The Prisoner of Zenda

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This article is about the 1894 novel by Anthony Hope Hawkins. For other uses, see The Prisoner of Zenda (disambiguation).
The Prisoner of Zenda
Hope Prisoner of Zenda cover.jpg
Cover to 2nd edition
Author Anthony Hope
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Historical, Novel
Publisher J. W. Arrowsmith
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 310 (first edition)
OCLC 41674245
823/.8 21
LC Class PR4762.P7 1999
Preceded by The Heart of Princess Osra
Followed by Rupert of Hentzau
Frontispiece to the 1898 Macmillan Publishers edition, illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson.

The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure novel by Anthony Hope, published in 1894. The king of the fictional country of Ruritania is drugged on the eve of his coronation and thus unable to attend the ceremony. Political forces are such that in order for the king to retain his crown his coronation must go forward. An English gentleman on holiday, who fortuitously resembles the monarch, is persuaded to act as his political decoy in an attempt to save the situation. The villainous Rupert of Hentzau gave his name to the sequel published in 1898, which is included in some editions of this novel. The books were extremely popular and inspired the new genre of Ruritanian romance, including the Graustark novels by George Barr McCutcheon.

Plot summary[edit]

On the eve of the coronation of King Rudolf of Ruritania, his brother, Prince Michael, has him drugged. In a desperate attempt to deny Michael the excuse to claim the throne, Colonel Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim, attendants of the King, persuade his distant cousin Rudolf Rassendyll, an English visitor, to impersonate the King at the coronation.

The unconscious king is abducted and imprisoned in a castle in the small town of Zenda. There are complications, plots, and counter-plots, among them the schemes of Michael's mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, and those of his dashing but villainous henchman Count Rupert of Hentzau.

Rassendyll falls in love with Princess Flavia, the King's betrothed, but cannot tell her the truth. He determines to rescue the king and leads an attempt to enter the castle of Zenda. The King is rescued and is restored to his throne, but the lovers, in duty bound, must part.


The novel has been adapted many times, mainly for film but also stage, musical, operetta, radio, and television. Probably the best-known version is the 1937 Hollywood movie. The dashingly villainous Rupert of Hentzau has been interpreted by such matinee idols as Ramón Novarro (1922), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1937), and James Mason (1952).


Many subsequent fictional works that feature a political decoy can be linked to The Prisoner of Zenda;[opinion] indeed, this novel spawned the genre known as Ruritanian romance. What follows is a short list of those homages with a clear debt to Anthony Hope's book.

  • The 1902 short story "Rupert the Resembler" is one of the so-called New Burlesques, a comedy parody by Bret Harte.
  • E. Phillips Oppenheim's 1920 book The Great Impersonation (filmed in 1921, 1935 and 1942) makes use of the look-alike plot, this time between an English aristocrat and a German spy.
  • 1926's The Mad King was Edgar Rice Burroughs' version of the Ruritanian romance set in Europe immediately before and during World War I, his story differs from the Hope books in a number of details, though sharing much of their basic plot.
  • Dornford Yates acknowledged Hope's influence[7] in his two novels Blood Royal (1929) and Fire Below a.k.a. By Royal Command (1930) which were set in the Ruritania-like Principality of Riechtenburg.
  • The Magnificent Fraud (1939): a Robert Florey film starring Akim Tamiroff where an American actor impersonates the assassinated president of a South American republic.
  • Robert A. Heinlein adapted the Zenda plot line to his science fiction novel Double Star (1956) with great success
  • John Osborne's play The Blood of the Bambergs (1962) turns the plot into a satire on royal weddings.
  • The 1965 comedy film The Great Race included an extended subplot that parodies Zenda, including a climactic fencing scene between Tony Curtis and Ross Martin. In the film Tony Curtis is seen doing what is only described in the 1937 The Prisoner of Zenda; he is seen swimming the moat, scaling the tower and eliminating some guards.
  • Two episodes of the spoof spy television series Get Smart, "The King Lives?" and "To * Sire With Love, Parts 1 and 2", parodied the 1937 movie version, with Don Adams affecting Ronald Colman's accent.
  • The 1970 novel Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser purports to explain the real story behind The Prisoner of Zenda, and indeed, in an extended literary conceit, claims to be the inspiration for Hope's novel—the narrator of the memoirs, in the framing story, tells his adventures to his lawyer, Hawkins, who can be assumed to be Anthony Hope. Otto von Bismarck and other real people such as Lola Montez are involved in the plot. It was adapted as a film of the same title in 1975, directed by Richard Lester, starring Malcolm McDowell as Flashman and Oliver Reed as Bismarck.
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974) by Nicholas Meyer is a non-canonical addition to the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes and Watson meet Rassendyll on a train to Vienna after he has left Ruritania.
  • The Doctor Who serial "The Androids of Tara" (1978) had as a working title "The Androids of Zenda" and used a similar plot and setting. It featured Tom Baker as the Doctor and Mary Tamm in four roles: Romana and Princess Strella, and android doubles of each. The 1980 novelisation was by Terrance Dicks, who was script-editor on the 1984 BBC serialisation of Zenda.
  • "The Prisoner of Zen" (1979) by Peter Godfrey. Ruritanian farce exploring Zen themes in an occidental context. Produced by The Rational Theatre Company, the play toured the UK in 1979 and 1980.


In a popular but very questionable account, a German circus acrobat named Otto Witte claimed he had been briefly mistaken for the new King of Albania at the time of that country's separation from the Ottoman Empire, and that he was crowned and reigned a few days. However, the date of this claim (1913), and the lack of any evidence to back it up, suggests that Witte made up his story after seeing the first film version of the novel.

Author Salman Rushdie cited The Prisoner of Zenda in the epigraph to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the novel he wrote while living in hiding in the late 1980s.

In Pakistan in 2010, it was noted that the novel had been part of the syllabus of higher secondary schools for over three decades.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Brits in Hollywood Sheridan Morley, Robson Books 2006, p. 161, ISBN 978-1-86105-807-2
  2. ^ VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever 2008, Visible Ink Press ISBN 978-0-7876-8981-0
  3. ^ Halliwell's Top 1000, John Walker, HarperCollins Entertainment ISBN 978-0-00-726080-5
  4. ^ a b Halliwell's Film Guide 2008, David Gritten, HarperCollins Entertainment ISBN 978-0-00-726080-5
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ B-Berry and I Look Back, Dornford Yates, Ward Lock 1958, p. 148
  8. ^ "Literature/The Prisoner of Zenda – Television Tropes & Idioms". Retrieved 20 August 2013. 
  9. ^ The Express Tribune, "Recycling textbooks, ad infinitum", July 28, 2010

External links[edit]