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The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure novel by Anthony Hope, published in 1894. The king of the fictional country of Ruritania is abducted on the eve of his coronation, and the protagonist, 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 a new genre of Ruritanian romance, including the Graustark novels by George Barr McCutcheon.

Plot summary

The narrator is the Hon. Rudolf Rassendyll, twenty-nine year old younger brother of the Earl of Burlesdon and a distant cousin and look-alike of Rudolf V, the soon-to-be-crowned King of Ruritania, a "highly interesting and important" Germanic kingdom somewhere imprecisely between the German and Austrian Empires. The reason for this was because a great-great grandfather of both Rudolfs—also named Rudolf—had an affair with an English noblewoman. He acknowledged the son that resulted from this union and provided for them.

Ruritania is, like Germany and Austria-Hungary at that time, a monarchy. The red-headed Rudolf Elphberg, the crown prince, is a hard-drinking playboy, unpopular with the common people, but supported by the aristocracy, the Catholic Church, the army, and the upper classes in general. The political rival to this absolute monarch is his younger half-brother Michael, the dark-haired Duke and Governor of Strelsau, the capital. Black Michael has no legitimate claim to the throne, because he is the son of their father's second, morganatic marriage -- in other words his mother was not of royal blood, and the next in line of succession is the beautiful and popular Princess Flavia. Michael is regarded as champion of Strelsau's working classes, both the proletariat and the peasants, and of what Hope refers to as the criminal classes. The novel seems sympathetic, however, with those who would support the dissolute monarch, King Rudolf.

When Michael has King Rudolf drugged, Rassendyll must impersonate the King at the coronation, and then when the King is abducted and imprisoned in his castle in the small town of Zenda, until he can be rescued. 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 Rupert of Hentzau, and Rassendyll falling in love with Princess Flavia, the King's betrothed. In the end, the King is restored to his throne — but the lovers, in duty bound, must part forever.


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 played by such matinee idols as Ramon Novarro (1922), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1937), and James Mason (1952).

  • The Prisoner of Zenda (1895-96), was co-written by Hope and Edward Rose. It opened as a play in New York in 1895 starring E. H. Sothern and the next year on the West Endmarker in London.

  • Colman, Smith and Fairbanks reprised their roles for a 1939 episode of Lux Radio Theatre, with Colman's wife Benita Hume playing Princess Flavia.

  • Zenda (1963), a musical that closed on the road prior to a scheduled opening on Broadwaymarker. Adapted from the 1925 Princess Flavia.


Many fictional works that feature a political decoy can be linked to The Prisoner of Zenda; 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, full text [11485].

  • 1926's The Mad King was Burroughs' version of the then popular 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 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 1965 comedy film The Great Race included an extended Zenda-like subplot, including a climactic fencing scene between Tony Curtis and Ross Martin. Curtis swims the moat, scales the wall, and despatches the guards, activities that Ronald Colman performs in the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda.

  • The Zenda Vendetta (TimeWars Book 4) by Simon Hawke (1985) is a science fiction version, part of a series which pits 27th century terrorists the Timekeepers against the Time Commandos of the US Army Temporal Corps. A Commando is the hero, and Antoinette's rôle is adapted as a Timekeeper dominatrix.

  • Emma, a manga series released from 2002 -2007, references The Prisoner of Zenda in chapter 37, which gives an overview of the plot as one character reads the novel.


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'smarker 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.

Science-fiction novels The Star Kings (Edmond Hamilton, 1947) and Double Star (Robert A. Heinlein, 1956) both share elements of the plot of The Prisoner of Zenda: the first centers on John Gordon, a 20th century Earthman subject to a mind exchange with Zarth Arn, a Star Empire prince, and the latter shows an actor hired to impersonate an important political figure who has been kidnapped by his opponents.

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