Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The essential flavour of Ruritanian romance was captured by John Buchan in a passage at the end of The House of the Four Winds (1935). The hero is a Glasgow grocer who has fallen into adventure in the Mittel-European principality of Evallonia: "He had been a king, acclaimed by shouting mobs. He had kept a throne warm for a friend, and now he was vanishing into the darkness, an honourable fugitive, a willing exile. He was the first grocer in all history that had been a Pretender to a Crown. The clack of hooves on stone, the jingling of bits, the echo of falling water were like strong wine." Buchan's Evallonia stands towards the end of a popular tradition that began with Anthony Hope's Ruritania in the 1890s.

The Ruritanian romance, an outgrowth of the 19th-century historical novel and kissing-cousin to the Lost-Race novel, consists of tales of love and adventure set in imaginary European countries, principalities or duchies, and usually involving UK or US "commoner" heroes who save the throne, defeat the villain, marry the princess, and so on. Robert Louis Stevenson's Prince Otto (1885), about courtly intrigue in a vernal land called Grunewald, and A C Gunter's Mr Barnes of New York (1887), about a stalwart American caught up in a European vendetta, were precursors, but the fashion was truly initiated by Anthony Hope (real name Anthony Hope Hawkins; 1863-1933) in his bestselling The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), which set the style and gave the Ruritanian romance its name. (Two of Mark Twain's novels of the 1880s, The Prince and the Pauper [1881] and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court [1889], may also have provided the subgenre with some of its basic motifs.) In the wake of Hope's book (soon adapted to the stage, and often filmed) Ruritanian romance enjoyed a vogue throughout the English-speaking world.

US examples of the type include Richard Harding Davis's The Princess Aline (1895) and The King's Jackal (1899), and Harold MacGrath's Arms and the Woman (1899) and The Puppet Crown (1900). In the UK, Anthony Hope was to provide several more – The Heart of Princess Osra (1896), Rupert of Hentzau (1898) and Sophy of Kravonia (1906) – and so did such imitators as H B Marriott-Watson (1863-1921), with The Princess Xenia (1899), John Oxenham (real name William Arthur Dunkerley; 1852-1941), with A Princess of Vascovy (1900), and even Winston S Churchill (1874-1965), with Savrola (1900). Many of these novels were bestsellers, but all, excepting those of Hope himself, were to be eclipsed by the US success of Graustark (1901) by George Barr McCutcheon (1866-1928) and its sequels Beverly of Graustark (1904) and The Prince of Graustark (1914). The mythical Balkan realm of Graustark remains a household name in the USA, often confused with Ruritania (in Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy [1973] Lin Carter refers to "The Prisoner of Zenda ... set in an imaginary country called 'Graustark'").

Ruritanian romance was open to variation, and to spoof. It became torrid love-romance in Three Weeks (1907) by Elinor Glyn (1864-1943), light comedy in R Andom's In Fear of a Throne (1911) and outright farce in The Prince and Betty (1912) by P G Wodehouse. Other well known authors who dipped a toe into the Ruritanian puddle include Ford Madox Ford in The New Humpty-Dumpty (1912) as by Daniel Chaucer, Laurence Housman in John of Jingalo: The Story of a Monarch in Difficulties (1912), Frances Hodgson Burnett in The Lost Prince (1915), George A Birmingham in King Tommy (1923), Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Mad King (1926), Dornford Yates (real name Cecil William Mercer; 1885-1960) in Blood Royal (1929), Leslie Charteris (real name Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin; 1907-1993) in The Last Hero (1930; vt The Saint Closes the Case), E(dward) Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) in Jeremiah and the Princess (1933), J B Priestley and Gerald Bullett in their collaborative I'll Tell You Everything (1933) and, as noted, Buchan.

The vogue had run its course by the mid-1930s, but it was to have an afterlife in children's fiction – and in fantasy. Andre Norton's first published book has a splendidly Ruritanian title: The Prince Commands, Being Sundry Adventures of Michael Karl, Sometime Crown Prince & Pretender to the Throne of Morvania (1934). Similar motifs crop up in Biggles Goes to War (1938) by Captain W E Johns (1893-1968), in There's No Escape (1950) by Ian Serraillier (1912-1994) and in a whole series of excellent juveniles by Violet Needham (1876-1967), beginning with The Black Riders (1939) and The Emerald Crown (1940). A later juvenile series which bears the Ruritanian (or Graustarkian) stamp is Lloyd Alexander's Westmark (1981) and sequels.

In adult fiction, there is more than a touch of Ruritania to be found in the humorous The Mouse that Roared (1955) by Leonard Wibberley (1915-1983) and sequels, in Royal Flash (1970) by George MacDonald Fraser (1925-2008), in William Goldman's The Princess Bride (1973), in Avram Davidson's The Enquiries of Dr Eszterhazy (1975), and even in Ursula Le Guin's Orsinian Tales (1976) and Malafrena (1979). Simon Hawke's sf The Zenda Vendetta (1985) and John Spurling's sequelizing After Zenda (1995) are direct homages to Hope. But it could be argued that the main influence of this tradition on modern fantasy has been a more diffuse one: in the Fantasylands that have enjoyed such popularity since the 1960s, wherever we find castles and courts, princes and princesses, swordplay and horseback-riding, evil usurpers and brave "commoner" heroes, we also find something of the spirit of Ruritania. [DP]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.