Literature / The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure novel by Anthony Hope, published in 1894. The king of the fictional country of Ruritania is abducted on the eve of his coronation, and the hero, an English gentleman on holiday who fortuitously resembles the monarch due to being his distant cousin, is persuaded to act as his political decoy in an attempt to save the situation.

When Rudolf is forced to keep up the pretense for longer than a simple coronation, he finds himself having to deal with Duke Black Michael: the King's brother, kidnapper, and attempted usurper of the throne. He also becomes acquainted with Flavia, the King's beautiful young cousin... who suddenly finds herself more attracted to the ruler than ever before.

The book is responsible for many tropes on this site that are listed below. Likewise, it has been remade into several films, books and episodes of series since.

Not to be confused with The Legend of Zelda.

This work features examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Rupert of Hentzau.
  • Anti-Villain: Michael
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Michael is a double subversion. He is an aristocrat (Duke of Strelsau and a Prince, if not in line to the throne because his parents' marriage was morganatic). He subverts it by being an evil Duke, since Dukes tend to be good. He then subverts that when it's pointed out that his father specifically gave him a freshly created duchy (which is ruled from the capital city, no less) in the hopes that being the second-most powerful noble in the kingdom would be enough to sate his ambition (it wasn't).
  • Beardness Protection Program: Double subverted. Rudolf shaves his beard when he begins to impersonate the king. Both the king and Rudolf are bearded to begin with, but the beard removal is a convenient justification for why something about the king seems off.
  • Becoming the Mask
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Bleed 'em and Weep: Antoinette. Somewhat subverted in that after she misses the first shot, she pauses and visibly forces herself to calm down. Rudolf doesn't wait for her to aim properly.
  • Did Not Get the Girl
  • Emergency Impersonation: Rudolf first impersonates the King at the coronation when Prince Michael drugs the king (hoping to discredit the King by making it look like he missed his coronation due to a horrendous hangover). Later becomes more serious once the King's abduction is discovered.
  • Enigmatic Minion: Rupert of Hentzau.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: During one of their bantering conversations, Rudolf, who like others knows about Rupert's womanizing and immoral behavior causing his mother grief, comments "Thank God" when Rupert replies in the affirmative that his mother is dead. This angers Rupert and causes him to momentarily lose his affable mask.
  • The Evil Prince
  • Fake King
  • Gentleman Adventurer: Rudolf is an example of the good version, and the book also has an Evil Counterpart on Michael's side, Detchard, who is a mercenary but just as loyal to Michael as Rudolf is to the King (and at least an equal swordsman; Rudolf admits he probably would have lost if the delirious king hadn't intervened).
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Princess Flavia, in this case.
  • Heroic Bastard: Rudolf, the hero, is illegitimately related to the royal family of Ruritania. Black Michael is a "double bastard".
  • High-Dive Escape: Rupert dives into the moat to escape from Zenda, though Rudolf pursues him into the forest. Rupert's final escape comes when he steals a horse from a passing peasant girl.
  • Honor Before Reason: If not for this, the plot would have been: Rudolf exiles or kills Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim, lets the king get killed, marries the girl and becomes king in his own right. Sapt lampshades it about a third of the way in.
  • Identical Stranger: King Rudolf and Rudolf Rassendyll although, in this case, they are distant cousins.
  • Improvised Weapon: The tea-table used to Shield Bash three men.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Pretty much every character, but especially Michael.
  • Love Makes You Evil: One of Black Michael's reasons for overthrowing the King of Ruritania is that he loves the King's fiancee Flavia, and Rupert wants to get Black Michael's mistress into bed and ends up killing Michael because of it.
  • Lost in Imitation
  • Mexican Standoff: Rudolf describes the situation between him and Black Michael in this way. He even name-drops "The Critic", a play written in 1779, which is considered the first parody of the trope.
    Rudolf:' "In fact, Fritz," said I, "I am reminded of a situation in one of our English plays—The Critic—have you heard of it? Or, if you like, of two men, each covering the other with a revolver. For I can't expose Michael without exposing myself..."
    Sapt: "And the King."
    Rudolf: "And, hang me if Michael won't expose himself, if he tries to expose me!"
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad: Rupert and Black Michael's other minions, referred to in the story as "The Six".
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The 1937 Ronald Colman film version is generally considered to be the best of the cinematic versions and one of the best swashbucklers ever made, though it changes some details, as in introducing Hentzau near the beginning and making Flavia a blonde. It launched the career of David Niven (von Tarlenheim) and proved that Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Hentzau) could play a convincing villain.
  • Red Baron: Prince Michael, Duke of Strelsau, is very rarely referred to by any other name than "Black Michael".
  • Red-Headed Stepchild: Rudolf's sister-in-law expresses somewhat joking condemnation of his red hair, as this trait serves as a reminder that one of the earlier kings of Ruritania had an affair with one of the countesses in the (traditionally dark-haired) family, and thus it's essentially knowledge that the current earl (Rudolf's brother) has an illegitimate claim to the title.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Guess.
  • Royal Blood
  • Royally Screwed Up
  • Ruritania: The Trope Namer, with a few splashes of Unbuilt Trope (See Unbuilt Trope below)
  • Secondary Character Title: The Prisoner of Zenda barely appears in the book itself as he is, well, imprisoned. The lead character is his distant relative and relative.
  • Sequel Hook: At the end of The Prisoner of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau has escaped, and the novel closes with Rudolf musing on that loose end, as well as a personal feeling that he might yet have some "part to play" in the world. There was, of course, a sequel titled Rupert of Hentzau.
  • The Starscream: Rupert of Hentzau.
  • Succession Crisis
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: Upon Rupert's return from, allegedly, the Tyrol, his friend Featherly assumes that he met some woman there and carried on a dalliance with her, which is why he didn't let anyone know where he was going. Rupert decides that this is as good an explanation as any and drops hints to reinforce the notion.
  • Swashbuckler
  • Unbuilt Trope: Despite being the trope namer for tiny, fictional backwaters Hope's Ruritania is apparently at least a middling sized, reasonably modern (by late 19th century standards) kingdom. Zenda itself has a handsome modern chateau built around the medieval castle, the capital city of Streslau is described by Rassendyll (a Londoner no less) as a "great city" and the narrative even notes the kingdom has played important roles in European history. It's essentially the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the serial numbers filed off.
    • The early imitation Ruritanias also tended to be pretty idyllic places, whereas Stephenson's Ruritania is not. Socio-economic divides are huge, banditry is rife, the king is not particularly competent and so impopular he needs to marry a well-liked noblewoman to gain popularity by proxy, but still an absolute monarch, and infighting in the royal family has pushed the nation to the brink of civil war.
  • The Usurper: What the plot is built on.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Evil Prince, Black Michael, is beloved the people in the "Old Town" of Streslau and in his seat of Zenda, at least. The rest of the city's people are for King Rudolf, and we're never given much insight on how the people of the rest of the country feel.
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: While the heroes definitely think that Michael is the wrong man for the throne (Sapt would rather have the imposter Rudolf stay there than give the throne over to Black Michael), by the end of their adventures together, they wistfully reflect that they wouldn't mind having Rassendyl remain on the throne. As Fritz puts it, "Heaven doesn't always make the right men kings!"
  • You Fight Like a Cow: Rudolf and Rupert have several banter-filled duels of the kind affectionately parodied in The Princess Bride.

