The 13 Clocks
|Cover artist||Marc Simont|
|Publisher||Simon & Schuster|
|January 1, 1950|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
The 13 Clocks is a fantasy tale written by James Thurber in 1950, while he was completing one of his other novels. It is written in a unique cadenced style, in which a mysterious prince must complete a seemingly impossible task to free a maiden from the clutches of an evil duke. It invokes many fairy tale motifs.
The story is noted for Thurber's constant, complex wordplay, and his use of an almost continuous internal meter, with occasional hidden rhymes — akin to blank verse, but with no line breaks to advertise the structure. Other fantasy books by Thurber, such as Many Moons, The Wonderful O (published 1958), and particularly The White Deer, also contained hints of this unusual prose form, but here it becomes a universal feature of the text, to the point where it is possible to predict the word order for a given phrase (for example, "the Golux said" vs. "said the Golux") by looking at the pattern of emphasis in the preceding phrase.
By the time he wrote this book, Thurber was blind, so he could not draw cartoons for the book, as he had done with The White Deer five years earlier. He enlisted his friend Marc Simont to illustrate the original edition. The Golux is said to wear an "indescribable hat". Thurber made Simont describe all his illustrations, and was satisfied when Simont was unable to describe the hat. When it was reissued by Puffin Books, it was illustrated by Ronald Searle. The book has been reprinted by The New York Review Children's Collection, with original illustrations by Marc Simont and an introduction by Neil Gaiman.
The evil Duke of Coffin Castle lives with his good and beautiful niece, the princess Saralinda. A few days before Saralinda's twenty-first birthday, Prince Zorn of Zorna arrives in the town disguised as a minstrel named Xingu. After meeting an enigmatic character known as the Golux, who declares his intention to help Zorn rescue the Princess, Zorn gets himself arrested and imprisoned.
The Duke gives Zorn the task of finding a thousand jewels. However, the Duke was aware of Zorn's identity all along; therefore, to prevent Zorn from simply traveling to his father's kingdom and back again, the Duke only allows him 99 hours to complete the task. To complicate things further, the Duke commands that when Zorn returns, the thirteen irrevocably frozen clocks in the castle must all be striking five.
Zorn and the Golux travel to the home of Hagga, a woman with the ability to weep jewels, only to discover that she was made to weep so much that she is no longer able to cry. As the realization that they have failed sets in, Hagga begins to laugh inexplicably until she cries, producing an abundance of jewels. Hagga informs them that the magic spell that let her cry tears was altered, so whereas, "the tears of sadness shall last without measure, the tears of laughter shall give but little pleasure". Jewels from the tears of happiness return to the state of tears a fortnight after they were made. The Golux counts out a thousand, and they return to the castle after thanking her.
At the castle, the Duke reveals to his servant Hark that he kidnapped Saralinda as a child and that she is not actually his niece. Under the conditions of a spell cast on the Duke as he fled with the Princess, the Duke may not marry Saralinda until she is twenty-one; furthermore, the spell prophecies that the Duke will be destroyed and Saralinda saved by a man whose name begins with x and doesn't. Hark reminds the confident Duke that Zorn was called Xingu while he was posing as a minstrel, and therefore he is the man mentioned in the spell.
While the furious Duke and his men are fighting Zorn, the Golux and the Princess sneak throughout the castle to each of the thirteen clocks, using Saralinda's beauty and warmth to start them once more. Presented with the thousand jewels and the sound of the thirteen clocks striking, the Duke is forced to admit defeat. Zorn and the Princess happily depart to the distant shores of ever after.
A fortnight later, while the Duke is gloating over his jewels, they melt back into Hagga's tears. The angry Duke is then confronted by a nightmarish creature called the Todal, sent by the devil to punish him. Faced with his failure and the loss of his jewels, the wrathful Duke attacks the Todal. The story ends with Hark entering an empty room to find the Duke's sword on the floor and a puddle of tears dripping from the table; he can just make out the sound of someone laughing.
Stage, film and audio
It was also adapted and produced by Stephen Teeter for use in the 1960s in a production in Berkeley, CA. Later it was adapted and produced by Frank Lowe for stage, and published in 1976 by Samuel French, Inc [ISBN 978-0-573-65122-9].
Christopher Theofanidis wrote an opera based on the story in 2002.
- Brian Attebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, p 148, ISBN 0-253-35665-2
- James Thurber, The 13 Clocks, ISBN 978-1-59017-275-9
- "Recommended Reading," F&SF, April 1951, p.113
- "The Motorola Television Hour" The Thirteen Clocks (1953)
- "The Motorola Television Hour", 1953