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Man in the Iron Mask

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My noble half-brother whose throne I usurped will be killed, not kept anonymously imprisoned in a forgotten cell of my dungeon.
Evil Overlord List, Rule #3

(If you're looking for the novel, see The Three Musketeers)

So you've usurped your noble brother/half-brother's throne and your control is complete. Seems like the thing to do is to kill him and bury the corpse in a pauper's grave. But you're a nice Evil Overlord, so you opt simply to throw your brother, the one person who could cast your authority to rule your entire empire into doubt, into prison (or a monastery) and forget to tell anyone that he's your brother.

Of course, the hero discovers that the noble half-brother is still alive and frees him, restoring order to the kingdom, making the reader ask Why Don't You Just Shoot Him? before the hero shows up?

Sometimes this is justified on the grounds that shedding Royal Blood has side-effects, or that the land will suffer if the rightful king dies. Non-magically speaking, it could be that Even Evil Has Loved Ones and the Evil Prince is not evil enough to turn into a new Cain or the rightful ruler voluntarily went into exile as part of a deal and I Gave My Word because Even Evil Has Standards.

The essential criteria for this Plot trope:

  • The prisoner is of noble blood, royalty or otherwise of very high social rank, high enough to be able to claim supreme power;
  • His imprisonment — quite possibly his very existence or the very fact that he is alive — is a secret hidden from most of the guards and/or the people at large;
  • Releasing the prisoner would put the overlord's reign (or plans to reign) in jeopardy.

Contrast Hidden Backup Prince, who is a similarly hidden rightful heir, but for protection from their enemies.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Berserk: Late in the Golden Age Arc, The King of Midland imprisons Griffith in a dungeon under torture as punishment for deflowering his daughter Charlotte, even though the mere fact that Griffith is alive represents a threat of rebellion from the Band of the Hawk. At least the King tries to prevent that from happening by preemptively outlawing Griffith's followers and ordering Midland's army to wipe them out. The king keeps the place of Griffith's imprisonment and the nature of his crime a secret to avoid losing face and to make sure that Griffith doesn't escape, telling the guards he'll kill them and their families if they breathe a word about it. The one who gives word to the Hawks about what happened is none other than Charlotte herself, and this provides the impetus for a rescue mission once Guts and Casca reunite, and for bonus points they find that his captors had literally put him in a locked iron mask that concealed the horrible things the torturer had done to his face.
  • One Piece: When Sanji was just 8 years old, his father, Judge, extremely displeased with how Sanji was born a "dud" despite receiving the same physical/psychological alterations as his quadruplet brothers in utero, had his son thrown in the dungeons with an iron mask on his face and publically declared dead so the Vinsmokes could start over with a "clean slate". Fortunately, his older sister, Reiju, freed him and helped him run away to the East Blue.
  • Evillious Chronicles: This is what the king of the Yellow Kingdom does to his son Len in a non-canon manga adaptation of "Servant of Evil" upon hearing the murdered fortuneteller's prophecy that the child born with the birthmark shaped like a splatter of blood will bring ruin to his kingdom. The king declares that Len's twin sister Rin is the only heir who was born that night and imprisons Len in a tower where he remains alone until Rin discovers him years later. Justified in that it's made explicit that killing the prophesied child will also bring ruin to the kingdom.

