The Prisoner of Zenda

by Anthony Hope Hawkins
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Last Updated on August 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 310

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 fictional Ruritania. This novel was the beginning of a long line of similar novels that take place in fictional European worlds, including perhaps the most famous: The Princess Bride.

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The novel begins just before the coronation of the king. Without this coronation, he will not legally and truly be king because of the inner workings of the government in Ruritania, so it is stressed that it is completely necessary that the coronation happens successfully. The king, however, is drugged and kidnapped so that he can't attend the ceremony, and he is locked away in the small town of Zenda.

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Latest answer posted May 11, 2021, 2:50 pm (UTC)

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While he is imprisoned, the plot proceeds forward to have Michael (King Rudolph's half-brother) claim the throne as the next rightful heir to the monarchy. Michael's mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, and Count Rupert of Hentzau, who later becomes a more prominent villain, have their own goals and schemes in mind that complicate matters and make both the original coronation and the ensuing seditious plot all the more difficult to plot successfully.

In order to prevent Michael from succeeding the throne, Rudolph's advisers persuade the king's English cousin, Rudolf Rassendyll, to impersonate him and take the crown in his stead, and then to have them switch it back to the rightful king whenever he is found; if he isn't, Rudolf can be a sort of acting king. Unfortunately, Rudolf falls in love the king's fiancee, Princess Flavia, but he is unable to reveal his true identity to her because it will ruin their plot. Rudolf sets out and succeeds in rescuing the king, who is then able to accept the crown and legally become the king. Unfortunately, Flavia and cousin Rudolf must part ways in spite of their burgeoning romance.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1269

To his sister-in-law, Lady Rose Burlesdon, Rudolf Rassendyll is a great disappointment. In the first place, he is twenty-nine years old and has no useful occupation. Second, he bears such a striking resemblance to the Elphbergs, the ruling house of Ruritania, that for Rose he is a constant reminder of an old scandal in which her husband’s family was involved. More than one hundred years before, a prince of the country of Ruritania had visited England and had become involved with the wife of one of the Rassendyll men. A child was born who had the red hair and the large, straight nose of the Elphbergs. Since that unfortunate event, five or six descendants of the English lady and the Ruritanian prince have had the characteristic nose and red hair of their royal ancestor. Rose finds Rudolf’s red hair and large nose a disgrace for that reason.

Rassendyll himself, however, has no concern over his resemblance to the Ruritanian royal family. A new king is to be crowned in that country within a few weeks, and Rassendyll decides to travel to Ruritania for the coronation to get a closer view of his unclaimed relatives. Realizing that his brother and sister-in-law will try to prevent him from taking the journey if they know his plans, he tells them that he is going to take a tour of the Tyrol. After he leaves England, his first stop is Paris, where he learns something more about affairs in the country he is to visit. The new king, also called Rudolf, has a half brother, Michael, duke of Strelsau. Michael would have liked to become king, and it is hinted that he will try to prevent the coronation of Rudolf. Rassendyll also learns that there is a beautiful lady, Antoinette de Mauban, who loves Michael and has his favor. She, too, is traveling to Ruritania for the coronation.

When he reaches Ruritania and finds the capital city crowded, Rassendyll takes lodging in Zenda, a small town approximately fifty miles from the capital, and prepares to travel to the capital by train for the coronation. Zenda is part of Michael’s domain; his hunting lodge is only a few miles from the inn where Rassendyll is staying. Rassendyll also learns that King Rudolf is a guest at his half brother’s hunting lodge while waiting for the coronation. In addition, he hears more rumors of a plot against the king and talk that Black Michael, as he is called, plans to seize the throne.

As he passes the days before the scheduled coronation, Rassendyll takes a walk every day through the woods near Michael’s hunting lodge. One day, near the lodge, he hears two men discussing his close resemblance to the king. The men introduce themselves as Fritz von Tarlenheim and Colonel Sapt, faithful friends of King Rudolf. While the three men talk, the king himself appears. The king has shaved his beard, but otherwise he and Rassendyll are identical in appearance. The king is pleased to meet his distant cousin and invites Rassendyll to the lodge; there the king drinks so much that Fritz and Sapt cannot wake him the next morning, the day of the coronation.

As the king sleeps in his stupor, Fritz and Sapt propose a daring plan to Rassendyll. They know that if the king does not appear for the coronation, Black Michael will seize the throne. Their plan is to shave Rassendyll’s beard, dress him in the king’s clothes, and have him crowned in the king’s place. By the time the ceremonies are over, the king will have recovered and will be able to take his rightful place; no one will be the wiser. It is a dangerous gamble, for exposure could mean death, but Rassendyll agrees to take part in the plot.

Fritz and Sapt lock the king in the lodge’s wine cellar and leave a servant to tell him of the plan when he awakes. Rassendyll, with Fritz and Sapt, then proceeds to the palace. With the two men to help him, he carries off the deception; he even convinces the Princess Flavia, who is betrothed to King Rudolf, that he is the real king. Playing the role of the king with Flavia is the most difficult part for Rassendyll, for he has to be gracious and yet not commit the king too far.

The success of the conspirators does not last long, however. When they return that night to the lodge, they find the servant they left behind murdered and the real king gone. Black Michael’s men have worked well. Black Michael and his men know that the supposed king is an impostor, and Rassendyll, Fritz, and Sapt know that Black Michael has the real king. Neither group, however, dares call the other’s hand. Rassendyll’s only chance is to rescue the rightful king. Black Michael’s intention is to kill both Rassendyll and the king and thus seize the throne and Princess Flavia for himself. Michael, with the help of his men, including the handsome Rupert Hentzau, attacks and almost kills Rassendyll many times. Once Rassendyll is saved by a warning from Antoinette de Mauban, for, although she loves Michael, she does not want to be a party to murder. Also, she does not want Michael to be successful, for his coup would mean his marriage to Flavia. Michael learns of Antoinette’s aid to Rassendyll and holds her a semiprisoner in the hunting lodge where he has also hidden the king.

Playing the part of the king, Rassendyll is forced to spend a great deal of time with Flavia. He wants to tell her his real identity, but Fritz and Sapt appeal to his honor and persuade him that all will be ruined if Flavia finds out that he is not the true king.

Rassendyll, Fritz, and Sapt learn that King Rudolf is dying, and they know that they must take a daring chance to rescue him. They and part of the king’s army attack the lodge; those not aware of Rassendyll’s deception are told that Black Michael has imprisoned a friend of the king. A bloody battle takes place both outside and inside the lodge. Black Michael is killed and King Rudolf wounded before the rescue is completed.

When it becomes clear that the king will survive, Rassendyll realizes that his role in Ruritania is over. The king sends for him and thanks him for his brave work in saving the throne. Princess Flavia also sends for him. She has been told the whole story, but her only concern is to learn whether Rassendyll was speaking for himself or for the king when he told her of his love for her. He tells her that he will always love only her and begs her to go away with him. She loves him as well, but she is too honorable to leave her people and her king, and she remains in Ruritania, later to marry the king and rule with him.

Rassendyll leaves Ruritania and spends a few weeks in the Tyrol before returning to England. His sister-in-law, still trying to get him to lead a more useful life, arranges through a friend to get him a diplomatic post. When he learns the post is to be in Ruritania, he declines it. Rassendyll resumes his former idle life, with one break in his monotonous routine. Once each year, Fritz and Rassendyll meet in Dresden, and Fritz always brings with him a box for Rassendyll that contains a rose, a token from Flavia.

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