Something for Summer Reading: ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ by Anthony Hope

Something for Summer Reading: ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ by Anthony Hope
Ronald Colman as Rudolf Rassendyll and Madeleine Carroll as Princess Flavia in 1937 movie "The Prisoner of Zenda." Selznick International Pictures. (Public Domain)

This “spirited and gallant little book,” as Robert Louis Stevenson called it, is gloriously upbeat. It is unafraid to take a positive, unapologetic stance on the side of virtue and valor. The best summer books remind people of the warm spirit of optimism that makes life refreshing and exciting.

“The Prisoner of Zenda,” written in 1894 by Anthony Hope, flows with optimism, and there is nothing like it on a summer night to prepare for a cynical world the next day. “Zenda” has it all, and irresistibly so. It’s an antidote for cynicism because it confronts the old world with a newer world, and it does so in a carefree manner that is buoyant, rejoicing in the thrill of life with an infectious result.

Pulled Into the Action

Rudolf Rassendyll is a relaxed man who enjoys his leisure. Though in excellent training as a horseman, swordsman, and marksman, he has no desire whatsoever to become the proverbial man of action—until some serious action finds him.

On an impromptu journey to attend the coronation of the new King of Ruritania, of whom he is a distant relation, Rassendyll is swept away by two members of the Royal Cabinet because he bears an uncanny resemblance to the soon-to-be-crowned king.

This takes on crucial significance when the king is suddenly kidnapped. Because the question of who will rule Ruritania hangs in the balance, Rassendyll is persuaded to impersonate the king until the imprisoned monarch can be rescued from Black Michael, the evil Duke of Strelsau.

The story takes the reader on a romp of mistaken identity, plot twists, swashbuckling escapades, and high romance. And don’t forget the philosophical, heartbreaking quandary that Rassendyll is in over the king’s intended, the beautiful Princess Flavia, with whom, of course, he falls in love as he woos her in place of the king.

The reader also meets one of the most memorable villains of Victorian fiction: the malevolent Rupert of Hentzau. What more could one ask for in a summer page-turner?

High Stakes and Light-Heartedness

The quick pace perhaps accounts for the unprecedented popularity of this story, even today. The plot hurtles forward like someone swimming to save a friend going under a third time.

Time is running out. The story is regarded as one of the original ticking-clock suspense thrillers, paving the way for a whole genre that relies on a heightened awareness of time and impending doom.

Related to this theme of time is that of a protagonist who rises to the occasion. Rassendyll begins the day at the breakfast table delicately holding a spoon, but he is catapulted into the rest of the day with sword at the ready.

Rassendyll represents the classic romantic archetype: an ordinary gentleman who is ready, willing, and able to face extraordinary circumstances. From the sitting-room sofa to the Castle of Zenda, his adventures serve as the blueprint for the fictional gentleman and as a practical ideal for all actual gentlemen of the day.

A very popular author in his time, Anthony Hope was adept at depicting the struggle between good and evil as a great game. And while he didn’t expect anyone to take his plots seriously, they do prepare people to enter that struggle with more sincerity. Play is often the best way to prepare for work.

English writer G.K. Chesterton praised the playfulness of “Zenda” in his book “Heretics”:

"In a galloping, impossible melodrama like 'The Prisoner of Zenda,' the blood of kings fanned an excellent fantastic thread or theme. But the blood of kings is not a thing that can be taken seriously … and in ['The Prisoner of Zenda'] there is not only an element of romance, but also a fine element of irony which warns us against taking all this elegance too seriously."

In relegating the overserious attitudes of life to a back seat, we open ourselves up to the lightheartedness that makes life worth living. This approach has rendered many stories perfect for summertime recreation. Even the grimmest readers will smile, wide-eyed, as they move inch by inch to the edge of their seats while taking in scenes of men brandishing weapons, women falling in a faint, and dualists laughing as they spar. Some consider it the finest adventure story ever written.

For all their silliness, books like “The Prisoner of Zenda” help bring balance to a society that tends to take itself too seriously. For those who plod along with serious problems, they might consider that they have forgotten how to enjoy a simple escape from the trenches, and “The Prisoner of Zenda” awaits. This is a rousing story that overthrows apathy with an appetite for adventure and revives spirits with a douse of cold, refreshing positivity.

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals, including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.