The 13 Clocks
By James Thurber
Illustrated by Marc Simont
Simon and Schuster, 1950
The 13 Clocks is James Thurber's most famous fairy tale, and as with most of his tales, it is not particularly intended for children. I enjoyed it when I was young, but there is a fair amount of tormenting small animals and feeding people to geese. Use your discretion.
The cold and unhappy Duke lives in a cold and unhappy castle, with only his niece, the warm but unhappy Princess Saralinda to brighten his life. Saralinda, being both a Princess and a delightful person in all ways relevant to the context, was much sought by princes and heroes of all stripes. This was a terrible mistake on their part.
The Duke limped because his legs were of different lengths. The right one had outgrown the left because, when he was young, he had spent his mornings place-kicking pups and punting kittens. He would say to a suitor, "What is the difference in the length of my legs?" and if the youth replied, "Why, one is shorter than the other," the Duke would run him through with the sword he carried in his swordcane and feed him to the geese. The suitor was supposed to say, "Why, one is longer than the other." Many a prince had been run through for naming the wrong difference. Others had been slain for offenses equally trivial; trampling the Duke's camellias, failing to praise his wines, staring too long at his gloves, gazing too long at his niece. Those who survived his scorn and sword were given incredible labors to perform in order to win his niece's hand, the only warm hand in the castle, where time had frozen to death at ten minutes to five one snowy night. They were told to cut a slice of moon, or change the ocean into wine. They were set to finding things that never were, and building things that could not be. They came and tried and failed and disappeared and never came again. And some, as I have said, were slain, for using names that start X, or dropping spoons, or wearing rings, or speaking disrespectfully of sin.
Enter Xingu, a wandering minstrel and Prince in disguise, who has arrived to make much the same mistakes as all of the others, but with the supernatural and often senile aid of the Golux. While the Golux may or may not be entirely real, helpful, or explicable, he does know certain things that may allow the Prince to do impossible things, or at least believe that impossible things might be done. He proves his worth by coming up with a cunning plan to prevent the Prince's death for having a name that begins with X and a song that mentioned the Duke's gloves: he must simply claim that his death would bring joy to another, and the Duke would not dare slice him from his from guggle to zatch, dice his remains, and feed him to the geese.
It works, and after a brief glance at Princess Saralinda the Prince has no doubt that his love is true and his quest noble, if perhaps impossible. An adventure is undertook, with much alliteration, odd words, impossible problems and improbable solutions, back-stabbings and front-stabbings, and of course, a duel or two to the death. In 125 moderately illustrated pages a story as grand as any and stranger than most is spun, and the princess won. The possibility of happily ever after is suggested, and vile deaths befall the vile.
This is a glib, wordful, and hectic story, with enough fun and action to keep most people reading, and enough weirdness to keep the rest of us engaged. It is one of those books that everyone should read, partly because you need to know if you like reading James Thurber, and partly because it is short enough that you have no excuse not to.
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