Thu
Sep 16 2010 1:16pm

Ridiculously honourable: Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) is an immensely readable and remarkably enjoyable book. It’s arch and funny and exciting in a swashbuckling way that makes it one of the wellsprings of twentieth century fantasy, even though it is not in itself fantastical. I hadn’t read it since I was about ten, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it now and laughed aloud several times. If you haven’t read it and don’t mind reading on screen, I suggest downloading the free Gutenberg version (linked above) now and reading it in your coffee breaks for the rest of the day.

It’s not technically fantasy. Ruritania isn’t marked on our maps of Europe, but it isn’t full of giants and dragons, either. We’re supposed to take it as a country we’ve overlooked, a German principality somewhere on the edges, ruled by Elphbergs who are closer to Hapsburgs than to Elves, but nevertheless the kind of place where adventures happen.

Rudolf Rassendyll is an idle but honourable Englishman who happens to be descended on the wrong side of the blanket from the Ruritanian royal family, and to sport the distinctive nose and hair of the house of Elphberg. Going to Ruritania on holiday, he meets the new king out hunting on the day before the coronation, and takes the king’s place to avoid scandal after the king is drugged and subsequently kidnapped. This leads to complications, especially when Princess Flavia, destined to marry the king, starts to fall in love with his double.

This is the ur-double identity novel, or anyway the first one I know of. The similarity between Rudolf and the king is passed off as a family resemblance because of a genuine relationship. The hair and the nose are the same, they are the same height, they’re not absolutely identical. The idea is that they’re close enough to pass as a double to somebody who doesn’t know the king well—and that’s enough. It’s surprisingly plausible.

There’s no family to fool. This is much more like Double Star than it is like the other double identity books I’ve just been reading. It’s royalty, and it matters at a kingdom level (like a lot of fantasy) it’s not domestic, and there’s no revelation. The ending is quite different, but it’s otherwise much more similar than I had remembered.

The Prisoner of Zenda is full of villains, last minute escapes, duels, chases, sword-fights, ambushes, and a moving encounter around a tea table. I don’t want to spoil it. One of the really charming things about it is how ridiculously honourable Rudolf is—he’s desperate to rescue the king before the wedding, even though he loves Flavia and she loves him. Rupert, one of the villains, suggests at one point that they kill the people on both sides who know Rudolf isn’t the king, leaving him in control of the country. Rudolf never entertains this for an instant. He’s more honourable and romantic than anybody could be—and he’s all the better for it. This is not a book where psychological realism is an issue. This is a romp; princesses are beautiful, heroes are honourable, villains twirl their moustaches and live in awesome double castles with dungeons and drawbridges. It’s fast and fun and first person—and a charming first person Rudolf is.

There’s a sequel, also a double identity book, also available for free download, Rupert of Hentzau. This was written four years later after the first book was a bestseller. It suffers from several defects which the first book doesn’t. It’s much slower. It has a Ruritanian narrator who’s painfully Germanic and earnest—which is fine in a sidekick, but not so good in a first person narrator. It’s much darker, and not in a good way. And while I was sympathetic with the ridiculous levels of being honourable in The Prisoner of Zenda, I wasn’t here—perhaps a Victorian reader would have been happier with this, but I wasn’t.

Also, I could have sworn I’d read a different sequel when I was a kid, with different events. I must have dreamed it. Oh well. In my dream version, the king goes off on four weeks holiday every year and leaves Rudolf to impersonate him (and have passionate but chaste conversations with Flavia), then one year he doesn’t come back and they have to find out what’s happened without admitting he isn’t there. If I didn’t dream it, does anybody know what book this is?


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

25 comments
Paul Cornell
1. Paul Cornell
One of my absolute favourite novels. What a grand Englishman abroad our hero is. The charisma of the villains is fun too.
Paul Cornell
2. Foxessa
Thank goodness your re-reading hasn't been overwhelmed by the invading zombie hordes.

Have you read Sherwood Smith's new release provoked by Ruritanian romance, Coronents and Steel? The protagonist is a young, female San Franciscan student, fluent in languages and pop culture reference, trained in fencing, with hair down to her ahem.