    Comic Books 
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (Marvel): Crimson Guardsman Fred VII kills the original COBRA Commander and takes his place, concealing his own identity with the mask of CC's battle armour. The Commander turns out to be Not Quite Dead and returns the favour.
  • Superboy: In Superboy 1949 #5, Norvello gets an iron mask locked over Queen Lucy's head and melts the key. His plan was to keep Lucy masked and locked up while he carried out a smear campaign against her, but Superboy exposes his plan and then releases and unmasks Lucy.
  • The Warlord: Travis Morgan is captured and imprisoned by Deimos while an Identical Stranger usurps his position as Warlord of Skartaris. An iron mask is locked over Morgan's head to prevent his gaolers learning his true identity.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Touhou Project doujin The Silence of the Rabbits, it turns out that Eirin was incapacitated and replaced by a clone she created to manage her other major creations, but who went very evil. Eirin is a Hourai Immortal and cannot be killed, so the clone had her imprisoned in a People Jar while she spent much of her time as "Eirin" trying to formulate a poison that would kill the original. The clone lived in constant fear of the original Eirin, due largely to the fact that she was designed using the template for the Udonge clones and cannot even hope to match the original in power.
  • In Towards the Sun Prince Zuko was thrown in a dark, small jail when he was captured after his post-eclipse Heel–Face Turn. Fire Lord Ozai had Zuko jailed instead of executed with the implication that he wanted his son to waste away and die in jail. And to be able to gloat to Zuko's face. Ty Lee and Mai attempted to break Zuko out of jail but failed. Ultimately it was Zuko's jailers who release him to take throne. Zuko was the only royal left after Ozai's defeat and capture by the Avatar and Azula going insane.

    Films — Animated 
  • King Candy from Wreck-It Ralph usurped the throne of Princess Vanellope von Schweetz by replacing her code with his. He couldn't outright delete her code, so he turned her into a glitch, leaving her as a prisoner in her own game. On top of that, King Candy locked up the memories of everyone in the game, including Vanellope herself, and developed a Fantastic Racism against her in order to keep her from racing, as her crossing the finish line would cause the game to reset, restoring her rightful place on the throne, and exposing Candy's con.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Vicomte de Bragelonne (see under Literature below) has had several film adaptions of varying fidelity focused on this subplot with the prisoner with the iron mask being a hidden twin of King Louis XIV, usually retitled The Man in the Iron Mask:
    • In The Iron Mask (1929), Phillipe the twin is allowed to live in comfort in a chateau with servants. It's Phillipe who usurps the throne from his twin brother, and has the real Louis XIV put in a dungeon, clad in an iron mask.
    • The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) introduced the trend of having Louis XIV himself as the Big Bad.
    • The Iron Mask (1962). A lighthearted take on the novel and the only French film adaptation to this day, it stars Jean Marais as an old and hammy D'Artagnan and has the latter being sent by Cardinal Mazarin to find the escaped prisoner with the Iron Mask, who just wants to be free and live with his Love Interest Isabelle (Claudine Auger).
    • Richard Chamberlain starred in 1977's The Man in the Iron Mask where the older twin son had been spirited away for leverage to make the younger one a Puppet King. To prevent this, the younger king has his brother imprisoned with the mask, but not killed because it would be Tempting Fate to commit regicide (especially of an identical twin). The older one was rescued and managed to confuse the younger's flunkies so that his brother was sent off for the same fate.
    • The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) starred Leonardo DiCaprio (fresh off Titanic) as both Louis XIV and his twin brother Phillipe. The movie has the switch between the Evil Twin and Good Twin succeed. It was notable for massive Adaptation Distillation, Louis being more evil than depicted in the novel, and the twist that D'Artagnan was the real father to the twins.
  • In Asterix & Obelix Take on Caesar, Julius Caesar is locked in an iron mask and thrown into a dungeon by the traitorous Detritus. The Gauls encounter the masked Caesar while escaping from the Roman camp, and bring him along. Only when they're back in the village do they discover whom exactly they just rescued.
  • In Snow White & the Huntsman, Snow is kept alive and imprisoned after Ravenna takes over the kingdom, with no explanation as to why.
  • The Dogs of War. A politician who opposed The Caligula in the independence elections is kept in his prison, working as the doctor there. This provides a handy alternate not only to the mad dictator, but also the Puppet King that the mercenaries were supposed to put in power. This doesn't happen in the Frederick Forsyth novel, where the man who ends up in charge is a rebel leader from a completely different country, who had to flee after losing a civil war. Fortunately the country has a large immigrant population from that man's country, enabling him to have a power base there.
  • The Jewel of the Nile. Omar Khalifa plans to convince the tribes of North Africa that he is the new Al-Juhara "Jewel of the Nile", a holy man who can perform miracles, so he can lead them to conquer the neighboring countries. He has the original Al-Juhara locked up, but the latter notes that Omar is too superstitious to risk killing him.

