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The Prisoner of Zenda (Oxford World's Classics)The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“…I fell to dreaming that I was married to the Princess Flavia and dwelt in the Castle of Zenda, and beguiled whole days with my love in the glades of the forest… when I heard someone exclaim:

“Why, the devil’s in it! Shave him and he’d be the king!”

Ginger people: rejoice! Your prodigious colouring is paid a joyous tribute in the form of this novel. And it warms my heart to say so. Blondes no longer have ‘all the fun’, nor are brunettes the wittier for their dark tresses. Oh no. ‘Elphberg red’ is all the rage in Ruritania. But jokes aside; you don’t get many red-haired heroes or heroines in literature. And when you do, its mainly
ridiculed and made fun of. So I was surprised that a narrative like this begun with the merits and faults of that most underrated of hair colours. What’s more, Hope makes it a primary feature of his story, as he once stated:

“I think the two variants which struck the popular fancy in my little book were royalty and red hair; the former is always a safe card to play, and its combination with the latter had a touch of novelty”

How insightful of him. Unfortunately things haven’t changed since then, as the red-haired hero is still a novelty to us modern readers, but I suppose it’s that novelty which amused me so much and bid me to carrying on reading.

On another note which may cause misconception: the title. Don’t let it put you off as it did me. Well, I certainly think so, as it got the first 4/5 stars for the year. It may sound all serious and gloomy, but ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ is a surprisingly fun tale of romantic adventure and derring-do. This slim story takes place in the imaginary country of Ruritania, where upon the eve of his coronation, the Prince meets a distant cousin. The apropos encounter has more than a smattering of ‘Prince and the Pauper’ about it, as the two long-lost cousins are uncannily alike in looks, in nature, and moreover in name (both are called ‘Rudolf’, and bear the flaming red hair of the Elphberg line). However, after a night of reckless drinking and dining, the would-be king develops more than a hangover: he is poisoned. The only thing left to do? Send cousin Rudolf in his place, of course! However, things are not that simple, as poor Rudolf discovers that the would-be king has an enemy in the form of ‘Black Michael’, (the Prince’s brother from a morganatic marriage) who has his eye on the throne.

Anthony Hope has weaved a damn good yarn borrowing threads from the Abel and Cain story to add further flavour. There is also a good helping of chivalry and romance in the form of the beautiful Princess Flavia and the unfortunate Antoinette de Mauban. Despite being a quick read at 170 pages I found the kingdom of Ruritania, it’s inhabitants and environs to be well-developed. This also goes for the main characters, who delighted me with their little quirks. Reading this reminded me of miniature statues, mainly because Ruritania and her subjects are really a mirror held up to England’s political and social status during the 1890’s.

In fact, I was pleased to have picked up on this, as Hope admitted that Ruritania was much more than a fictitious realm. In fact, he was making some very bold statements about England, which back then was at the height of its colonial power. For those interested, my edition of the text is the Oxford World Classics that has a wonderful introduction by Tony Watkins who goes into more detail about this. He also touches on the highly formulaic structure of the ‘Adventure Novel‘ and quotes from Raymond P Wallace’s ‘Cardboard Kingdoms’, a theoretical study into the genre that really gets into the nitty-gritty of it for the academically minded.

Overall, I have discovered that there is much more than meets the eye with Hopes’ ‘Zenda’ series. When this was first published, Hope received praise from the likes of Andrew Lang and Robert Louis Stevenson. Since then it has been turned into a play, a musical and been filmed five times. It has also become a serious subject of study with regards to the Adventure novel.

Other tales set in Ruritania are: ‘The Heart of Princess Osra and other Stories’ and ‘Rupert of Hentzau’. Personally, this story is just crying out to be made into a swashbuckling RPG game. Square-ENIX, are you listening?

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