The Prisoner of Zenda et seq. – Review

Anthony Hope. The Prisoner of Zenda. 1894; Amazon Digital Services, 17 May 2012. Ebook.
———. Rupert of Hentzau. 1895; Amazon Digital Services, 12 May 2012. Ebook.

Do you want to have simple, plain, sheer fun reading a book? Check out The Prisoner of Zenda. It has it all. As they used to say in the sixties: What a blast!

Having recently read a group of Victorian adventure stories, what with Sherlock Holmes, Doyle’s Tales of Terror and Mystery, Haggard’s novels, and even 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea all in the last month or so—it was only a matter of time that I would pick up Zenda.

Doyle tips his hat to Zenda. In his Holmes story “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client,” he tells of someone sailing on the ocean liner Ruritania. Yes, it sounds like Lusitania, but it alludes to Ruritania, the fictional kingdom where the Castle of Zenda is located. Holmes’ client, by the way, is an Austrian baron of a questionable reputation like the Black Duke Michael in Zenda or Rupert of Hentzau in its sequel.

The narrator of The Prisoner of Zenda is Rudolf Rassendyll, idle younger son of a British noble family. His older brother is the baron with the title. His sister-in-law considers him a ne’er-do-well. Immediately, the reader is charmed by his self-deprecating humor. Even when his life is in danger, he is having fun. He is thirty years old and yearns for adventure. He gets it. And like Charlie Marlow in Conrad’s “Youth,” he is young enough to see any adventure as a lark.

Ruritania is a city-state near Dresden. The novel looks back before Germany was united. Rudolf attended boarding school in Switzerland, so he speaks fluent German. A new king is about to be crowned in Ruritania, so he decides to join the festivities.

His family does not want him to go. Yes, it will be a bit crazy, just like going to Rio during Carnival. But it is more than that. The Baron and Rudolf’s great-grandmother was rumored to have had an affair with a Ruritanian prince. That apparently accounted for the relatively recent appearance of redheads like Rudolf in the family tree. It might considered bad taste to have a suspected illegitimate line of the royal house showing up at such an auspicious time.

When Rudolf arrives in Ruritania, he finds himself in a bigger adventure than he could have imagined. It turns out that Rudolf and the man about to be king are not only cousins but look so much like each other than hardly anyone can tell the difference.

When the king’s jealous brother kidnaps the new king and imprisons him in his castle in Zenda—the king is the prisoner of Zenda—the king’s allies devise a wild plan that will hopefully save the king’s life and disinherit the Black Duke Michael, his evil brother.

Plautus, Shakespeare, and others have used look-alikes for comic purposes. While our narrator never fails to see the humor or irony in his situation, the overall tale is too serious. People are murdered. It is a matter of justice and of life.

Things get further complicated because the king-to-be is betrothed to the beautiful Princess Flavia, a crowd favorite like Princess Di. It is, of course, an arranged marriage, and while each respects the other, the relationship is based more on duty than on love.

Rudolf meets the princess, and she falls in love with him. Oh, and there are others who ally themselves with the Duke for their own purposes. It gets delightfully complicated. I do not think I have enjoyed a swashbuckling novel as much since I read The Three Musketeers a long time ago.

Read it and have lots of fun. And, yes, there is something for everyone. Fans of romance novels would like it, too. The Prisoner of Zenda raises thoughtful questions about the nature of faithfulness and true love. What will Princess Flavia do?

Rupert of Hentzau is the sequel. Count Rupert was a minor character in Zenda, an evil ally of the Black Duke. Here he tries once again to disrupt the Kingdom of Ruritania, three years after the Prisoner of Zenda ends.

This story is told by one of the king’s new advisors, Fritz von Tarlenheim. His narration does not have the charm of Rudolf’s narration of Zenda. Still, he keeps the tale moving. Like many sequels (The Force Awakens anyone?), it is largely a recycling of the first plot. It may not be up to the level of Zenda, but it is still entertaining. Like many sequels, it ties up loose ends. For readers who are interested in Rudolf, Princess Flavia, and the other characters in Zenda, they will find this tale satisfying, or, at the very least, informative.

The title character Rupert of Hentzau is not actually in the novel very much. We mostly hear about him through others. Sometimes we hear a laugh behind a door or momentarily see his face in a crowd, and then he is gone. Although he is the villain and has nothing but his good looks and title to commend him, Rupert may have inspired some aspects of The Scarlet Pimpernel. In many of those stories, we see very little of the Pimpernel: We merely see the effects of his plots and maybe hear a laugh in the background.

One of the minor characters loyal to the king in Rupert of Hentzau is named Helsing. Dracula came out around the same time this did. Was Stoker’s Van Helsing named for Hope’s, or vice versa? Maybe it is just coincidence. Perhaps both were named for Helsingor, the Danish Castle where Hamlet takes place—Elsinore in English—which just means “neck” (of land) or peninsula. It sounds allusive anyhow.

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