Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Prisoner of Zenda

Sean Fitzpatrick writes about the great adventure novel, The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope for Crisis Magazine:

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.

There are two sound-era motion picture versions of this novel, the later of which is a scene-for-scene recreation in technicolor of the earlier black and white version. The Ronald Colman-Madeleine Carroll version is usually the preferred. But both of them display the beauty and solemnity of the king's coronation in a Catholic cathedral, although the novel adds the tremendous detail that this coronation includes reception of the Holy Eucharist--and Rassendyll is an Englishman (an Anglican):

At last we were at the Cathedral. Its great grey front, embellished with hundreds of statues and boasting a pair of the finest oak doors in Europe, rose for the first time before me, and the sudden sense of my audacity almost overcame me. Everything was in a mist as I dismounted. I saw the Marshal and Sapt dimly, and dimly the throng of gorgeously robed priests who awaited me. And my eyes were still dim as I walked up the great nave, with the pealing of the organ in my ears. I saw nothing of the brilliant throng that filled it, I hardly distinguished the stately figure of the Cardinal as he rose from the archiepiscopal throne to greet me. Two faces only stood out side by side clearly before my eyes-- the face of a girl, pale and lovely, surmounted by a crown of the glorious Elphberg hair (for in a woman it is glorious), and the face of a man, whose full-blooded red cheeks, black hair, and dark deep eyes told me that at last I was in presence of my brother, Black Michael. And when he saw me his red cheeks went pale all in a moment, and his helmet fell with a clatter on the floor. Till that moment I believe that he had not realized that the King was in very truth come to Strelsau.

Of what followed next I remember nothing. I knelt before the altar and the Cardinal anointed my head. Then I rose to my feet, and stretched out my hand and took from him the crown of Ruritania and set it on my head, and I swore the old oath of the King; and (if it were a sin, may it be forgiven me) I received the Holy Sacrament there before them all. Then the great organ pealed out again, the Marshal bade the heralds proclaim me, and Rudolf the Fifth was crowned King; of which imposing ceremony an excellent picture hangs now in my dining-room. The portrait of the King is very good.

In the previous chapter, Rassendyll had received some catechesis:

The cool morning air cleared my head, and I was able to take in all Sapt said to me. He was wonderful. Fritz hardly spoke, riding like a man asleep, but Sapt, without another word for the King, began at once to instruct me most minutely in the history of my past life, of my family, of my tastes, pursuits, weaknesses, friends, companions, and servants. He told me the etiquette of the Ruritanian Court, promising to be constantly at my elbow to point out everybody whom I ought to know, and give me hints with what degree of favour to greet them.

"By the way," he said, "you're a Catholic, I suppose?"

"Not I," I answered.

"Lord, he's a heretic!" groaned Sapt, and forthwith he fell to a rudimentary lesson in the practices and observances of the Romish faith.

"Luckily," said he, "you won't be expected to know much, for the King's notoriously lax and careless about such matters. But you must be as civil as butter to the Cardinal. We hope to win him over, because he and Michael have a standing quarrel about their precedence."

We were by now at the station. Fritz had recovered nerve enough to explain to the astonished station master that the King had changed his plans. The train steamed up. We got into a first-class carriage, and Sapt, leaning back on the cushions, went on with his lesson. I looked at my watch--the King's watch it was, of course. It was just eight.

I remember when I read those passages as a student at Kapaun-Mount Carmel Catholic High School--I was shocked and dismayed!

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