Adaptations of The Prisoner of Zenda:

  • The paramount of the adaptations is the straight one made in 1937.
  • The 1952 film version is virtually a shot-by-shot remade of the 1937 film, albeit in color. They even used the same score.
  • The Fourth Doctor serial Androids of Tara is a largely faithful adaptation set in space.
  • The 1979 film version is a comic vehicle for Peter Sellers. It's regarded as one of his weakest films, and when Peter saw it he said to the producers: "I have only one comment to make - my lawyers will be in touch with you."
  • The television series Prisoner of Zenda Inc. is a corporate-themed adaptation of the work.
  • The film Moon over Parador
  • The 1993 film Dave, starring Kevin Kline, where Ruritania is replaced by the United States of America.
  • An episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, where Iolaus was the king's cousin, although the king, once rescued, actually acknowledged Iolaus was doing a better job and vowed to learn to be like that.
  • The Robert A. Heinlein novel Double Star borrowed the "must take the place of the kidnapped leader'' bit as its main plot. IN SPACE.
  • The second Flashman novel (Royal Flash) is a Zenda homage. Given the series' setup, Flashman claims Hope plagiarized the story from him.
  • The Care Bears: Adventure in Wonderland swapped the social satire of Alice in Wonderland for this kind of plot.
  • The Get Smart episode "The King Lives?", with Agent 86 taking the place of the missing King Charles. One of the few episodes to have a sequel ("To Sire, With Love").
  • The Edgar Rice Burroughs novel The Mad King draws heavily on The Prisoner of Zenda (although moves the setting to World War One).
  • The Time Wars novel The Zenda Vendetta, in which time-travelling terrorists murder Rudolf Rassendyll, so one of the heroes — who fortuitously also resembles the monarch — has to impersonate him impersonating the King.
  • Inverted at one point on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. At one point, a Time Travel incident leads to a historical figure getting killed before the events that made him famous. Since he's not famous yet, what he looks like doesn't really matter, except that he was black and his race was significant. So Captain Sisko ends up taking his place to preserve the timeline. A few seasons later, Nog is looking at a file about Earth history, and he finds a section on this guy with a picture. He remarks how he looks just like Captain Sisko.
  • The 1965 film The Great Race has a sequence in which the villain Professor Fate is taken for the imbecillic Prince Frederick Hapnick; Baron von Stuppe plays the Hentzau part, complete with a bungled High-Dive Escape.
  • The book was recently condensed for Malaysian secondary schools as part of a program to expose classic English Literature to the public.
  • One issue of Jon Sable, Freelance is a Whole Plot Reference to The Prisoner of Zenda, with Jon playing the Rudolf role.
  • One Adventures in Odyssey episode is a Whole Plot Reference to The Prisoner of Zenda.
  • Kim Newman's novel The Hound of the D'Urbervilles borrows several characters and situations from The Prisoner of Zenda, especially in "A Shambles in Belgravia", which tosses Irene Adler into the Ruritanian succession debacle.
  • Ace Attorney Investigations 2 has this with Zheng Fa president Teikun Ō, whose body double steps in for him after his death. Except the body double was part of the group that conspired to assassinate him in the first place.
  • Victorian Romance Emma its plot and dialogue is used to parallel the romantic problems a character is having.
  • The 1988 Animated Adaptation by Burbank Films Australia.