A commenter on my previous review of The Prisoner of Zenda—actually the first review ever posted on this site, and quite a short one by current standards—recently got me thinking by claiming that the bad guys, Black Michael and his henchmen, in The Prisonder of Zenda, are no different to the good guys, Rudolf Rassendyll, King Rudolf V, and their followers.
Let me explain a little.
The Prisoner of Zenda is the story of half-brothers. Rudolf V of Ruritania is the heir to the throne; his younger brother and rival, Black Michael, is the offspring of a morganatic marriage—that is, the marriage of a royal to a woman of lower rank, under the explicit provision that the issue will have no claim on the throne. One famous couple that were morganatically married were the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, whose double assassination triggered World War I. For those of you feeling indignant on Princess Sophie's behalf, this was no black-and-white two-class struggle. Sophie was in fact a countess in her own right, and of noble, though not royal blood. According to Wikipedia, the children of morganatic marriages usually inherited their mother's titles or were given titles by their fathers. Many went on to marry into other royal families, thus becoming royals in their own right.
As the child of a morganatic marriage, Black Michael is barred from the succession of his father's throne but not from privilege and property
However, to many modernist readers, this is not the crux. It's often argued that Black Michael would make a better king than Rudolf V because according to Anthony Hope, he is more popular among the common people of Ruritania, especially the capital, Strelsau.
The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. [...] In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent, and (in large measure) criminal class. These social and local divisions corresponded, as I knew from Sapt's information, to another division more important to me. The New Town was for the King; but to the Old Town Michael of Strelsau was a hope, a hero, and a darling.
It is, perhaps, owing partly to this paragraph that the only Prisoner of Zenda fansite on the web, The Ruritanian Resistance, is dedicated to Black Michael's cause:
As an old-time pinko-subversive, Yours Truly was always rather sceptical of the wisdom and morality, in The Prisoner of Zenda, of propping up a brattish absolute monarch in a repressive autocracy, while his younger half-brother, widely regarded as the champion of the common people, the only hope of Strelsauer Altstadt's slum-dwellers, was depicted as a villain...!!! 19C Ruritania was not a country you'd really want to visit, let alone live in: the capital's police-chief reported to the King daily with lists of people under surveillance; the Chancellor was responsible to the King directly and could be dismissed by him at will. It was even more autocratic than Bismarck's Germany or the Habsburg Dual Monarchy of the time. [...] Seeing how Rudolf V turned out after 3 years in Rupert of Hentzau (im-maturing from spoilt, selfish playboy to, erm, spoilt, selfish paranoiac) only reinforces the reader's lingering suspicion that the Duke could not have been much worse...
And here again we have the view, on a subversive reading of the novel, that there is not much to choose between Michael and Rudolf—and that Michael is preferable.
Now I don't want to pretend that Anthony Hope was a great novelist who knew what he was doing. You and I know that he wasn't. He was a good novelist with one of those one-in-a-million high-concept ideas, with just the skill to pull it off, although he had to massage time and reality to do it, and only got away with it because it was so much fun. And so I will only pause briefly to point out the fact that that Black Michael was popular shouldn't entitle him to much, and certainly not the crown. If that is so then Kevin Rudd is a better and more competent Prime Minister of Australia than Julia Gillard, and maybe George Clooney should be the next US President.
So what is the difference between the villains and the heroes of The Prisoner of Zenda? After all, one lot are trying to put a half-competent villain on the throne, and the other lot are trying to save it for an unpopular, pettish playboy with severe mental problems. What gives?
And my answer is, Is this a trick question?
Even to ask it is to forget that Rudolf V is the legal heir, and that his instability and ill-health only stems from Black Michael's treachery in kidnapping, ill-treating, and all but killing him in the most barbarous manner.
The difference between the villains and the heroes is that the villains are despicably evil, and the heroes are good and honourable.
And in fact honour is the most important thing here.
Because above everything else, the story is about honour, and the tension between honour and keeping up appearances. Rassendyll's impersonation of the king, masterminded by Colonel Sapt, is perhaps not strictly honourable, but Sapt is driven by a regard for the reputation and honour of the king: how can they turn up to the waiting crowd in Strelsau and admit that Rudolf V is too hungover to be crowned? To keep up appearances Rudolf Rassendyll courts Princess Flavia; but in the end, his sense of honour will prevent him stealing her away from her country, which needs her. The real subversion of the story does indeed occur to Rudolf at one point: he can defeat Black Michael, drop the King in the moat, marry Princess Flavia, and become the King Ruritania truly needs...but to do so would be to sacrifice everything he believes in: Loyalty. Faithfulness. Honour.
And this is why Black Michael can never be the right king for Ruritania. Because he is dishonourable, disloyal, and unfaithful—even to the woman he loves. Rupert of Hentzau, who is a master at keeping up appearances (a notorious rake himself, he has a servant flogged at one point for smirching the morals of Zenda by staying out all night) is Black Michael's right-hand man and even more flagrantly dishonourable than Black Michael himself. Indeed the poetic justice of the book lies in how Hentzau betrays his own treacherous master.
Some of you may be wondering what difference there is between honour and dishonour, or why Black Michael should be supposed so particularly dishonourable. Honour is, after all, one of the great casualties of modernism. Honour is the impulse to do the right thing even when the right thing appears to be leading you straight away from everything you've ever hoped for or loved. Honour is found in Norse epics, where “every man of decent blood is on the losing side”. It's found in a vainglorious form in the Song of Roland, where Roland's insistence that he and his buddies can hold off the Saracen hordes just fine without calling for help leads to his death and the death of all his friends. But then, it's found in the right form in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, where Syme goes down into a cellar to die only because he has sworn not to call the police, and “it was his last triumph over these lunatics to go down into their dark room and die for something that they could not even understand.”
That's honour: a dedication to doing the right thing even when the right thing is the last thing you want to do. That's the virtue which The Prisoner of Zenda revolves around. Because in the end, it doesn't matter that Black Michael could have been a more capable king (although his Chancellor would have been Rupert of Hentzau, and that's a situation that's never going to end well). He wouldn't have been the right king; and that is what makes the difference.