H.M. (Harriet) Castor had her first book accepted for publication at the age of twelve. Since this exceptionally lucky break, she has written more than 40 books for children, both fiction and non-fiction. In October 2011 her first novel for teenagers, VIII, was published - a first-person account of the life of Henry VIII. As a child Harriet attended a ballet school, then gave up dancing and took a degree in History at Girton College, Cambridge. She has worked in children's publishing, as an English teacher in Prague, and spent three years working at The Royal Ballet as a Benesh Dance Notator. Now Harriet lives in Bristol with her husband and two children, and writes as close to full-time as her family will allow. Here she writes about James Thurber's The 13 Clocks.
H.M. Castor on The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
Rereading books you loved as a child can be a risky pursuit. At the moment, each early evening finds me reading to my daughters instalments of a book I adored at the age of, oh, something around 10 or 11. I still have my original copy – the mere sight of which has stirred a glowing fondness in my heart these past 30 years – and I have been recommending the book warmly to my eldest for ages. Now, however, we are about halfway through and I am wondering what on earth it was that grabbed me so strongly all those years back. I mean, it's all right, but...
You catch my drift. No need to dwell upon the disappointments, the ones that were, perhaps, best left unrevisited, so that their nostalgic aura could remain intact. What I want to tell you about is one of the successes – nay, one of the triumphs: a book that has accompanied me from junior school through my teenage years and my twenties and thirties, and is now holding my hand delightfully and steadfastly as we skip together into middle age. It has been my cherished companion all this time, and my love for it has never experienced even the slightest hiccup. I was distraught when it fell out of print for some years in the UK, and now that it is available again, with an introduction written by Neil Gaiman, I can only rejoice that Gaiman's first sentence tells the new reader: 'This book, the one you are holding, The 13 Clocks by James Thurber, is probably the best book in the world.'
What a thing to say! What a marvellous thing to say about this short, dazzling and delicious masterpiece.
My first experience of The 13 Clocks was not as a reader, but as a listener. Aged nine, I sat at school in the temporary portakabin my class had as its form room that particular year. Our teacher, Mrs Lomax, was perched on the front of her desk, reading us a story. It was a fairytale - but not like any other fairytale I had ever heard. This fairytale fizzed with humour, and though it had a recognizable framework - a princess is imprisoned by an evil duke, who sets impossible tasks for the princes who want to rescue her - it had an altogether unfamiliar darkness, quirkiness and invigorating originality; each sentence gleamed with a love of words and rhythm, with jokes and games and ideas. Quietly, surely, as I sat at the back of the class that afternoon in 1979, The 13 Clocks blew my nine-year-old mind.
The story begins conventionally enough. Here is the opening sentence:
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.
This sentence, however, already contains clues to the brilliance of the book. One is the idea of the thirteen clocks themselves, of which we shall hear more in a minute. Another, for me, is the word 'aggressive'. It is a startling choice for a fairytale.
Thurber's Duke is the evil heart of the story and its most entertaining character. He is described as 'six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was', and has a voice that 'sounded like iron dropped on velvet'. He is a man of habits and obsessions: he likes to feed princes (or unfortunate servants) to his geese, cannot bear the mention of mittens, and is obsessed with the captive princess and with time. All the watches and clocks in the Duke's castle have stopped:
They had all frozen at the same time, on a snowy night, seven years before, and after that it was always ten minutes to five in the castle. Travellers and mariners would look up at the gloomy castle on the lonely hill and say, "Time lies frozen there. It's always Then. It's never Now."
I would like to go on with the next sentence ('The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried...') but I'm in danger of simply quoting the whole book. I must just add that I love the juxtaposition, in the above passage, of a characteristic fairytale length of time - seven years - with a distinctly prosaic and unfairytale-like hour - ten to five.
Ideas about time - which fascinated me when I was nine and still do - are a perfect theme for this story, which both is and is not a conventional fairytale. Fairytales, after all, exist out of time, and yet are often concerned with time – think of Cinderella's midnight, or the Sleeping Beauty's 16th birthday and one-hundred-year-slumber (after which, appropriately, she finds that not a moment has gone by).
