Ruritania

Tagged: Theme

Imaginary countries are common in the literatures of the world, but only some can properly be called Ruritanian. In The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) by the UK writer Anthony Hope, Rudolf Rassendyll, a leisured and insouciant young Britisher of the 1890s, travels on a whim, via Paris and Dresden, to the small, feudal, independent, German-speaking middle-European kingdom of Ruritania, located somewhere east-southeast of the latter city. Here he discovers that he is the virtual Double (> Doppelgangers; The Encyclopedia of Fantasy) of the king to be, who is also named Rudolf (the dream-like nature of the Ruritanian tale is often intensified by doublings and other enabling devices). As a freelance participant in the dream, Rudolf becomes embroiled in complex romantic intrigues involving swordplay, aristocratic flirtations, switches of Identity, true love with a princess of the realm, complicated dynastic politicking that threatens the monarchy which (as the hypnopomp of this dream kingdom) he saves in the end; and returns awakened to the West. (In the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau [1898], he goes back to Ruritania and dies tragically.) Any tale containing a significant combination of these ingredients can be called Ruritanian.

Only two elements are essential: the tale must provide a fairy-tale enclave [or Polder: see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] located both within and beyond normal civilization; and it must be infused by an air of nostalgia – not dissimilar to that found in the Lost World novels which became hugely popular after the publication of H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885). Both Ruritanias and Lost World tales are conspicuously heated denial-responses to the shrinking of the world toward the end of the nineteenth century, and vestigially fantastic works like Christopher Morley's nostalgia-inducing Pleased to Meet You (1927) would seem to be natural heirs to this mindset; certainly the belatedness of the true Ruritania might seem to exclude it from sf, whose ideological posture usually precludes the advertising of enclaves based on the refusal of history. But Utopias and Dystopias often take an initial Ruritanian cast (which often turns sour); Islands can be Ruritanian before they are developed; the palace-politics which govern many Galactic Empires owe more to Hope than they do to Edward Gibbon (1737-1794); the self-conscious Medieval Futurism that shapes many future societies across the galaxy is closely linked to – and is sometimes indistinguishable from – what might be called Ruritanianism; and many Ruined Earth novels, especially those set in an America balkanized into feuding principalities, are clearly Ruritanian. Moreover, Science-Fantasy tales regularly discover Ruritanias at the world's heart.

However pervasive the influence of Ruritania may be throughout later genre fictions, it is rarely explicit. All the same, Edmond Hamilton's The Star Kings (September 1947 Amazing; 1949; vt Beyond the Moon 1950) and Robert A Heinlein's Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956) are clear reworkings of the plot of The Prisoner of Zenda; J Jefferson Farjeon's Mountain Mystery (1935) features a secret Ruritania created in direct defiance of the course of history, while Prince Pax (1933) by Paul Eldridge and George S Viereck features a hi-tech Ruritania which takes on the world; and Avram Davidson's The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (coll of linked stories 1975; exp vt The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy 1990) is set in an Alternate-History dream of a nineteenth-century Europe whose culture is pervasively Ruritanian.

It could be argued that tales of this category, when set on a past or present Earth, should be called Ruritanian only if they are located somewhere along the mountainous border between the Czech Republic and Poland, and that tales set in rather cozier Balkan enclaves should be called Graustarkian, after the otherwise very similar Graustark sequence by George Barr McCutcheon, beginning with Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne (1901); but this would be both pedantic and unproductive. The terms are nearly indistinguishable. When UK writers refer to Ruritania and their US counterparts to the slightly less well known Graustark, they are referring to the same state of mind. [JC]

see also: Margery Allingham; T W Hanshew; Leonard Wibberley.

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