The Prisoner of Zenda

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Name: The Prisoner of Zenda
Abbreviation(s):
Creator: Anthony Hope
Date(s): 1894
Medium: novel
Country of Origin:
External Links: Wikipedia
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The Prisoner of Zenda is a 1894 novel by Anthony Hope.

In it, the King of Ruritania is drugged on the eve of his coronation and thus is unable to attend the ceremony. In order for him to retain the crown, the coronation must go on as planned. Luckily, another man (an Englishman who is visiting the country, and who greatly resembles him) is persuaded to take his place.

Prisoner of Zenda is a novel about a roguish con-man who visits a postage-stamp, charmingly picturesque Central European kingdom with storybook castles, where he finds he looks just like the local king and is forced to pose as him in palace intrigues. It’s a swashbuckling story about mistaken identity, swordfighting, and intrigue, one part swashbuckler and one part dark political thriller.

The popularity of this book predates organized fandom as we know it, so I wonder if “fandom” is even the right word to use. All the same, it inspired fanatical dedication from readers. There was such a popular hunger for it that an entire library could be filled with nothing but rip-offs of Prisoner of Zenda. If you have a favorite writer who was active between 1900-1950, I guarantee he probably wrote at least one Prisoner of Zenda rip-off (which is nearly always the least-read book in his oeuvre). The only novel in the 20th Century that inspired more imitators was Sherlock Holmes. Robert Heinlein and Edmond “Planet Smasher” Hamilton wrote scifi updates of Prisoner of Zenda. Doctor Who lifted the plot wholesale for the Tom Baker era episode, “Androids of Tara,” Futurama did this exact plot too, and even Marvel Comics has its own copy of Ruritania, Doctor Doom’s Kingdom of Latveria. Even as late as the 1980s, every kids’ cartoon did a “Prisoner of Zenda” episode, one of the stock plots alongside “everyone gets hit by a shrink ray” and the Christmas Carol episode.

Prisoner of Zenda imitators were so numerous, that they even have their own Library of Congress sub-heading, of “Ruritanian Romance.”

One major reason that Prisoner of Zenda fandom died off is that, between World War I and World War II, there was a brutal lack of sympathy for anything that seemed slightly German, and it seems the incredibly Central European Prisoner of Zenda was a casualty of this. Far and away, the largest immigrant group in the United States through the entire 19th Century were Germans, who were more numerous than Irish or Italians. There were entire cities in the Midwest that were two-thirds German-born or German-descent, who met in Biergartens and German community centers that now no longer exist.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a lot about how the German-American world he grew up in vanished because of the prejudice of the World Wars, and that disappearance was so extensive that it was retroactive, like someone did a DC comic-style continuity reboot where it all never happened: Germans, despite being the largest immigrant group in US history, are left out of the immigrant story. The “Little Bohemias” and “Little Berlins” that were once everywhere no longer exist. There is no holiday dedicated to people of German ancestry in the US, the way the Irish have St. Patrick’s Day or Italians have Columbus Day (there is Von Steuben’s Day, dedicated to a general who fought with George Washington, but it’s a strictly Midwest thing most people outside the region have never heard of, like Sweetest Day). If you’re reading this and you’re an academic, and you’re not sure what to do your dissertation on, try writing about the German-American immigrant world of the 19th and 20th Centuries, because it’s a criminally under-researched topic. [1]

Fannish Resources

References

  1. ^ Dead Fandoms, Part 3, Archived version, date is unclear, likely 2017. See the entire post for many images.