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The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure novel by Anthony Hope, published in 1894. The king of the fictional country of Ruritania is abducted on the eve of his coronation, and the protagonist, an English gentleman on holiday who fortuitously resembles the monarch, is persuaded to act as his political decoy in an attempt to save the situation. The villainous Rupert of Hentzau gave his name to the sequel published in 1898, which is included in some editions of this novel. The books were extremely popular and inspired a new genre of Ruritanian romance, including the Graustark novels by George Barr McCutcheon.

Plot summary

The narrator is twenty-nine year old the Hon. Rudolf Rassendyll, younger brother of the Earl of Burlesdon and (through an ancestor's sexual indiscretion) a distant cousin and look alike of Rudolf V, the soon-to-be-crowned King of Ruritania, a "highly interesting and important" Germanic kingdom somewhere imprecisely between the German and Austrian Empires. Ruritania is, like Germany and Austria-Hungary at that time, an absolute monarchy. Rudolf Elphberg, the crown prince, is a hard-drinking playboy, unpopular with the common people, but supported by the aristocracy, the Catholic Church, the army, and the rich classes in general. The political rival to this absolute monarch is his younger half-brother Michael, Duke and Governor of Strelsau, the capital. Michael has no legitimate claim to the throne, because he is the son of their father's second, morganatic marriage: there are hints, from his swarthy appearance (he is nicknamed Black Michael) and Rassendyll's elliptically referring to him as a "mongrel", that he may be partly Jewish. Michael is regarded as champion of Strelsau's working classes, both the proletariat and the peasants, and of what Hope refers to as the criminal classes. The novel seems sympathetic, however, with those who would support the dissolute despot, King Rudolf.

When Michael has Rudolf drugged, abducted and imprisoned in the castle in the small town of Zenda, Rassendyll must impersonate the King at the coronation. There are complications, plots, and counter-plots, among them the schemes of Michael's mistress Antoinette de Mauban, and those of his villainous henchman Rupert of Hentzau, and Rassendyll falling in love with Princess Flavia, the King's betrothed. In the end, the King is restored to his throne — but the lovers must part.

Adaptations

The novel has been adapted many times, mainly for film but also stage, musical, operetta, radio, and television. Probably the best-known version is the 1937 Hollywood movie. The dashingly villainous Rupert of Hentzau has been played by such matinee idols as Ramon Novarro (1922), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1937), and James Mason (1952).

Homages

Many fictional works that feature a political decoy can be linked to The Prisoner of Zenda; indeed, this novel spawned the genre known as Ruritanian romance. What follows is a short list of those homages with a clear debt to Anthony Hope's book.

Legacy

In a popular, but very questionable account, a German circus acrobat named Otto Witte claimed he had been briefly mistaken for the new King of Albania at the time of that country's separation from the Ottoman Empire, and that he was crowned and reigned a few days. However, the date of this claim (1913), and the lack of any evidence to back it up, suggests that Witte made up his story after seeing the first film version of the novel.

Author Salman Rushdie cited The Prisoner of Zenda in the epigraph to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the novel he wrote while living in hiding in the late 1980s.

The 1956 novel Double Star, by Robert A. Heinlein, shares plot elements with The Prisoner of Zenda.

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