The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Buckle your swash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Owing to the indiscretion of an ancestor, the Rassendyll family shares heredity with the ruling family of the small Germanic nation of Ruritania. Every now and then a Rassendyll is born with the red hair and long nose common to the Ruritarian Kings. Rudolf is one of these red-haired Rassendylls and, being a young man with a plentiful inheritance and time on his hands, he decides he will visit Ruritania to witness the coronation of the new young King, another Rudolf. When he gets there he discovers that everyone is startled by his appearance – he doesn’t simply resemble the King, they are almost identical. So when King Rudolf is incapacitated before his coronation, our Rudolf steps in to take his place in order to prevent the King’s jealous half-brother, Black Michael (so called because he hasn’t inherited the red hair), from carrying out a coup and stealing not just the throne but the beautiful Princess Flavia, destined to be the wife of the King. But when the King is then kidnapped, suddenly Rudolf finds the impersonation will have to go on until the King is free…

Short novel or long novella, this is a swashbuckling adventure full of drama, sword fights, high romance and chivalric honour. And it’s great fun! Rudolf tells us the story himself, and it reminded me very much in style of John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, where the first person narrator self-deprecatingly repeats the many compliments bestowed upon him by everyone he meets, so that we know he’s wonderful in every way without him having to tell us so directly. A great swordsman, a flawless linguist, a natural leader of men, and an irresistible wooer of women, Rudolf is also a man who puts honour above his own desires, even when faced by overwhelming temptation. But he lets us see his internal struggle to do the right thing, which stops him from becoming insufferable. The King is a weak drunkard and Black Michael is a hissable villain, so that the reader can only agree with the growing number of Ruritarians who begin to think that the impostor is an improvement over the real royals.

Ronald Colman as Rudolf and Raymond J Massey as Black Michael in the 1937 film.

Although Black Michael is the chief baddie in terms of the plot, it’s his henchman Rupert of Hentzau who becomes Rudolf’s main adversary. Rupert shares most of Rudolf’s manly attributes, but turns them to wickedness rather than good. So where Rudolf is not above stealing a kiss from an innkeeper’s daughter, Rupert is more likely to kidnap the girl and “ruin” her – such a useful euphemism! And while Rudolf will do the right thing even if it hurts him, Rupert will cheerfully sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. They are a little like Jekyll and Hyde – two extremes of the same personality, one good, one evil. And Rudolf recognises this himself – although he finds Rupert morally reprehensible, he still admires his spirit and bravado, and finds his outrageous behaviour amusing.

The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is by Nicholas Daly, Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. He tells us about the impact and legacy of the book, which spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. There were successful stage adaptations in both London and New York, and several film versions, and Daly gives many examples of later books and films that were inspired by it. Ruritania itself, although imaginary, has taken on a life apart from the book. Wikipedia gives a list of instances when it has been used in order not to offend real nations: for example, “Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer cited Ruritania as a fictional enemy when illustrating a security treaty between Australia and Indonesia”. Isaac Asimov apparently also used it if he wanted to tell a joke that was based on ethnic stereotyping, substituting it for the nation or people in the original joke.

Anthony Hope

The plot is very well done. It’s quite simple – how to free the King and restore order – but Hope uses the impersonation aspect to tie all three participants up in a tangle where each is prevented from taking the easy option without destroying his own plan. And he skilfully puts the reader in the position of not being sure what the best outcome would be. This gives it the suspense that keeps those pages turning – it’s hard to put down so it’s fortunate that it’s short enough to be read in an evening.

A thoroughly entertaining read, perfect for the next time you feel the need to buckle your swash! Or should that be swash your buckle…? Either way, recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – This edition isn’t out yet in the US but can be pre-ordered here

53 thoughts on “The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

  1. What fun, FictionFan! Swashbuckling, romance, danger, and all in a way that tells a good story. It’s one of those stories that takes the reader out of everyday life for an adventure. And I couldn’t agree more about the pacing, storytelling, and point of view. I think they all add to the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, nothing like a good old swashbuckler to take your mind off things! It’s a lost art, this kind of adventure story that’s just for fun. I really must try to get hold of the film – the intro suggested it was highly entertaining too… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely! I love that the OWC does some of these lighter adventure stories alongside all the serious stuff. In fact, it was the HG Wells sci-fi novels that got me addicted to OWC editions in the first place!

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  2. I really enjoyed Hope’s novel, though I seem to remember a bit of alongueur a little before the end (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-zenda). Wish I’d had an edition like this with its intro and notes.

    Interestingly Pullman wrote a Ruritanian novel called The Tin Princess, part of his excellent Sally Lockhart series, though it’s the weakest of the four in my opinion.

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    • I didn’t really notice it dragging towards the end. I think I like that era’s style of writing so much that I’m usually happy just to enjoy the vocabulary and effortless grammar! (I’m sure that makes me either a geek or a nerd – possibly both… 😉 ) The intro was excellent – it didn’t try to suggest that the book was more profound than it is. Instead it talked more about the various adaptations and how it influenced other writers.

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  3. Well I’ve learned something, FF, as usual when I read one of your reviews. I had no idea about Ruritania but now I’ll be ready for the references. Sounds like a fun choice to transport the reader away from reality! And I think I like “swash your buckle.” 🙂

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    • Ha! I’ve got a feeling Ruritania is very European and possibly not as well known as it used to be, but I’m pretty sure that when I was young I thought it was a real country! Didn’t know back then that it originated in this book. I think I prefer swash your buckle too, though I’m not averse to buckling my swash on occasion, if necessary… 😉

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      • Can’t remember when I realised that the buckle-element in swashbuckling was a buckler — it’s the small round target-shaped shield used in close swordfighting — but to ‘swash your buckle’ evidently means to wave or flaunt your weapons: in other words, a swashbuckler is a show-off, someone who knows they’re good at one-to-one combat and wants everyone to know it! Errol Flynn, in all those Robin Hood and Zorro films, is a good visual example.

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        • Errol Flynn is always who comes to mind for me when I think of swashbucklers – I was gutted to discover he isn’t in the film of this one! However although he’s not the star, I see Douglas Fairbanks Jr is in it and he’s nearly as much fun… 😀

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    • I haven’t read anything else by him but I’d like to after this – it really is great fun! I love these old swashbuckling adventures – nobody writes books like these any more… 😀

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    • Hahaha! Swashbucklers used to be so popular but they seem to have faded away now. No CGI monsters can possibly be as exciting as Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr having a swordfight in an old castle… 😀 I’m happy to hear that since I think swashing your buckle sounds like much more fun than buckling your swash… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha! That could be used as a sobriety test! 😉 I think they’ve gone out of fashion now but for a while there were loads of swashbuckling adventure stories set in fictional countries – so much easier than trying to research real ones…

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  4. I read this a few years ago and really enjoyed it – you’ve reminded me that I had intended to read the sequel, “Rupert of Hentzau”, and never got round to it. Maybe this would be a good time as I’ve been struggling to concentrate on reading recently; a good old swashbuckling adventure might be just the thing to get me out of my slump!

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    • Sadly the intro for this one gave the plot of Rupert of Henzau away so I’ll have to wait now till I’ve forgotten it before I read the book. Fortunately with my rubbish memory that shouldn’t be too long! I must say this was just the thing for me right now – the only book I’ve managed to actually get lost in since all this anxiety set in. Nothing like a good old swashbuckler for taking our minds off things! 😀

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  5. Who doesn’t need a good swashbuckler (does it come with a good scrubbing?) during these trying times? I like that it’s more complicated than when first viewed on the surface. Perhaps it will find it’s way onto my pile…

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