Fortunately, one is never too old for fairy tales. At least, that is what I tell myself and that seems to suffice. James Thurber is primarily known for his humorous short stories and blobby illustrations. He wrote the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” But he also wrote several children’s books and for several months now I have had a copy of The Thirteen Clocks sitting by my bedside, waiting for an afternoon for me to sit down and read it all the way through without interruptions, which shouldn’t have been hard since it is only 124 pages of large print, with numerous pictures. But my peaceful afternoon finally came and my cat took a nap and I had a cup of tea and read through the book.
In the introduction by Neil Gaiman, he said it is the kind of book you want to read aloud, which is certainly true. The story is relatively unoriginal – princess in distress, an evil duke, a prince in disguise who must perform an impossible feat to rescue her – but the characters and the prose are not. They are quite extraordinary and delightful to read, especially the prose. It often rhymes. Here is an example of what I mean. The Duke is rather sensitive about things relating to his gloves. A traveler is talking to a prince disguised as a minstrel who called the Duke’s gloves mittens when,
A black figure in velvet mask and hood and cloak disappeared behind a tree. “The cold Duke’s spy-in-chief,” the traveler said, “a man named Whisper. Tomorrow he will die.” The minstrel waited. “He’ll die because, to name your sins, he’ll have to mention mittens. I leave at once for other lands, since I have mentioned mittens.” He sighed. “You’ll never live to wed his niece. You’ll only die to feed his geese. Goodbye, good night, and sorry.”
You almost want to read it aloud in a singsong voice. The Duke is an evil man with cold hands. “His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart.” All the clocks in his castle have stopped and he claims to have killed time. He also has a niece, who has the only warm hands in the castle and whenever a suitor entreats her warm hand in marriage, he assigns an impossible task that they are guaranteed to fail in, like cutting a slice of the moon off or hunting the thorny Boar of Borythorn, which does not exist. But when a prince arrives, disguised as a minstrel, he is assisted by the Golux, “the only Golux in the world and not a mere Device” who also has an “indescribable hat.” As unreliable as the Golux seems to be, this makes all the difference in the world. He may be forgetful and make stories up that he subsequently believes because he forgot he made them up, but as he says, “I make mistakes, but I am on the side of Good.” and “must always be on hand when people are in peril.” The prince must place his trust in the Golux, despite his frequent unease with him.
Perhaps the real reason to read this story is for the language. I’ve read a surprising number of negative reviews for this book, so I think this is the kind of book where you really have to appreciate wordplay, paradoxes, whimsy, and riddles. Conveniences and coincidences and surprises abound with so much brazenness, as if Thurber were delighting in making the story as whimsically coincidental as he could. As Sonja Bollle pointed out in her article, Thurber is having fun with this when the Duke exclaims at the Golux near the end ‘”You mere Device!” he gnarled. “You platitude! You Golux ex machina!”‘
Thurber’s characters are also unforgettable. Besides the Duke and the Golux there are the Duke’s three spies: Whisper, Hark and Listen. Whisper is the spy master in chief, Hark is rather snarky, even to the Duke, while Listen is invisible. There is also Hagga, who cries tears of precious jewels. And there is the Todal, a creature that can’t be killed who is “an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should.” The mere mention of his name is enough to make locks of people’s hair turn white, or even their mask turn grey.
There is quite a streak of dark humor in The 13 Clocks. The books ends, not with the happy couple – though they are a happy couple – but with the demise of the Duke. Quite chilling, in a funny, creative kind of way. The whole book is filled with little snippets of dark humor. One of the Duke’s methods of disposing of people is to have them fed to the geese. Children have died in his castle for trampling his camellias. Hagga’s tears/jewels of sorrow last forever, but her tears/jewels of laughter last only a fortnight (fourteen days) before turning back into tears. But perhaps all good fairy tales are actually quite dark, if you think about them.
It is such a quotable book, I can’t resist one last quote. As the Duke says,
“We all have flaws,” he said, “and mine is being wicked.”