  • In The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas père, the Trope Namer, King Louis XIV has a twin brother, Philippe, who is kept in the Bastille — by their mother, the dowager queen — to avoid the possibility that he might usurp the throne. This is based on accounts of a real prisoner in the Bastille (among other prisons) forced to wear a mask. His identity was never revealed. This also subverts expectations as the attempted switch fails, unlike in all its myriad adaptions, and Philippe is only forced to wear the iron mask after the plot is thwarted.
  • Subverted in the Sword of Truth; part of the enchantments on the Rahl bloodline makes that an unfortunate necessity. Any Rahl who isn't an absurdly powerful wizard has a chance of being a "Pristinely Ungifted" whose propagation threatens the existence of the world. That's not to say that all Rahls kill their children so as to save the rest of their world. Richard runs into most of the survivors over his adventures, with various levels of emotional scarring and insanity, possibly deconstructing this trope by showing what those behind the iron masks would actually be like growing up in their father's country.
  • Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle set in a Soviet-era "special prison" features a prisoner kept in isolation and referred to by the other prisoners as "the man in the iron mask", although his actual identity is generally known.
  • In some versions of Robin Hood, John claims to be raising money to free King Richard returning from The Crusades, but in reality is using the money to stay in power.
  • Played with a bit in The Prisoner of Zenda. You probably already know this, but, Kidnapping the rightful heir was an act of desperation, as the original plan — drug him and make it look as if he was too drunk to be crowned — suffered a Spanner in the Works in the form of a distant relative of the royal family who resembled the heir closely enough to pass as the intended King in the short term. The would-be usurper would have had his brother killed immediately, but that would have made it impossible to depose the ringer without incriminating himself. For the stand-in King's part, acting to rescue the real King would have revealed himself as an imposter, so the situation became a Mexican Standoff.
  • The Discworld novel The Truth briefly lampshades and plays with the trope. The story involves a plot to dethrone Magnificent Bastard Lord Vetinari by framing him for a crime using a man who looks just like him. After the plot is thwarted, William De Worde asks Vetinari if he's giving his lookalike this treatment. Vetinari responds that the man is, in fact, not only alive but is now signed up with the Guild of Actors, appearing as Vetinari in stage productions and children's parties. William de Worde theorizes that he might occasionally be used as a stand-in for Lord Vetinari when the real one is unavailable for some boring task or posing for an oil painting, but Vetinari just answers that with a characteristic blank look.
  • The Mage In The Iron Mask (Nobles series). Includes a lampshading of the fact that a Man in the Iron Mask would have to be let out of it once in a while to shave, or he'd suffocate on his own beard.
  • In Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged meets two people alone on a desert island, barely capable of understanding human speech. In The Tombs of Atuan Tenar explains that they were the last children of a royal line, and the God-Emperor was afraid to kill them, since they had Royal Blood, so he abandoned them there, very young. Subverted in that Ged did not rescue them; in fact, they were terrified at the prospect of leaving their island, which they had lived on alone since they were children and were now at least middle aged. Royal blood clearly included excellent survival instincts, but they were a bit past their "crown by" date. The God-Emperor may have been cautious, but his grip on power was quiet definitely cemented when he had them exiled.
  • Eye Of The Dragon by Stephen King. In this case it's the Evil Chancellor who engineers the king's imprisonment by framing him with a very public trial, and when he's eventually freed the replacement king (his younger brother) is all too willing to give him back the throne.
  • One of the Xanth novels has the good King Omen imprisoned in secret by his usurper uncle Oary. When foiled, Oary admits that he would have been more successful if he'd killed Omen, but he's not quite evil enough to kill his own nephew.
  • In the backstory of the Ravenloft novel Tower of Doom, a nobleman's wife births a hunchbacked child and his undeformed twin. Their father doesn't lock up the malformed baby's face behind a mask, but he does lie about which kid was born first, raising the handsome younger twin as his successor while his blighted brother, the true heir, is confined to the titular bell tower.
  • In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "A Witch Shall Be Born", Salome, the Evil Twin of Queen Taramis, does this to her sister when becoming the Fake King. She wants to break her and make her suffer.
    Thenceforward I am Taramis, and Taramis is a nameless prisoner in an unknown dungeon.
  • Eric does this to Corwin at the end of the first book in Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber. Somewhat subverted — it is later revealed that this was done as much to protect Corwin as to keep him off the throne.
  • King Jakoven in Patricia Briggs' Hurog series built the Asylum specifically to lock up his brother Kellen, having been warned in a prophecy that it would be a very bad idea to kill his brother. While it's common knowledge that he's in there, most of the common people seem to have bought the idea that he's genuinely nuts, rather than unjustly imprisoned.
  • Directly mentioned as a comparison in the BattleTech Expanded Universe after the events of "The Sword and the Dagger." Maximillian Liao had devised a plan, Operation DOPPELGANGER, to create a Body Double of Hanse Davion and use him to disrupt the Federated Suns and perhaps even take the throne. The plot was foiled when Hanse's closest friend, Ardan Sortek, sprung the true Hanse Davion from captivity and confronted the double in a rousing public session of Spot the Imposter. The double had been brainwashed so thoroughly so as to all of Hanse's public memories and as such was privy to many of the same details as the real Davion. Sortek among others had been discredited as valid identifiers of the real Davion as part of Liao's ploy, almost leaving the duplicate on the throne... except he failed the one Impostor-Exposing Test that could not be faked, bribed, or discredited: activating Prince Hanse Davion's personal BattleMaster with a secret code phrase only the real Hanse Davion would know. Hanse himself admitted that the plan was strategically brilliant, but why this plan did not include Liao assassinating Davion is left unanswered.