Because her grandmother's ailing, she treks off to Middle Europe to find out more about her grandmother's family. Adventures and Romance, with and without magic (or time slippage? not clear at this time, though maybe more so in a subsequence volume?) ensue, in a land in which cell phone and internet signal don't work well or at all due to atmospheric conditions (as I am temporarily living in one those regions here in the U.S., until very recently, they do exist). Then she goes home.

Love, C.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Foxessa: I haven't read it yet, though somebody recommended it in the Double Identity thread. I'm keeping an eye out for it, I've enjoyed a lot of Sherwood Smith.
Ken Walton
4. carandol
This has just reminded me of a double-identity novella I read recently - "Victoria" by Paul di Fillipo, in which the young Queen Victoria runs away, and is replaced on the throne by a half-human/half-newt hybrid prostitute (a failed biological experiment) while our heroes go looking for the missing monarch. It's in the Ann & Jeff VanderMeer anthology, Steampunk.
Eric Nelsen
5. ohagyo
Never read it, but now I certainly will! I have loved the movie since I was a kid, and the cast is a parade of 30's movie greats--Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., David Niven, Raymond Massey, C. Aubrey Smith, Madeleine Carroll, Mary Astor. I would guess you've seen it, but if you haven't I think you would enjoy; the energy and tone of the movie is very similar to your description of the book.

Re this being the ur-novel of double identity, I believe Twain's The Prince and the Pauper was published at least a decade or so before 1894.

Others have mentioned A Tale of Two Cities but the device is used only at the end so I would disqualify it as a double-identity novel because the double identity is not the driving force of the plot. And also Shakespeare of course--but those are not novels either.

Thanks for posting on this one!
Paul Cornell
6. OtterB
I love this book.
Sol Foster
7. colomon
ohagyo's right, Prince and the Pauper came out well before this, and The Man in the Iron Mask well before that. All three are worthwhile, IMO. I'll have to dig up the movie version, I don't think I've seen it...
Cassandra Farrin
8. welovetea
I'm totally going to read this! Thanks!! :D
Pamela Adams
9. Pam Adams
Your dream book for some reason makes me think that it's something by Ganpat- not Harilek, but perhaps one of the others. Time to dig around on the shelves.....
Paul Cornell
10. peachy
A definite favourite - though I don't recall Rudolf as being quite so perfectly honourable as all that, at least in his own thoughts. (He is pretty well irreproachable in deed, however.)

And yeah, Rupert is a downer - tense but ultimately depressing, whereas Zenda's ending is merely bittersweet.
Paul Cornell
12. Brentus
Thanks! I'll check this out.

Also, you can avoid reading the gutenberg version on a computer screen if you have a Kindle. Just email the HTML version to your free.kindle.com to get it converted to the Kindle format.
Paul Cornell
13. Anna_Wing
There is a third book of Ruritanian short stories, the deservedly obscure "The Heart of Princess Osra", one of which does feature a collateral ancestor of Rupert of Hentzau, Bishop Frederic. A Good Hentzau, rather than a Bad one, but equally dashing, even as a man of the cloth.
Paul Cornell
14. Philgecko
Another book to be aware of is Phil Pullman's homage to the double genre and Prisoner of Zenda in particular - The Tin Princess. It's one of the Sally Lockhart series.

The Lockhart quartet are interesting books in that they use the genre tropes of late Victorian literature and melodrama, but have a deliberately 20th/21st Century take on these, allowing the author to examine politics, feminism etc...
Del C
15. del
It's interesting to read those old books and recognise the (later) styles of the SF writers of my youth,  I got flashes of Heinlein from Captains Courageous and Bus Stop (a Depression-era novella that later became the movie It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert).  

