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The Prisoner of Zenda

Style: Classic

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive

In Brief: Swashbuckling adventure with a dashing hero, a bearded villain and a lovely heroine.

Cover of The Prisoner of Zenda

Author: Anthony Hope

Series: Ruritania

Age Range: Children+

Period: Late 19th C

Setting: Ruritania

Genres:  AdventureBoysClassicHistoricalRomantic


Characters:

  • Rudolf Rassendyll, the cadet son of minor English nobility, reluctant to settle down to work. His daring and sense of humour lead him to accept the role of the King's double, and his loyalty to his friends and love for the princess lead him to see it through.
  • Rupert of Hentzau is chief among the associates of Black Michael, the King's brother and captor. In spite of their being on opposite sides of the fight, each is impressed by the other.
  • Princess Flavia is engaged to marry the King, but her romance only really starts when the "King" is in fact Rudolf. When she finally discovers the truth, she and Rudolf agree to part.

Synopsis:

Erstwhile King Rudolf of Ruritania is drugged and then kidnapped the day before his coronation; his guards Sapt and Fritz happen upon Rudolf Rassendyll, an Englishman abroad, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the king, due to the king's ancestor's having fathered a child somewhere in the Rassendyll ancestry. Rudolf agrees to play the part of the king to prevent the king's brother “Black Michael” from gaining the throne. In the process he falls in love with Princess Flavia who does not know of the deception. Eventually a rescue attempt is mounted and the king is rescued from Duke Michael and his henchmen, in particular the young and dashing Rupert of Hentzau. The king returns to the palace and Rudolf to obscurity.

Notes:

Almost the archetype of such stories, this is very much a dashing yarn for boys with a built-in bearded villain and lovely heroine. There's also a small collection of European mercenaries, a daring young henchman whom you can't help but admire, a slightly mysterious but attractive French woman, and of course the daring, witty, flesh-and-blood Englishman who becomes embroiled in things unwittingly and stays to see them through. There's a sense of humour throughout the book, starting with the very premise (and the historical background to it) and continuing with the suave if violent exchanges between Rudolf and Rupert.

If I were to pick holes in things, I would worry very slightly about the obvious continuing attachment between Rudolf and Flavia in spite of the latter's marriage to the King; I would point out the casual acceptance with which Sapt and Fritz allow Rudolf, a Protestant, acts the part of the Catholic King; I would wonder whether there was not a certain glorification of killing even in self-defence. But really, while all these are points to be considered, they're also rather beside the point when it comes to a story like this. There's no real cause for concern in any of these things and the first two are treated with some delicacy.

I asked around some younger readers who had come across the book. This is Piers, aged 14. “This story is very intriguing and has some very exciting moments. The basic premise is a very original idea and we can identify with the main character and become very interested in his adventures which are full of romance, swordplay and even the occasional dash of humour.”

Themes:

  • The lifestyle of a rich young Englishman in the late 19th century
  • The changing roles of monarchs
  • Changing styles in adventure stories

“Then,” said I, with a wave of my hand, “to our next meeting, gentelmen. May it make us better acquainted.”

“We will pray your Majesty for an early opportunity,” quote Rupert airily; and he stroed past Sapt with such jeering scorn on his face that I was the old fellow clench his fist and scowl black as night.

For my part, if a man must needs be a knave, I would have him a debonair knave, and I liked Rupert Hentzau better than his long-faced, close-eyed companions. It makes your sin no worse, as I conceive, to do it à la mode and stylishly.

Tuesday 1st January 2002