certainly exist in Kipling's work, and perhaps that is one of the reasons he so often uses the narrative frame. However, even if unbelievable characters do not appear in them, Kipling's tales are just as often about unbelievable events. "The Man Who Would Be King" is a good example. In it Kipling presents two drifting, ex-soldiers, Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, who are able, through a number of fantastic events, to make themselves into instant Kings. We are asked to believe that the natives of Kafiristan (an unknown region of Afghanistan ) actually have their own form of Freemasonry and that these two adventurers are able to use that system miraculously to establish their authority over them. When a challenging native leader overthrows the rock that Dravot has designated as his throne, he finds on it the secret symbol for their Masonic power.4 We know that what these two unlikely kings achieve is impossible, yet we let ourselves believe it happened, and this is largely due to the frame around their story. We can better accept their fantastic achievement if it is treated...


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pp. 162-173
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