From The Prisoner of Zenda I get hints of Poul Anderson (especially from Flavia, who makes me think of many of Anderson's women).  
Paul Cornell
16. PaintedJaguar
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a knock-off (or copy) of Zenda called The Mad King. I believe it was originally published as two novellas or serials, then re-issued as a single book. I read it about 40 years ago, before I had read The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert, so I can't say how close the resemblance is, but I remember it as being a pretty rousing tale, typically Burroughs with a fast moving plot and the usual helping of coincidence. My copy was one of the 1960's Ace paperbacks with a high-romance Frazetta cover.
Lianne Burwell
17. LKBurwell
One book that I still love that is in the Ruritania style, although without the doubles, is The Prince Commands. Andre Norton's very first novel (1934), and still one of my favorites of her books. It's about a boy/young man raised in the united states who is suddenly told that with the death of his cousin, he is now the heir to the throne of a tiny European kingdom he'd never heard of. On his arrival in the country, on the way to the capital, he is captured by a notorious bandit devoted to the overthrow of the government, and who is blamed for the death of the hero's cousin, the previous heir to the throne.

It has dastardly villains, grand heroes, battles in the mountains, sword fights, and everything else you love in this field of books.
Paul Cornell
18. Nineveh_uk
And while I was sympathetic with the ridiculous levels of being honourable in The Prisoner of Zenda, I wasn’t here

This also irritated me in the sequel. Not the least of it was that in the first book, Rudolph and Flavia actually _are_ honorable. But in Rupert, when the men are talking about saving the Queen's honour, they're actually not. They are saving the Queen's face - her honour is gone when she writes love letters to another man. That said, the implication that Rupert has been funding his exile as a gigolo ("services for which he did not scruple to receive payment" - not as a hired sword, because we've already been told he does that), added a certain entertainment. Oh dear, there really is no villain more dashing than Rupert of Hentzau!
Paul Cornell
19. jonquil
I strongly disagree about the Queen's honour. The Queen's honour would be damaged if she were committing adultery with another man; the problem is that the King, who is presented as unreasonable and paranoid, would take the love letters, which are innocent, as proof of adultery. I love Rupert because, hey, more Rupert.

I am happily watching this thread with Amazon and Project Gutenberg windows open. Another option would be George Barr McCutcheon's Graustark novels, which are Ruritania imitations; the first one is pleasurable, although nowhere near as good as the original. Jo, I think your dream-novel must be another pastiche.

Rudolph -- Flavia -- always.
Joseph Blaidd
20. SteelBlaidd
One of my favorite riffs on the Prisoner of Zenda is the one that they do as one of the stops in the classic movie "The Great Race" (New York to Paris) with Jack Lemmon playing the parts of the feckless prince and his (evil)double.
Paul Cornell
21. Lil Shepherd
I adore both books - perhaps being half German helps with Fritz's narration - but my own theory is that The Prisoner of Zenda is the first modern thriller, particularly in respect of the writing style and the non-stop action. I see people like Alastair Maclean as direct descendents of Hope.

Avoid, at all costs, Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair by David Stuart Davies.
Paul Cornell
22. a-j
A quick note of thanks. I knew of the book and have seen the Ronald Coleman film, but thanks to this piece I've been reading the novel on Gutenburg and you are right, it's great, especially Rudolf's voice which reminds me of J in Three Men in a Boat. Up to chapter 12 and after Rudolf, favourite character is Colonel Sapt. Haven't met Rupert yet.
Joe Romano
23. Drunes
My wife and I just watched the 1950s version of the movie today on TCM and enjoyed it thoroughly, although I understand the 1930s film with Ronald Colman is the better. After reading this post, I have to read the book , too, and downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.
Paul Cornell
24. Fran Felicitato
good book, the only problem was that it was too long and difficult vocabulary!
Paul Cornell
25. Gardner Dozois
I misesd this thread back in 2010, but I can't let it go by again without mentioning the greatest of all PRISONER OF ZENDA pastiches, George MacDonald Fraser's ROYAL FLASH, which casts Flashman, more or less, in the role of a very reluctant Rudolph, or at least someone in a very similar situation. The novel is fast and funny, and if anything even more action-packed and thrilling than the original novel, with Flashman trying in vain to avoid the heroics called for all the way through.
Paul Cornell
26. tam2
I think of this as the movie Moon Over Parador with Richard Dreyfuss.

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