The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
Frontispiece to the 1898 Macmillan Publishers edition, illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson. Via Wikimedia Commons
  • Anthony Hope
  • Category:Adventure Fiction
  • Date Read:10 June 2023
  • Year Published:1894
  • Audiobook version:LibriVox recording by Andy Minter
  • Running Time: 05:42:29
  • Pages:140
  • 2.5 stars

Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda is set in the lush, green, mountain kingdom of Ruritania. At Strelsau, its capital city, preparations are being made for the coronation of Rudolf the Fifth, the next Elphberg ruler in line. This catches the fancy of the Rudolf Rassendyll, a minor English nobleman, who is traveling to Ruritania to witness the king’s coronation. He is also the narrator of the story. The Rassendylls still remember with disgust the scandalous affair from a few generations ago. An Elphberg ruler had had an affair with the wife of Baron Rassendyll. Since then, here and there a Rassendyll is born with red hair or a protruding nose, both distinctive features of the Elphbergs. Much to his sister-in-law’s chagrin, Rudolf Rassendyll has both of these features.

Soon after reaching Ruritania, Rudolf learns that he looks almost exactly like the king. When the king is drugged on the eve of his coronation, his closest confidantes, the old and cunning Colonel Sapt and the young romantic Fritz von Tarlenheim, decide to take Rudolph Rassendyll to the coronation to play the part of the King. This is justifiable according to them to avoid an embarrassment. The king is already unpopular among the masses who would prefer to see his half-brother, Black Michael, the Duke of Strelsau, on the throne. But further treachery is in store for them. Black Michael manages to whisk the king away and imprison him in his castle at Zenda.

The unforeseen situation has consequences for both camps. The ‘king’ cannot attack Zenda for fear that the duke would murder the prisoner. The duke, on the other hand, cannot reveal that the new king is an impostor without revealing his treachery. He lacks the backing to openly stage a coup. His only plan was to occupy the throne as the next choice when the king failed to turn up at his coronation and was nowhere to be found. The rescue must be made soon and without involving too many men.

This story is carried elegantly. It never appears to be forced or constrained. There are several characters, each trying to push the plot according to his or her wishes. There is Black Michael’s lover, Antoinette Mauban, who would lose him to Princess Flavia if he ascends the throne. There is the villainous Rupert Hentzau who has no loyalty and would go along with whatever suits him best. Marshal Strakencz of the Strelsau police is conducting inquiries into the missing Rudolf Rassendyll. And most importantly, Rudolf Rassendyll and Princess Flavia are in love and Rudolf may no longer want to rescue the king.

When I started listening to this audiobook, I expected lots of descriptions of swordfights and castles under siege, but thankfully these devices are used in moderation. The sense of adventure is carried by the predicament of the characters; their not knowing if they will make it to the next scene. Fight scenes exist only to resolve this tension and are not the main highlight. There is no literary depth whatsoever beyond the story itself. Rudolf is self-reflective in places but only to the extent of analysing his momentary feelings. He is thoroughly a misogynist and condescending towards women:

It will be observed that my sister-in-law, with a want of logic that must have been peculiar to herself (since we are no longer allowed to lay it to the charge of her sex), treated my complexion almost as an offence for which I was responsible, hastening to assume from that external sign, inward qualities of which I protest my entire innocence; and this unjust inference she sought to buttress by pointing to the uselessness of the life I had led.

Chapter 1: The Rassendylls—With a Word on the Elphbergs

The prose does not lend itself very well to the audio format, but Andy Minter does a superb job like all the other books that he has read for LibriVox. It is not difficult to follow but the author frequently resorts to ornamental convolutions which may be pleasing to the eye but aren’t as easy to understand when listening with your ears.

As things were now, I had more work than Sapt and Fritz could manage, for they must come with me to Zenda, and I wanted a man to guard what I loved most in all the world, and suffer me to set about my task of releasing the King with a quiet mind . . .

I charged him with the care of the princess, looking him full and significantly in the face as I bade him let no one from her cousin the duke approach her, unless he himself were there and a dozen of his men with him.

Chapter 11: Hunting a Very Big Boar

One can enjoy the story for its style and flourishes. It exudes adventure in every sentence. But this is definitely not a story that I would like to read a second time, mostly because of its dated style.

Prisoner of Zenda (1952) Official Trailer - Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) - Fight scene between Rassendyll and Rupert of Hentzau
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Anthony Hope
Anthony Hope (1863-1933) was a British novelist and playwright. He was a prolific and successful writer who is best remembered for his Ruritanian Trilogy. He wrote several plays for the United Kingdom's Ministry of Information. He was knighted in 1918 for his contribution to propaganda efforts during World War I.
The Prisoner of Zelda 1913
The Ruritanian Romance
The plot of this book spawned the genre of Ruritanian Romance in which sword-wielding adventurers rub shoulders with aristocrats in imaginary kingdoms. Winston Churchill's novel Savrola (1900) is an example of this genre in which parliamentary democracy is restored in the kingdom of Laurania.
Andy Minter
Andy Minter
Andy Minter (1934-2017) was a prolific LibriVox audiobook narrator. In his spare time, he recorded an eclectic trove of little-known books as diverse as >Bladys of the Stewpony by Sabine Baring-Gould, The Gamekeeper at Home by Richard Jefferies, The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald and The Wrong Box by R. L. Stevenson. His rendition of The Card by Arnold Bennet has often been voted and cited as the best audiobook of LibriVox on various forums and websites, including LibriVox itself.