Let’s do this.
Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those books that sparked a genre. That this genre, the Ruritanian romance, no longer exists is beside the point. Once you’ve read the original you’ll realize how much it saturates our collective imaginations. Its DNA can be seen to this day almost everywhere: romance fiction, travel writing, science fiction, even fantasy.
At its most basic, The Prisoner of Zenda is a swash-buckling romance. Slightly disrespectable upper class Englishman, Rudolf Rassendyll, is bored and kicking around for something to do. He decides to head to the continent, but after taking a detour to visit the central European country of Ruritania he quite quickly gets caught up in that country’s politics since he bears an uncanny resemblance to Ruritania’s soon to be crowned king. (The resemblance is explained by one of the hero’s ancestors having had an affair with a visiting Ruritanian dignitary ages ago.) The king’s younger brother, Black Michael, wants the crown for himself and attempts to do away with the king on the eve of his coronation. He might have succeeded too, but by chance Rudolf Rassendyll is on hand to fill in for the king and be crowned in his stead. From there the stage is set for intrigue, escapes, and romance as the Princess Flavia finds herself falling for the king who to her eyes has become a new man overnight. Will she discover that the man she loves is not what he seems? Will Black Michael succeed and claim the throne? Will Rudolf have the real king slain so he can remain king permanently?
It’s a good read. Hope can tell a story and keep it moving, but with just enough crunch to stay interesting. Doubling abounds, not just as impersonators but also as opposites. Rudfolf Rassendyll is the double for King Rudolf V, Princess Flavia is doubled by Black Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban. The villains Black Michael and Rupert von Hentzau have a relationship that mirrors that of the King and Rassendyll, even down to their love triangles.
Going into this I thought Ruritanian meant any sort of story in a made-up country and got caught up in that line of questioning. Why can we imagine fictitious countries but not fictitious US states? Were Latveria and Wakanda Ruritanian? Where’s the line between making up a country for fun and making one up out of ignorance? Etc. After reading The Prisoner of Zenda I felt that it’s not simply the fictional backdrop that makes something Ruritanian, but the outsider from a more “advanced” civilization who by stroke of luck is the ultimate insider in this less advanced civilization. This adventure tourism angle is as much a part of the genre as the made up countries. It allows our civilized hero to shed some of civilization’s restraints and engage in a way of life that they could not get away with back home. (Maybe that’s me being an American that lives abroad reading a bit more into the genre than what’s there. I don’t know.)
But it’s impossible now after the read not to see Ruritanian shades everywhere: portal fantasies where school children go to magic lands and become prince and princesses. Sword and Planet fantasies where Confederate Army veterans go to Mars, woo princesses, and become chieftains. Space Operas with vaguely Austro-Hungarian societies gallivanting about in starships. Even James Bond being James Bond. It’s all Ruritanian now, or at least a cousin to it like Rudolf Rassendyll’s relationship to the throne.
Next month, PLAGUE!
Next weekend, Black Water book club resumes!