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Entry updated 25 March 2024. 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 author 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 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) [for Doubles and a different perspective on Doppelgangers, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. 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 other plot turns evocative of the artifices of Pastoral; and finally 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 [for 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 a refusal of history. But Utopias and Dystopias often take an initial Ruritanian cast (which often turns sour), as in John Buchan's The House of the Four Winds (1935), which is built around a proto-fascist threat to the land; a Ruritanian land, like Freedonia in the Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup (1933) directed by Leo McCarey, can serve as a focusing mirror for Satire; 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. Films set in Ruritanias, though not necessarily fantastic in a literal sense, include the "Ealing Comedy" Passport to Pimlico (1949) directed by Henry Cornelius, and The Mouse that Roared (1959) directed by Jack Arnold, based on Leonard Wibberley's Grand Fenwick sequence.

However pervasive the influence of Ruritania may be throughout later genre fictions, usually implicit, as in the suffused sense of Ruritanian local habitation detectable in various tales set in Jack Vance's Archipelago-like Gaean Reach or his The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph (coll 1966). 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 high-tech Ruritania which takes on the world. Avram Davidson's The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (coll of linked stories 1975; exp vt The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy 1990) develops a nostalgic Alternate-History dream of a nineteenth-century Europe whose culture is pervasively Ruritanian: the stories' main setting, the Empire of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania (capital city Bella, from Belgrade and Vienna) borders both Ruritania and Graustark. Geraldine McCaughrean's The Supreme Lie (2021) is set in an Alternate World 1928; its young protagonist, while substituting in secret for the decamped ruler of Afalia, transforms what had been a Dystopia to a just society.

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, as in Hope's Sophie of Kravonia (1906), whose Balkan setting makes no difference to the tale. 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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