The 13 Clocks

Author: James Thurber

Artist: Marc Simont

Type: Fiction, novella

Published: 1950

I read it: January 2018

the 13 clocks

Although I didn’t note anything about the James Thurber story in my review of Unnatural Creatures, Gaiman’s mini-rave of The 13 Clocks within those pages made me take note. When I found a copy at Half Price Books, I was struck by its slimness. Here is a single-sitting fantasy that calls to mind Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham in its use of traditional fantasy elements but with the playful tone and penchant for play-on-words of The Phantom Tollbooth.

In the foreword, Thurber admits that this tale was, for him, “an example of escapism and self-indulgence,” something he wrote to distract himself from a different book. It attempts to both riff on and embrace the classic Western fantasy tale: its opening line is “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.” The Duke is a classic villain, all nasty arrogance, pride, and cruelty. He can offer the hand of the princess to any prince who completes an impossible task cleverly defined by the Duke himself.

That the Princess Saralinda is not central to the story is a shame (she is under a spell, after all), made slightly more palatable by the ostensible protagonist, a prince disguised as a wandering minstrel, also being a bland character. But perhaps the author fully intended these decisions. The characters who push the story include the Duke, his mysterious underlings, a different female character who plays a big role toward the end, and a magical guide called the Golux. The Golux is a goofy man in a goofy hat who speaks in riddles, a trickster wizard who claims he is “not a mere Device” yet helps the prince stumble along on the impossible quest. Lurking in the background of the story is the eerie Todal, a horrific unseen force that smells of old, unopened rooms and sounds like rabbits screaming.

Enhancing the absurd romp are the perfectly suited illustrations by Marc Simont. There’s hardly a page in the whole book that doesn’t have a visual to accompany it, whether in full color or recurring tones of blue and gray. The author’s joy in stuffing the pages is apparent when he rises to the task of this sentence: “Something very much like nothing anyone had seen before came trotting down the stairs and crossed the room.” At the bottom of this page is a somewhat off-putting… something. I’ve never quite seen it before.

What is The 13 Clocks, really? A kid’s tale about a prince getting the princess? A dark satire about a greedy ruler? A meditation on the futile fight against time, with sidebar questions about destiny, chance, and free will? Perhaps it’s a bag of diamonds made of tears, glistening when you hold it a certain way but hilariously melting down your wrist when you turn it around.

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