    Live-Action Television 
  • In the Smallville episode "Onyx", Lex is split into his good side and his evil side after accidentally creating Black Kryptonite. His evil side locks up his good side, complete with the requisite iron mask and lampshadeing the situation.
  • In one alternate-universe in Legend of the Seeker, Richard does this fairly stupidly, though in a rather unusual fashion. Unsurprisingly, it backfires. Turns out, leaving your omnipotence-macguffin out in the open, unstoppable though it may be, is a bad idea.
  • In The Flash (2014), Zoom has a man in an iron mask kept in a prison cell on Earth-2. The man is later revealed to be Jay Garrick, the Flash of Earth 3, whose name Zoom "borrowed" while pretending to be a hero as a sick joke. The mask also hides another big reveal: he's the Earth 3 doppelganger of Barry's father.

    Tabletop RPG 

  • In the second BIONICLE movie, Lhikan gets this treatment, down to the mask. Weird but funny in hindsight, because most characters wear masks anyway. The character in question actually complied with the treatment to be able to train three of the Toa Metru. It turns out he could have escaped at any time.
  • In another LEGO line, Knights' Kingdom, Lord Vladek usurped the throne and, rather than killing King Mathias due to the threat he posed to Vladek's rule, simply had him locked up in the Castle of Morcia's dungeons instead. Of course, this allowed La Résistance to rescue Mathias, learn of Vladek's true intentions, and ultimately restore the rightful king to the throne.
  • In Ever After High, Headmaster Grimm's brother Giles is stowed away in the basement of the school. According to the trailer, he's actually trapped down there, and considering the Headmaster's antagonism toward the Rebels before they even do anything, that wouldn't be surprising.

