James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks


Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold aggressive Duke and his niece the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. 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 the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.

So begins a little book that’s either a nauseatingly cute attempt at creating a modern fairy tale, self-consciously manipulative as Shirley Temple tapdancing through an antebellum plantation, or a tongue in cheek affectionate homage to all the pre-existing fairy tales in which a prince, usually travelling in disguise, must perform impossible tasks to win his beloved princess. I personally tend to the latter: how can you take a story seriously if it contains a line such as “The hour was late and revelers began to reel and stagger home from inns and taverns, none in rags and none in tags and some in velvet gowns. One third of the dogs in town began to bark.”

As suggested in the introductory sentence, the Evil Duke lives in a cold castle with his (ostensibly) niece, whom he does not want to lose because he loves her himself, but must relinquish to a prince whose name begins with X but doesn’t. Needless to say, the Duke would prefer NOT to relinquish Saralinda to anyone, but must abide by the rules of fairy tales…although he does his best to make it as difficult as possible: slay the (nonexistent) Thorny Boar of Borythorn, cut a slice of moon or turn the sea into wine and other impossible tasks. One day, Prince Zorn of Zorna, disguised as a ragged minstrel Xingu strolls into town…can we see where this is leading? Yes, Zorn and Saralinda fall in love at first sight and the Duke sets Zorn the task of bringing him 1,000 gems, not in nine and ninety days (the length of time it would take Zorn to sail home and ask his father for same) but nine and ninety hours. Needless to say, there are no gems close enough for Zorn to fulfill this task but with the help of the Golux, and a woman who weeps gems rather than tears, Zorn gains the hand of Saralinda (yes, and her heart and the rest of her) leaving the Duke alone in his desolate castle…save for the Todal, that blob of glup which serves to punish evildoers who do insufficient evil.

I can understand how people wouldn’t like it. Thurber seems to have taken more joy in wordplay than in things one usually expects from stories, such as characterization and world building, and if that’s what you want from a tale, you won’t like this. However you regard it, I’d suggest reading it aloud the first time you encounter it; unlike Sandburg’s Rootabaga Tales, Thurber is not known for his works of poetry, so it may come as a surprise to readers that the book does scan much like blank verse in prose format. I too find it more amusing if it’s read aloud, as it was for me the first time I “read” it…and no, I wasn’t a child at the time. I was in high school, right at the “too cool for fairy tales” stage and, thinking I’d outgrown such childish things, was indeed impressed when an older classmate corralled me into listening to her read it. My copy has the Simont illustrations, although there’s another edition which Ronald Searle illustrated; I can see that his illustrations would be equally amusing.

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