The Mad King is easily one of my favorite Burroughs books because it so gleefully ripped-off the premise of one of my favorite stories The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. It has all the swashbuckling adventures of Zenda, as well as the key mistaken identity aspect, but in the second half published year later takes the story in a much more interesting direction.
Barney Custer of Nebraska arrives in the European country of Lutha, the land of his mother, for a bit of a break from farming in the no longer so Wild West. On his arrival he hears of the escape of “The Mad King” who had been imprisoned for ten years by his scheming uncle, Prince Peter of Blentz. When Barney saves a beautiful woman from a runaway horse he jokingly tells her he is The Mad King, unfortunately for Barney she believes him, even when he tries to tell her that he was kidding, that he is just a visiting American she chalks that up to the madness he suffers from. To make matters worse of course is the fact that Barney does look like King Leopold, and try as he might no one will believe him when he claims otherwise.
As similarities to The Prisoner of Zenda go there isn’t as much as one would assume by just hearing the premise, sure there is an American visiting a small European country who happens to look like the current Monarch, but unlike in Zenda Barney is never enlisted by friends of the King to take the place of the incapacitated Monarch. Barney constantly tries to explain to anyone who will listen that he is not the King, even when he knows that just agreeing with everyone will land him a kingdom and the woman he has come to love. He only takes up the mantle during dire situations and to save the lives of others, but what really sets The Mad King apart from The Prisoner of Zenda is in the character of the King, in Zenda he is a bit of a drunkard and a tad irresponsible while in The Mad King we find out he is a coward with a tendency to be a vindictive asshat.
In the first half of The Mad King we follow Barney as he tries to keep out of the clutches of Prince Peter while trying to get the true king back on the throne, but in the second have the villainy roster includes Prince Peter, and evil ambassadors from Austria and King Leopold himself who is jealous because Barney made a better king and that the princess that was betrothed to him now loves the American. Barney discovers sometimes it doesn’t pay to be the nice guy.
So if you like rousing stories of stalwart heroes, nefarious plots, beautiful princesses, epic battles and lots and lots of swashbuckling adventure this could be the book for you. Edgar Rice Burroughs certainly had a flair for high adventure and The Mad King is a prime example of the genre.