The 13 Clocks

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The 13 Clocks
The 13 Clocks (Simont).jpg
AuthorJames Thurber
IllustratorMarc Simont
Cover artistMarc Simont
CountryUnited States
PublisherSimon & Schuster
Publication date
January 1, 1950
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
Pages124 pp

The 13 Clocks is a fantasy tale written by James Thurber and illustrator Marc Simont 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.[1]

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.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The evil Duke of Coffin Castle lives with his good and beautiful niece, the princess Saralinda, in a castle so cold that all the clocks have frozen at ten minutes to five. Several suitors have tried to court the Princess, but the Duke's policy is to test their eligibility by assigning them impossible tasks, and in some cases killing them when they fail to complete the tasks or for other arbitrary reasons. 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 deliberately gets himself arrested and imprisoned in order to infiltrate the castle.

At "Xingu"'s interrogation by the Duke, the Duke, who thanks to his spies has been aware of Zorn's identity all along, announces his decision to allow Zorn to court Saralinda. The Duke gives Zorn the task of finding a thousand jewels. However, to prevent Zorn from simply traveling to his father's kingdom, getting the jewels there and returning (which would take 99 days), 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 who had been given the ability to weep jewels, only to be made to weep so much that she is no longer able to cry. After a journey of two days, they arrive at her hut and find that she is still able to weep jewels, but Hagga informs them that the magic gift that let her weep jewels was amended, so whereas "the jewels of sorrow shall last beyond all measure", the jewels of laughter shall give "little pleasure": jewels from the tears of happiness will turn back into tears a fortnight (fourteen days) later. The Golux and Zorn try to make her weep from laughter, but this results in jewels of little or no value. As the realization that they have failed sets in, Hagga suddenly begins to laugh inexplicably until she cries, producing an abundance of precious jewels. The Golux counts out a thousand, and they return to the castle after thanking her.

At the castle with less than an hour to go, the Duke reveals to his servant/spy Hark that he had 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 "[Saralinda] can be saved and [the Duke] destroyed only by a prince whose name begins with 'X' and doesn't." Hark tells the Duke that Zorn was called Xingu while he was posing as a minstrel, and therefore he is the man specified in the spell.

Hark hears footsteps coming from the upper floor. The furious Duke realizes that Zorn and the Golux have somehow gotten into the castle and orders out his guards. While they are chasing and fighting Zorn through the castle, the Golux and the Princess sneak throughout the castle to each of the thirteen clocks, using Saralinda's warmth to start them once more. The Duke and Hark return to the black oak room via the castle's secret passages to find Prince Zorn (who had lured the guards into a tower room and imprisoned them there), Saralinda and the Golux waiting for them. 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 by ship, first to the kingdom of Yarrow (where Saralinda's father the good King Gwain lives) and then on to the Prince's homeland of Zorna.

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] for having done less evil than [he] should." Faced with his failure and the loss of his jewels, the wrathful Duke dares the Todal to attack. 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; in the distance, he can just make out the sound of someone laughing.


Boucher and McComas praised the book as "magically adorned with touches of modern humor, hints of dark Jacobean terror, and gleams of pure poetry.".[3]

The USA's Common Core State Standards Initiative includes The 13 Clocks as a text exemplar for second and third grades.[4]

Stage, film and audio[edit]

The story was set to music by Mark Bucci and appeared in 1953 as the 5th episode of The Motorola Television Hour, with Basil Rathbone as the evil Duke.[5]

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.

In 1968, Warner Bros. hired producer Mervyn LeRoy to make a film of The 13 Clocks, and the Sherman Brothers wrote a score. The project was cancelled; the score was released on the "Unsung Sherman Brothers" CD.

Audio recordings have also been produced, performed by Lauren Bacall (Pathways of Sound, POS 1039 & 1040), Peter Ustinov (Caedmon Audio, ISBN 978-0-898-45429-1) and Edward Woodward (Phoenix Audio, ISBN 978-1-597-77688-2). The BBC produced a radio version of the story in December 1973, with Heron Carvic as the Golux and Nigel Lambert as Prince Zorn.

A three part Jackanory adaptation was broadcast on BBC One 28–30 December 1983 starring Colin Jeavons as the Duke, Roy Kinnear as the Golux, Yolande Palfrey as Saralinda and Simon Shepherd as Prince Zorn.

Christopher Theofanidis wrote an opera based on the story in 2002.


  1. ^ Brian Attebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, p 148, ISBN 0-253-35665-2
  2. ^ James Thurber, The 13 Clocks, ISBN 978-1-59017-275-9
  3. ^ "Recommended Reading," F&SF, April 1951, p.113
  4. ^ "Core standards" (PDF).
  5. ^ "The Thirteen Clocks" – via

External links[edit]

  • "The Motorola Television Hour", 1953[1]