I am not sure how I got to be my age having not read Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner Of Zenda, but I somehow managed it. Mistake corrected, and therein lies a short library tale! One of the great pleasures we librarians take comes with collection development. That’s a fancy way to say “buying stuff.” We get to shop for the library. The lucky among us find ourselves managing collection areas we possess an affinity for. I recently enjoyed the pleasure of bulking up the Downtown & Business library’s classics collection. I decided I would try to acquire Dover Thrift editions for most of the titles I went hunting. Why Dover Thrift? It seems like Dover had public libraries in mind when they created this imprint. Printed and bound in the USA with recycled materials, cheap, and still high quality, these softcover gems will deliver great value for our reading patrons!
With this mission in mind, I set about acquiring a somewhat eclectic group of classics from Dover Thrift, and among them was The Prisoner Of Zenda! I will provide a quick summary for those unfamiliar with the book’s basic plot. First published in 1894, Zenda tells the first person account of 19th century English traveler and bon vivant Rudolf Rassendyll, a man who is the distant cousin to soon-to-be-crowned King of Ruritania, a tiny (and fictional) eastern European nation. On a lark, Rassendyll travels to Ruritania to see the coronation for himself, and finds that despite his beard and mustache, he remains a veritable body double for the young King Rudolph–yes, the king’s name is Rudolph too! He soon finds himself caught up in a vicious political struggle for control of the little nation, and when the young King Rudolph suffers an assassination attempt shortly before his coronation, his desperate advisers convince Rudolf Rassendyll to take his place! The ensuing action, intrigue, and romance plays out brilliantly, and Hope’s ability to carry this off spawned a whole new sub-genre of fiction dubbed Ruritanian Romance.
Zenda also enjoyed many adaptations and more than a few parodies. Most famous among the many theatrical versions of the story is the 1937 film The Prisoner Of Zenda with Ronald Colman in the dual role of Rudolph Rassendyl/King Rudolph. We own a wonderful combo DVD that contains both this 1937 film, and the 1952 version with Stewart Granger in the starring role.
A few other tales of derring-do that evoke the same spirit as Zenda include:
Gentlemen Of The Road by Michael Chabon. Mr. Chabon’s brilliant homage to the very genre Mr. Hope helped to create features action and characters that leap from the page! A pair of adventurers in 950 AD find themselves in the Caucasus Mountains during a period of unrest in a small Jewish city-state, and become embroiled in a fugitive prince’s quest to regain power and keep his head in the midst of a raft of threats.
The Man In The Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. This Dumas classic surely influenced Mr. Hope’s Zenda, and the ideas of body doubles, royal imprisonment, and swashbuckling adventure feature heavily in its pages.
A Sundial In A Grave: 1610 by Mary Gentle. Accomplished duelist and spy Valentin Rochefort embroils himself in a plot to kill King James I of England in Mary Gentle’s amazing historical thriller.
These adventures will be sure to keep you entertained on any journey to obscure European nation-states, or even just a trip to the beach!