Monday, July 2, 2012

Something Old

The standard heading of Reid’s Reader says that there will sometimes be guest reviewers. Readers are welcome to e-mail me, or to contact me with their e-mail address via this site, if they wish to submit a review of a book new or old about which they are dying to inform the world – or at least inform the readers of Reid’s Reader.
            As the site celebrates its first year, we for the first time give a review by a guest reviewer. Christopher Reid, retired civil servant of Wellington, reflects on a favourite children’s book which has far more adult resonance than most.

“THE THIRTEEN CLOCKS” by James Thurber (first published 1951)

            I was barely into adolescence when my father, on his return from the United States, brought back for me as a present James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks, just one year after its first publication in 1951.

            Thurber begins as with traditional fairy or folk tales “Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle, on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cool, aggressive duke and his niece, the Princess Saralinda.”

            The cold duke has frozen the clocks because time is frozen there. He sets impossible tasks for suitors of the princess to complete. Just to be on the right side of villainy, he slays people for all sorts of slights, including people who use names starting with the letter X. In true folk tale fashion, a prince calls himself Xingu in order to announce his defiant challenge to the duke.

            The duke gives the prince, disguised as a minstrel, impossible tasks such as slaying the thorny Boar of Borythorn which is hard “because there is no thorny Boar of Borythorn”. Xuingu is assisted by an amiable old man called The Golux who is a faithful but not very useful ally.

            Realising that the duke loves jewels the prince and The Golux trick him into requesting they get him a thousand jewels. The Golux and the prince go in search of a fabulous woman whose tears, when she weeps, turn into jewels. The only problem is that if her tears are of laughter they turn back into water. The difficulty, also, is that she never weeps at things that are real and could be. Eventually, by a ruse, the prince and the Golux get her to produce jewels they take back to the duke, who has to admit defeat. Saralinda and Prince Zorn ride away to a happy ending.

            Thurber wrote and published three books for children before The Thirteen Clocks and one after it, to wit Many Moons (1943), The Great Quillow (1944), The White Deer (1945) and  The Wonderful O (1956).  They all have the whimsy and humour one associates with Thurber  such as in his short piece for adults  The Unicorn in the Garden.  One of his stories for children, The White Deer, even has a plot about princes on a quest to obtain what they desire, similar to, and almost anticipating, The Thirteen Clocks.  

            Yet  The Thirteen Clocks  is startlingly different from the others.

            My original edition has the illustrations by Marc Simont, an artist friend of Thurber’s. Thurber’s eyesight got progressively worse over the years so that he had to draw his cartoons with a thick crayon on paper three times the size of AC. By the time he wrote The Thirteen Clocks he was completely blind so Simont had to produce each illustration exactly as Thurber stipulated.

            Thurber’s failed eyesight, eventual blindness and attendant horror at loss surely influenced his opening description of the evil duke:

            He wore gloves when he was asleep and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was. In one eye he wore a velvet patch, the other glittered through a monocle, which made half of his body seem closer than the other half. He had lost one eye when he was twelve, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul. One afternoon, a mother shrike mauled him first. His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.

            The passing of a creature called the Todal is sensed rather than seen, too quick for the eye “like the movement of rabbits and shadow [and] it makes a sound like rabbits screaming and smells of old unopened rooms”. Should the prince succeed, the Todal will “glub” the duke because it was sent to punish evil doers “for having done less evil than they should”.  Invisible hands draw swords. We do not learn what glubbing is but it is obviously an unseen horror in waiting.

            Relying less on the visual description, Thurber’s tale employs effectively such auditory almost poetic effects as the onomatopoeia of “from the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee deep in a slippery stream in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slid silkily, whispering sinful secrets”.

            I do not want to leave the impression that The Thirteen Clocks is predominantly a “Gothic terror for kids”.  Thurber originally wrote it for the young daughter of friends, and like any good writer of tales for children he knew how much of the scary a child can take and did not patronise her or under-estimate her intelligence.

            Indeed it contains several humorous, yet almost philosophical, paradoxes. The duke has frozen the clocks because Time is always Then and never Now and the duke is afraid of Now for “it has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried.” The prince is not much attracted by Princess Saralinda but more because he is “weary of rich attire, banquets and available princesses in his own kingdom” he decides to compete for her hand and that, oddly, is why he succeeds when others failed.  The reason The Golux is not always a useful ally for the prince is because “I resemble only half the things I say I don’t and the other half resemble me.” However, he provides the solution to making the clocks go, when the duke’s magic has frozen them and frozen time and this magically prevents the prince escaping with the princess.  The Golux points out that “if you can touch the clocks and never start them, then you can start the clocks and never touch them, and that’s logic.” And logically the prince and princess ride away.

            The Thirteen Clocks is one of those works, intended originally as an affectionate parody, that strangely enough epitomises the genre far more effectively than any serious versions. That is why it remains special for me and why I return to it with affection from time to time.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my favourite books as well. It is very cleverly written, witty and it has a great story. But it is one of those books which has been written for children where its target audience misses all the things which make it engaging for adult readers. In this manner it is very similar to other children's classics such as Winnie the Poo - all that clever word play, to which we are so beholden, just happens to go straight over the head of a five year old child. Of course all of this doesn't stop The Thirteen Clocks from being one of my favourite books.