Recently I’ve been listening to some of the early Ellery Queen novels – but that, perhaps, is another blog post. I’m currently on “The Egyptian Cross Mystery”, the fourth in the series, which has very little to do with Egypt, but a fair amount to do with Central Europe, specifically the Balkans. To begin with, the references to Central Europe are rather tentative, and I did wonder whether we were going to be ‘treated’ to a fictional nation – but that is not the style of Ellery Queen.
Still, it got me thinking about Ruritania, and whether there is still a place for Ruritania in modern writing. If Ruritanian Romances could be said to have had a Golden Age, in the same way as Detective fiction, s.f., and comics, then it probably started around 1894 with the publication of the definitive Ruritanian Romance, “The Prisoner of Zenda”, and petered out sometime in the mid-20th century. The Second World War, together with the subsequent seismic changes in European politics, made small fictional states headed by an ancient royalty at risk from a rotten usurper largely superfluous. Other issues were at the forefront of peoples’ minds.
Like any genre, there are certain expectations, and also variations whereby we can place an outlier within the grouping, even if it requires a little shoehorning. Romance in this setting does not, of course, mean a Mills & Boon style story, but one of adventure, chivalry, and a certain idealisation of the world and how it should work. In this respect the Ruritanian Romances are descended from the Mediæval romances of Arthur, Charlemagne, and other courtly, questing knights. Examples of some outliers, that help give us the boundaries to the genre, include “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”, the Tintin story set in Syldavia, and the classic Marx Brothers’ film “Duck Soup” set in Freedonia.
This is not to say that Ruritania has been swallowed up completely. It lives on, both for the benefit of jurists, who use it as an example, in a similar manner to ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’, as well as for the fiction writer looking for a relatively neutral setting for a story. Simon Brett sends Blotto and Twinks off to Mitteleuropia in “…and the Ex-King’s Daughter”, for example, although this is a story set in the early 20th century. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an era spanning story, and whilst the majority is set in pre-war Zubrowka, the implication of the framing story is that the country still exists now.
So perhaps Ruritania is alive and well, even if the Ruritanian Romance is dead. It’s possible that it might make a comeback (Ruritanian vampires, anyone?) but the specific characteristics of the Romance – plots to do away with legitimate heirs, for good or ill, thwarted or abetted by chivalrous adventurers – are probably past their sell by date. Today we tend to look for more realistic heroes, those who succeed despite character flaws, or who are in some way redeemed.
But if the Romance were to be revived, what might we look for? What might be different? A royal lineage could be replaced by a politically dynastic family, and the long lost twin/look-a-like has probably gone full circle, navigating the far reaches of passe. (Androids and other s.f. approaches have also been done before, but there is always a new twist based on emerging science and technology…). Perhaps, given the current climate (if you’ll forgive the pun), something with an Environmental focus would make a good plot.
What do you think? Should we get a visa for Ruritania? Or should we just leave it in the history books?
© David Jesson, 2022