Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope Hawkins is a nineteenth-century action and thriller novel about the abduction of the king-to-be of the fictional land of Ruritania. The work inspired a long line of similar novels set in bucolic but fictional central or eastern European worlds; indeed, it proved so popular that it birthed a new literary sub-genre: the Ruritanian Romance.
The story begins as Rudolf V, the soon-to-be-crowned king of Ruritania, holds a celebratory festival the night before his coronation proceedings. Rudolf Rassendyll, an Englishman and distant cousin of Rudolf V whose name and appearance bear an uncanny resemblance to the king-to-be, attends the festivities and reunites with his cousin. While the cousins celebrate, Duke Michael of Strelsau, Rupert V’s younger half-brother, seizes the opportunity to clear his path to the crown and drugs the king-to-be while drunk and vulnerable.
Upon awakening, the attendants find Rudolf V in a stupor. Unbeknownst to them, he is still affected by Michael’s plot. However, they assume he is still drunk from the night before, so they act swiftly to ensure the coronation proceeds without a hiccough: the attendants convince the unwilling Rassendyll to capitalize on his fortuitous resemblance to the stupefied king and attend the coronation in his stead.
Rassendyll begrudgingly agrees and convincingly plays the part of Rudolf V. With the ceremony a success, the attendants and Rassendyll return to check on the king. However, during the coronation, Duke Michael set the second part of his plan into motion and kidnapped Rudolf V. The panicking attendants beg Rassendyll to continue playing the part of the king until they discern the true king’s whereabouts and recover him from captivity. Left with no choice, the Englishman agrees.
The unwitting protagonist finds himself in a strange, one-sided stasis with the villainous Duke Michael, as the Duke cannot unmask him without revealing his treachery. Rassendyll comports himself admirably, and no one is the wiser that he is not the true king. Shortly after, the lovely Princess Flavia arrives at court. Against his better judgment, Rassendyll begins to fall for Flavia, an unfortunate affair doomed from the start, as Flavia is betrothed to Rudolf V, the true king.
Duke Michael’s mistress informs the attendants that he is holding the king prisoner in the castle at Zenda. Rassendyll and a group of loyal men scope out the castle, but loyalists to the Duke attempt to kill Rassendyll and force him to abort the effort. Through Rupert, one of Duke Michael’s most loyal henchmen, the Duke proposes a deal, offering to pay Rassendyll handsomely if he renounces his claim to the crown and leaves Ruritania. The Englishman rejects the offer, and Rupert attacks him but fails to do more than wound him.
Rassendyll and the king’s attendants plot a way to retrieve the king; to better understand their situation, they kidnap a servant from the castle and force him to tell them all he knows. The servant, Johann, explains that the Duke has ordered guards to kill the king and discretely dispose of his body if Rassendyll attempts an assault on the castle. With this information in mind, Rassendyll turns to stealth, sneaking into the castle and ensuring the king’s good health. As he sneaks out, a servant notices him, and a fight ensues, which leads to deaths on both sides. Rupert, Duke Michael’s servant, reveals that he is in love with the Duke’s mistress and offers to betray him by aiding Rassendyll. The Englishman once again turns down his offer.
Johann tells Rassendyll and his men that the king has grown ill and Duke Michael sent for...
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a doctor. With this new information, Rassendyll feels that the time for action has come for decisive action and bribes Johann to open the castle door for him in the early hours of the morning. However, the Englishman once again sneaks into the castle before the agreed-upon time and watches as Rupert fails to seduce Michael’s mistress, is caught in the act, kills his master out of jealousy, then escapes the pursuit of Michael’s guards. With Duke Michael dispatched and the castle in chaos, Rassendyll steals the key to the king’s cell and retrieves Rudolf V.
The pair escape the castle, but so too does Rupert, who, after a brief, ultimately unresolved confrontation with Rassendyll, vanishes into the night. The story ends as Rudolf V regains his rightful position, a success celebrated by all but Rassendyll and Flavia, who regretfully part ways. Rupert of Hentzau, the sequel to Hawkins’ 1894 debut novel, picks up the tale three years later, telling the story of the escaped villain's efforts to manipulate King Rudolf with his knowledge of Rassendyll and Flavia’s affair.