East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

NOT the Prisoner of Zenda


MadKingCoverHCSo there’s this story about a guy going on vacation in a Middle-European country and soon turns out he’s a dead ringer for the local ruler.
Complications ensue – our hero falls in love with a local princess, is caught up in the local political intrigues, that sort of stuff.

We’ve been there, right?
Ruritanian romance, or Ruritanian fantasy, they call this sort of thing.
Anthony HopeThe Prisoner of Zenda.
Only, this is not the Prisoner of Zenda.

This is The Mad King.

fr100035-01Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote The Mad King in 1914, and the novel was published in two parts – in 1914 and 1915, on All Story Weekly.
The set up is the same as in Zenda – American Barney Custer is connected (through an old story of elopements and whatnot) to the royal family in Lutha, a small country somewhere between Austria and Serbia.
Curious about his family history, Barney visits Luthia – and here he is mistaken for legitimate ruler Leopold, and falls for Leo’s promised bride, princess Emma.

Where Burroughs deviates from the original template is in the matter of bad guys – not only the usurper Prince Peter is thoroughly evil, but even legitimate sovereign Leopold is no paragon.
When the story of Barney’s love for princess Emma surfaces, the good king Leopold turns out as not so good – and poor Barney has to flee.

fr100035-02He will come back – to rescue his beloved and all of the Luthia population from the Austrians (and from the nasty and inept king).
Because – and here’s another neat twist – Burroughs is using the news as fuel for his story, so that World War I begins smack in the middle of the novel.
If this dates the story – and The Mad King feels somewhat older than The Prisoner of Zenda – on the other hand it is quite a good example of Burroughs ability in writing what amounts to instant books.

The novel supposedly lacks the flair of Hope’s Old Europe yarn – Burroughs is much pulpier, and probably less elegant, while still being his usual self: a first class storyteller, quite capable of suspending the reader’s disbelief (again, also thanks to his use of current events to make his story fresh for the readers).

Granted, there’s no Rupert of Hentzau, and that’s a big problem.
On the other hand, there’s the little matter of Barney’s sister falling in love with a caveman while visiting Tarzan’s estate.
Now, no Russendyll can claim something like that, I guess.

The full text of The Mad King can be found on the Project Gutenberg pages.
Where you can also find the text for The Eternal Lover – and learn everything about Barney’s sister, and her primitive man.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “NOT the Prisoner of Zenda

  1. And here I was, wondering when (and how) would Rupert’s opposite number turn up… Until the last paragraph but one. Well, a Rupertless Ruritarian romance is only half the thing. Still, one might consider a small detour to Luthia… Know of any train stopping there?


    • I’m planning a package tour – Ruritania, Luthia, Graustark… yes, we’ll talk about Graustark in the next few days.
      As for Rupert being missing – both Prince Peter and King Leopold are good villains, but are certainly much more conventional. And the Austrians are also quite evil – if somewhat faceless.
      Burroughs used Hentzau-esque villains in many of his works, but here he probably decided to avoid the cliché because his story was already too similar to Hope’s original.


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