Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda. What a book! I still remember the day I got it from the library--an ugly old large-print hardcover--and found myself unable to tear myself away, it was so exciting and wonderful. Even if you've never heard of the book, you know the plot: English gentleman of leisure Rudolf Rassendyll travels to the small Balkan kingdom of Ruritania shortly before the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. There's a family legend that says the Rassendylls have royal Ruritanian blood, and indeed when our hero gets to that country it becomes obvious that he and the new king are identical cousins! Tickled by this happenstance, the King invites Rudolf for a cousinly feast on the eve of his coronation...and then mysteriously disappears, spirited away by his scheming half-brother, Black Michael! The King's two loyal aides, Colonel Sapt and Count Fritz von Tarlenheim, swear that Black Michael shall never sit on the throne of Ruritania...and the only way to stop him is to put Rudolf Rassendyll there instead, pretending to be the real King! In disguise, our hero must outwit Michael and his six sinister henchmen, romance the real King's fiancee, escape multiple assassination attempts, and find a way to rescue the King from the sinister Castle Zenda!

Pardon the exclamation marks. They seemed necessary.

This book is wonderful. What with the danger, romance, intrigue, galloping through the moonlight, swimming moats, getting stabbed, and falling prey to the lovely Princess Flavia, our Rudolf manages to have a tolerably amusing time. It's an exhilarating adventure, practically perfect in every way. The characters simply ooze a dramatic sense of honour and duty:

Colonel Sapt: If that door is opened while we're away, you're not to be alive to tell about it.
Fritz von Tarlenheim: I need no schooling, Colonel.

And of course there's Rupert of Hentzau, Black Michael's right hand and chief backstabber. No other villain in the canon of Western Literature manages to be evil with this much shameless panache.

The book ends on a bittersweet note, with a sequel hook, of which more later. It may be imperfect, but whenever anyone says 'Vintage swashbuckler' this is the first book I think of: The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope, adventure novel extraordinaire.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording


Anonymous said...

Pity Black Michael's party didn't succeed! Rudolph Vth appears to have no redeeming features except legitimacy. Half brothers rarely get a good press in fiction. Rassendyl and friends are only distinguished from Black Michael's cohorts by snobbery and class. The only surprise is that there is not ( to my memory) a Jewish villain amongst them!
Still a damn good read though. Kim

Suzannah said...

I would disagree, Kim. :) Class and snobbery are not the real difference between the good guys and the bad guys in this book. Black Michael and his six henchmen are of the same aristocratic class as all the other main characters and both sport similar attitudes toward the "commoners". Although the ordinary folk do seem to prefer Black Michael (in the same way that the Australian voting public seems to prefer Kevin Rudd, of all people) they are not his allies.

No--now that you mention it, and make me think about it, the true difference between the good guys and the bad guys is a sense of honour.

It occurs to me that this may merit further discussion. If you visit back in a few days, I shall hope to have a more in-depth Zenda review up.

We may disagree, but I appreciate thinking more deeply about this book and I'm quite excited to have spotted what may be a theme. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

An interesting point you don't go into is that the entire plot of The Prisoner Of Zenda follows the moves of a game of chess which is, I believe, playable (unlike the game in Alice Through The Looking Glass). The king is so useless because in chess, kings spend most of their time pinned down by every opposing piece, aren't allowed to do anything unselfish because that would mean moving into check, and can't move very quickly at the best of times anyway.

You'd think this kind of artificially rigid plot would force the book into a strait-jacket and make it horribly contrived and rather dull, but it has to be admitted that Anthony Hope pulled it off splendidly. Are there any other examples of books from a bygone era which attempted a similar trick, with or without success? Alice Through The Looking Glass doesn't count because that's chess as understood by a seven-year-old who doesn't really know the rules - I'm pretty sure that you can't have both white rooks on the same square in real chess, and even if you could, they aren't supposed to fight each other!

By the way, in the sixties somebody thought it would be a good idea to film The Prisoner Of Zenda as a comedy vehicle for Peter Sellers in the rĂ´les of the identical cousins. It wasn't.

Suzannah said...

The reason I did not go into the chess aspect is that until you commented, I'd never heard of the theory or given it much thought! That is FASCINATING. Is there a book/article on the subject to which you can point me, or was this your own discovery?

Annita Wheeler Parmelee said...

Indeed, the exclamation marks were necessary! This was one of those books that made me, in some real way, homesick. Honor reigned, sacrifice in service to meet the need was accepted, and love both was, and was not enough. And it was just fun to read.

Suzannah said...

Wonderful summary, Annita! I'm so thrilled you loved it. You must tell me what you think of the sequel, RUPERT OF HENTZAU - it's not as good, but the climactic duel is spectacular.


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