Thurber's Duke, who has only two fears (one of which is Now, and the other a mysterious creature called the Todal), decides that he has killed time.
The clocks were dead, and in the end, brooding on it, the Duke decided he had murdered time, slain it with his sword, and wiped his bloody blade upon its beard and left it lying there, bleeding hours and minutes...
Considering this, it makes perfect sense that time does not operate realistically in the story (though, when reading it, I never notice). It's nearly always night. The great task set the hero - the prince - takes place exclusively at night, although the hours mentioned must (logically) have included daytime too.
But then, the darkness is appropriate and necessary, for the whole story depends on things that cannot be seen, or cannot be described, or cannot be named, which is ironic (as well as amusing and perfect) for a story that delights so in the power of language. The darkness is mysterious and magical, and one gets the feeling that the prince and princess's sun-filled post-story future (in 'Ever After') won't be half so interesting.
Uncertainty, darkness and indescribability all converge in the person of the Golux, who is the closest thing the story has to a fairy godmother (or rather, godfather). He wears 'an indescribable hat' (a challenge for illustrators!). He disappears and reappears unexpectedly, sometimes in the pitch dark (when of course he cannot be seen in any case). Indeed nothing, with him, is clear – he cannot even be sure when he is telling the truth, and when he is making things up.
The Golux sighed. "I may be wrong," he said, "but we must risk and try it."
The Prince sighed in his turn. "I wish you could be surer."
"I wish I could," the Golux said. "My mother was born, I regret to say, only partly in a caul. I've saved a score of princes in my time. I cannot save them all." Something that would have been purple, if there had been light to see it by, scuttled across the floor.
What's lovely about this passage, too, is its suggestion of an ongoing fairytale world outside the story: the Golux is always having to save princes; the characters in the tale are aware of 'rules and rites and rituals' governing their situation. They are oddly, comically self-aware - and yet, every traditional aspect of the story surprises with its quirky detail, its humour, and with Thurber's evident enjoyment of each sentence, each rhythmic riff. The impossible tasks given to the princess's suitors, for example, are described thus:
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 with X, or dropping spoons, or wearing rings, or speaking disrespectfully of sin.
This book is - you will have guessed - a joy to read aloud. And its language beguiles in so many ways. Some sentences are simply beautiful:
It was cold on Hagga's hill, and fresh with furrows where the dragging points of stars had plowed the fields.
And others use made-up words, which provoke particularly delighted amusement (in my experience) in younger listeners:
Hark stepped on something that squutched beneath his foot and flobbed against the wall.
I have but one complaint concerning the story, and though it feels churlish to mention it, still I feel I must. Princess Saralinda - the imprisoned maiden - is entirely good, beautiful and fragrant, and has none of the quirkiness of every other character in the book (all but one of whom are male). Sigh. It is no fun, at bottom, being the princess who has to be rescued. One is not, even in this most interesting book, allowed to be interesting.
Let that go. My love for the book conquers all such issues. There is something about its joy and energy that makes me want to carry a copy with me - to strap it bodily to myself as I sally forth and grapple with the challenges of life. It makes me feel happier. It makes me feel I can face things. It is polished like a gem - a gem that, whichever way you turn it, shows a sparkle of humour and a flash of exhilarating intelligence. It is full of life, full of heartache and failure, bravery, uncertainty and wickedness, and has a well-developed and celebratory sense of the ridiculous. It is delicious, and playful, and beautifully crafted.
I own two editions (but somehow wish I had more): the Puffin 1970s edition, illustrated sublimely by Ronald Searle, and the new reprint of the original US edition, illustrated quite differently, but no less wonderfully, by Marc Simont. I bought a first edition for my goddaughter's christening; I wanted her to be armed with it too - for life. As the Golux tells the prince and princess near the end:
"Keep warm," he said. "Ride close together. Remember laughter. You'll need it even in the blessed isles of Ever After."
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]