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Prince William in a Sea King helicopter. (John Stillwell/AP Images)

The public relations importance of Prince William’s dramatic nighttime rescue of two Russian sailors at sea can hardly be overemphasized.

The young Duke of Cambridge has already been compared to fictional action heroes. After all, it’s not a leap to think of James Bond (“Wales…William Wales”) or Biggles of British boys’ adventure books.

But of course the more powerful comparison may be a much older one. There may be a certain resonance to the centuries-old myth of the hero king, the adventurer of royal lineage who performs legendary feats on perilous quests. Think, of course, of King Arthur. Literary critics and psychologists from Otto Rank and Carl Jung up through Joseph Campbell have searched for and analyzed just such heroic archetypes.

But most observers are giving the rescue a more contemporary slant.

“That William is the greatest thing to come out of the U.K. since afternoon tea can surely be denied no longer. After a royal wedding that rendered him a prince of romance, he is now emerging as the U.K.’s No. 1 action man,” wrote The Daily Beast. “Doubtless, tomorrow, he will be spotted helping old ladies to cross the road.”

Prince William’s helicopter rescue unit was called out to the Irish Sea early Sunday morning, after a mayday report was received from the cargo ship Swanland, which, after being buffeted by 70-mile-an-hour winds and 50-foot waves, was literally broken in two.

William’s rescue team arrived on the scene shortly after two o’clock in the morning, and the Duke was the co-pilot of the helicopter that rescued the two Russian sailors.

Ray Carson, the coast guard watch manager, told The Guardian: “It would be quite a feat given the conditions. As well as keeping a helicopter stable in the winds they had to winch someone down to a life raft moving around in the water.”

The body of one other crew member was recovered later, and the search for five others was called off until conditions improved.

Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko thanked William and his crew, writing that the “two seamen were saved thanks to your selfless effort.”

It was William’s second rescue during his shift. Earlier, he rescued a woman suffering from hypothermia in Trearddur Bay.

Whatever grasp the rescues may have on the imagination, there’s still contemporary politics and economics to deal with. The heroics of William and his team will have no impact on the British government’s plans to sell off the RAF’s search and rescue operations to private companies, according to the Mirror. Prince William had criticized the plans to Prime Minister David Cameron personally last year. The privatization, ironically, was formally announced Monday.

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By Paul Hechinger