The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope: Escape From Cynicism

Are you a prisoner of cynicism?

In a godless world where men tend to hedge their bets on man before anything else, it is not surprising that many experience existential letdowns. Man is naturally imperfect, and thus it is natural that purely anthropological philosophies are suspicious—even contemptuous—of any kind of idealism. This attitude degenerates into a psychosis that questions man’s sincerity of motive or his rectitude of conduct. When cynical men lose faith in man, they cannot retain faith in anything higher than mankind, which leaves a pretty poor playing field. What hope can be had for the human condition when human behavior is the Alpha and the Omega and also thought—even scientifically—as driven by nothing more than self-interest and self-indulgence? When imperfection is all there is, what more than gloom, mistrust, disparagement, or even despair can be expected? This is the plague of youth, the emasculation of men, the ruin of women, the death of Christian culture, and the prison of cynicism, where, in the words of Oscar Wilde, people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

There remains, however, an escape authored by Hope.

There are in existence a few books that can cure the sickness of cynicism. These books remind men of the glory and grandeur of man and the glories and grandeurs that give meaning to mankind. The Prisoner of Zenda, written in 1894 by Anthony Hope, is one of these. This “spirited and gallant little book,” as Robert Louis Stevenson described it, is a remedy to the heavy seriousness of cynicism because it is lighthearted. It is a fairy tale infused with the optimism of escapism, the thrill of romance, and the charm of the dashing, debonair, gentleman hero. Even the gravest of cynics must smile, chuckle, and inch to the edge of his seat in appreciation of men bristling with weapons, women swooning in their lovers’ arms, guns firing and combatants laughing, swords flashing and soldiers of fortune. The Prisoner of Zenda is quite simply irresistible, making it a balm for this dour day and age, and worthy of its reputation for being the finest adventure story ever written, in which the struggle between good and evil is a great game and nothing seems so serious as keeping the serious at bay.

Rudolf Rassendyll—an indifferent young man who enjoyed his leisure well. Though in excellent training as a horseman, swordsman, and marksman, he bore no desire whatsoever to become the proverbial man of action—until he found himself a man assailed by action, immured in one of the most dangerous and delicate plots imaginable. On an impromptu journey to attend the coronation of the new King of Ruritania, to whom he bears a distant, illegitimate relation, Rassendyll is discovered and swept up by two members of the Royal Cabinet due to an uncanny resemblance he bears with the soon-to-be-crowned King. This curiosity becomes a crucible when the King is suddenly and subtly kidnapped. With the political state of Ruritania hanging in the balance, Rassendyll agrees to undertake the risk of impersonating the King before the entire nation in order to buy the time necessary to rescue the imprisoned monarch from the schemes of Black Michael, the evil Duke of Strelsau.

Thus it runs—a romp of mistaken identity, plot twists, swashbuckling heroism, and high romance with the King’s intended, the beautiful Princess Flavia, with whom, of course, Rassendyll falls madly in love as he woos her in place of the King. Thus it runs with blazing revolvers, ancient castles, woefully grim councils, wonderfully glib speeches, daring souls pulling at brandy flasks, midnight marauding, and one of the most memorable villains of Victorian fiction: the malevolent, murderous Rupert of Hentzau.

Thus it runs, and the running pace is one of the elements that perhaps accounts for the unprecedented popularity of The Prisoner of Zenda. The plot hurtles on like a horse and is dominated by a sense of time running out. The Prisoner of Zenda might even be regarded as one of the original ticking-clock suspense thrillers, paving the way for a whole story-type that relies on a heightened awareness of time and impending doom. Related to this theme of time is the timing of a protagonist who rises to occasion. Rudolf Rassendyll was launched into a breakneck race sword in hand, but he began the story at a breakfast table egg-spoon in hand. Rassendyll represents a classic romantic archetype, being the ordinary gentleman who is ready, willing, and able to face extraordinary circumstances and play the part of the hero decisively when the times demands it of him.

The character of Rudolf Rassendyll further provides an apt instance of the power of literature to both reflect and affect the paradigms and perceptions of a people. Rassendyll is true to an ideology that recognizes a proper gentleman as one who holds honor and duty over all else because he is principled and not because he is paid. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Buchan’s Richard Hannay are other examples of the true Victorian gentleman hero in this respect. Holmes, Hannay, and Rassendyll are amateur heroes, not professional heroes: men of the noble class who can afford a higher level of virtue than others and so are that much more virtuous. The motivation of upholding justice and decency was motivation enough for Rassendyll, and he took his payment in adventure, forsaking illicit love and power even though they lay at his fingertips. Rassendyll exemplifies a category of hero, and in so doing, represents and reinforces his audience’s cultural convictions concerning what makes a man a gentleman. From the sitting-room sofa to the Castle of Zenda, the adventures of Rudolf Rassendyll serve as an icon of the fictional gentleman that served as a practical ideal for all factual gentlemen.

The Prisoner of Zenda is an antidote for worldly cynicism because it transports readers to another world that is unsullied by cynicism. The tale confronts the old world with a newer world, balancing popular pessimisms with traditional truths, a technique celebrated—if not perfected—by J. R. R. Tolkien. Readers travel with Rudolf Rassendyll from a familiar country called England to an unfamiliar country called Zenda, where the modern man must surrender himself to be caught up in exploits rivaling Ivanhoe’s and learn something of who he is—and learn, too, that he shouldn’t take himself too seriously. In relinquishing the over-serious things of life, we open ourselves up to the mysteries that make life worth living. And those mysteries are not so much taken seriously as they are rejoiced in. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “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.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene from the 1937 film The Prisoner of Zenda staring Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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