    Video Games 
  • In Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, while on prison island, the player can stumble upon an old man, who turns out to be thought-to-be-dead rightful king of kingdom of Cumbria. The player can help him regain the throne, in which case under his command the kingdom thrives. This is, however, due to his willingness to commence reforms and accept technology (which, by the way, was the reason why he was couped out of power by his technology hating brother), not some kind of magical property of Royal Blood.
  • Appears in Lunar: The Silver Star. Lemia had her memory wiped by an enchanted mask and is locked away in the dungeon while the usurper takes her place. The cast doesn't realise who she is upon finding her, and free her mainly out of pity and disgust at her... less-than-pleasant condition.
  • A subversion of this appears in the Kingdom Hearts series, with the character Diz. in reality Ansem the Wise, his kingdom and his very name are taken by his apprentice, Xehanort, whose Heartless and Nobody are the main antagonists of Kingdom Hearts I and '"II'' separately. When he escaped from his prison, he decided to fulfill the disguised-face bit himself, with at least one instance of him used magic to impersonate the guy impersonating him.
  • Because he's technically noble (a knight), Final Fantasy XII's Basch fon Ronsenberg (of Dalmasca) counts. His twin brother put him in prison after he (the twin) framed Basch for the murder of the king of Dalmasca years earlier. The public at large assumed him dead, though instead he's in chains at the bottom of the world's most infamous prison-fortress. He goes on to be freed by Vaan, Balthier, and Fran, eventually joining them permanently in order to safeguard Princess Ashe.
  • In Mileena's ending in Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (non-canon, like pretty much all the others), she will do this to Kitana after Blaze's scattered essence causes them to exchange looks (i.e. Mileena gets a normal face, Kitana ends up looking like a Tarkatan). As a result, Mileena becomes free to drive Edenia to destruction without any hitch, while Kitana will Go Mad from the Isolation.

    Visual Novels 
  • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice has a rare example where there's an entirely justified reason why the usurper keeps the original ruler alive. Ga'ran took the throne by faking the assassination of her sister, Amara, and framing Amara's husband for it so she would hide her identity and become Ga'ran's prisoner voluntarily. She couldn't simply kill Amara because in the Kingdom of Khura'in, only spirit mediums can become queen, and unbeknownst to the general population Ga'ran lacks the power to channel spirits, so she needs Amara around to perform a Twin Switch whenever a channelling is required.

    Western Animation 
  • Used in The Legend of Korra with Amon keeping Tarrlok imprisoned on Air Temple Island due to the two of them being brothers. In true trope form, it ultimately proves to be Amon's undoing as Korra uses Tarrlok's knowledge of Amon's true past to turn the Equalists against him.
  • Disney's DuckTales (1987) has "The Duck In The Iron Mask". Scrooge visits his old friend Count Roy, who rules a small kingdom, to find that his twin brother Ray has usurped the throne. Roy, in the obvious role, explains that he never told Scrooge about his brother because he felt responsible for his brother's disappearance.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Has Princess Cadence, who was imprisoned in some sort of crystal mine while Chrysalis, Queen of the changelings, took her place. Twilight Sparkle then gets thrown into the same place and breaks her out.

    Real Life 
  • The legend of the Man in the Iron Mask was based on actual records found from Bastille. There are a lot of theories regarding the Man's identity, but very little information remains of the real events. What has been discovered is that the Iron Mask itself was an exaggeration - the mask was just silk, and the Man probably wore it voluntarily. A fair amount of evidence points to his having been an insignificant figure whose knowledge was dangerous, not he himself note . You will not find that in any of the legends.
  • Aversion: The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (the guy who took Constantinople) realized that having siblings around to challenge the throne was not a good thing for the ruler and the kingdom so he not only recommended fratricide, he legalized it (on a royal level) and put together a framework to deal with troublesome siblings. It was only removed during the later periods of the empire and overall, it is generally considered a success (though it had the unfortunate side-effect of making said siblings mentally unstable and paranoid). Of course, towards the end it was a straight example as the Sultan's siblings were confined to the harem (which were closer to royal family living quarters than brothel in Real Life) for life rather than killed outright.
  • Ivan VI Antonovich Romanov, an Emperor of Russia. Crowned when he was one year old, after his great-aunt Empress Anna Ioannovna the Bloody died. Deposed by Elizabeth of Russia, who thought that, as the daughter of Peter the Great, she has a better claim to the throne, one year later. Grew up in prison, understandably strange and lacking in education, but knowing well who he was. One disgruntled, plotting Guards officer in Catherine the Great's times tried to free Ivan Romanov and reinstate him on the throne. It ended with both Ivan and the guardsman killed.