The Prisoner of Zenda

by Anthony Hope Hawkins

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Prisoner of Zenda is a novel about an ultimately failed insurrection attempt led by the disgruntled rulers of the small fictional country of Ruritania in the late 1800s. It is a thrilling tale of monarchs playing a complicated game of chess for the fate of their country.

The King lay full length on the floor . . . He did not stir, nor was there any break in his breathing. I saw that his face and head were wet with water, as were mine.

This quote, early in the novel, shows the fate of the king as the events take place. The people around him mull over what has happened and conclude that he has been drugged. The plot is afoot, and events have gotten underway to usurp his throne. This brief scene shows the beginnings of the creative plot: the king will be drugged, taken from the capital city, and moved to confinement in Zenda while the traitors weave their way into the castle and ultimately take rule.

Ask him what woman would do most to prevent the duke from marrying his cousin, and therefore most to prevent him from becoming king? And ask if her name begins with—A?

This next quote shows where the plan may fail. It is the beginning of the unraveling for the king's half-brother Michael. His mistress, of all people, will be his undoing. In order to secure the throne for himself, Michael would have to marry Princess Flavia and become king. Doing so would inevitably mean that he ends his relationship with Antoinette de Mauban, who is disillusioned and upset with the prospect. In her frustration and jealousy, she reveals the mechanics of Michael’s plot to Rassendyll and the king’s men and attempts to help them undo it.

"Is he in two places, or are there two kings?" asked Flavia, bewildered. "And how should he be there?"

Flavia is confused because she knows that her fiancé is in the castle wounded, but apparently another man has come along and is in the bushes who is "also the king." This is the humorous confusion of the loyalist plot to preserve the coronation; they have substituted in the king's cousin on his behalf, and he is portraying him so accurately that others believe it truly to be him. Flavia is confused because she says there can't be two kings and he can't be in two places, but there are, at this point, two kings in a way.

The novel is one of conflicting deceptions and divisive motivations; nearly every player is led by love and by lies, and, even by the novel’s end, the effects of the attempted insurrection remain unresolved. Duke Michael lies dead and Rudolf V has returned to the throne, but Rupert, Michael’s vile henchman, escaped, capable of returning and causing further trouble. Flavia and Rassendyll, two doomed lovers, are torn apart, divided by duty. Although the novel ends happily, the characters are worn by their journey and indelibly marked by the tragedy of the trials they endured. 

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