RogerBW's Blog

The Mad King, Edgar Rice Burroughs 20 June 2018

1926 Ruritanian romance, originally serialised in 1914-1915. Travelling in the tiny kingdom of Lutha, between Austria and Serbia, American tourist Barney Custer finds himself mistaken for the young king, who's been confined for years with a mysterious ailment, and rapidly becomes mixed up in adventure.

Fortunately, he's suited for it: not only is he a man of action, but the author is blatantly on his side, and sometimes even he seems to know it.

"I'm quite sure I don't know how I did escape," said Barney, clambering over the rim of the road to her side. "That I had nothing to do with it I am positive. It was just luck. I simply dropped out onto that bush down there."

Later, he survives a firing squad, by chance. And in spite of being a farmer from a small town, he has all the skills of action that he needs.

To his surprise he met a sword-arm that none might have expected in an American, for Barney Custer had been a pupil of the redoubtable Colonel Monstery, who was, as Barney was wont to say, "one of the thanwhomest of fencing masters."

(Yes, a real person.)

Some early clues make it very apparent just where he's going to end up, but the trip to get there is a twisty and enjoyable one. Meanwhile the villains are slightly simplified compared with The Prisoner of Zenda: while Prince Michael in that book was beloved of the common people, Prince Peter here is hated by all except those who plan to profit from his rule of banditry.

"It seems strange, Coblich, that so shrewd a man as you should have been unable to discover some irregularity in the political life of Prince Ludwig von der Tann before now," said the prince querulously. "He is the greatest menace to our peace and sovereignty. With Von der Tann out of the way there would be none powerful enough to question our right to the throne of Lutha—after poor Leopold passes away."

More interestingly, although I shan't go into details, the king (of whom Barney is a near-twin) is not always a good guy; he's easily influenced, and a physical coward. That's rather a departure from the usual Ruritanian tradition where royalty is always a good thing.

The king trembled. His rage choked him. The others looked as though they scarce could believe the testimony of their own ears. All there, with the possible exception of the king, knew that he deserved even more degrading appellations; but they were Europeans, and to Europeans a king is a king—that they can never forget. It had been the inherent suggestion of kingship that had bent the knee of the Princess Emma before the man she despised.

But to the American a king was only what he made himself. In this instance he was not even a man in the estimation of Barney Custer.

The thing that's lacking, I think, is an arc. The action starts almost at once, and there's immediate life-or-death peril… and there continues to be immediate life-or-death peril every few pages. There's no sense of escalation, of things coming to a head; the wrong person being crowned, or married, is there as a problem to be dealt with, but it might be half-way through the story or at the end. Every chapter has to end with its cliffhanger, obviously, but there's no greater sense of narrative progress; we get to the end, and it's over.

Still, this is a fixup of serialised fiction, which has its own constraints. And whenever things slow down or threaten to get mushy, there's always a man with a gun in his hand.

She looked up at him quickly. A reply was on her lips, but she never uttered it, for at that moment a ruffian in picturesque rags leaped out from behind a near-by bush, confronting them with leveled revolver.

As for mushiness, well, there's only one significant female character in this. While she falls in love with Barney, she's betrothed to the real king; everyone's terribly honorable and miserable, but this is Burroughs, who couldn't have written a truly downbeat ending if it killed him.

The book is very much an artefact of its time, because it incorporates material from the early days of the First World War: in the second part, Lutha must decide whether to align itself with Austria (boo hiss) or with Serbia (yay). There are even pitched modern battles (well, with artillery, machine guns and cavalry), against the forces of the wicked prince and later against the invader. Up-to-the-minute stuff. But in October 1915 Bulgaria declared war on Serbia, and over the next year comprehensively overran, occupied and ravaged that country; a Serbian-friendly Lutha would surely have shared that fate, and would probably have been incorporated into the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

But that's really not important where there are captures and escapes, secret passages, midnight rides, impostures and double impostures, and honour to be upheld. This is rollicking stuff, though perhaps best taken in small doses rather than all at once.

Each felt that there was no time for caution or stratagem. Instead all depended upon the very boldness and rashness of their attack, and so as they came through into the courtyard the two dashed headlong for the building.

Chance accomplished for them what no amount of careful execution might have done, and they came within the ruin unnoticed by the four who occupied the old, darkened library.

Full text available at Project Gutenberg. Recommended by Robert Wolfe.

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