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Wednesday 29 April 2015

Vlad the Impregnable

A Review of "Dracula: Prince of Many Faces"

Vlad III, Prince of Walachia, competes with many other historical monarchs in his position as an icon. However, his fame has more to do with a late Victorian supernatural monster that was given his patronym some 421 years after his death than anything he did during his lifetime. That isn't to say the life of Vlad the Impaler had not achieved notoriety prior to Stoker selecting his title, "Dracula", meaning Son of the Dragon, but it is a fair statement to say interest in this figure has increases every time a high profile adaptation of the 1897 novel is released.

I doubt the writers of "Dracula: Prince of Many Faces", Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally, would have been surprised to see that interest in Vlad would only increase after the publication of their fourth book on the subject in 1989. Their previous works included two on the historical Dracula and one on the fictional Bram Stoker creation. This book, although mainly focused on the life and times of Vlad III, bookends the biography comparing the two Draculas. Therefore, one might assume that the justification for the book is to comprehensively unite their studies and to provide a broad overview of the historical figure of Dracula. In this sense, it delivers what is says in the title and a quarter of a century on from this publication there doesn't seem to be anything in popular historical studies to touch this in terms of content.

In terms of style, the book adopts a third person narrative, which can feel a little pretentious and awkward at times. I appreciate this comes from the fact that material has a personal attachment to both the historians for different reasons and its creation is an outgrowth of the passion for the subject they shared with the 1988 graduates of Boston University, USA, but I would have preferred a little more detatchment once the introduction was out of the way. I felt that the flow was affected and this did have an affect on the way the material was presented. The book seems to go in different directions regarding what Vlad did and didn't do without much in the way of a justification or a solid reason to believe a certain narrative on his life. In a work of non-fiction I like to have reliable and decisive guides. If we are going to explore certain accusations then I like to be told that this is what is going to happen. Although the resulting book is an impartial and authoritative piece on the subject - one of the best I have read - it feels like it is a bit of a tangle at times.

This isn't to say that there isn't plenty of good primary source material on Vlad presented in this book. Unfortunately this is only provided in the annotated bibliography towards the end and not through the use of end-note citations, which would have worked very well in this instance. Having said that, the bibliography is well presented with the authors' remarks on the various sources are helpful.

Offsetting the clunkiness of the main narrative, the book's best pieces appear at its beginning and end. This includes the book's most important chapter, "Beyond the Grave: The Many Faces of Dracula". Here we are provided with the three prevailing opinions of Vlad III. The German version gives us probably the most influential view of the man in the western world, that he was a sadistic tyrant. The Russian version provides us with the view that he was cruel but fair. The Romanian version tells us that he was a national hero. This chapter goes to good lengths in exploring the evidence to support these ideas and the obvious motivations behind each opinion. It also helps to debunk a few myths. One can use it re-visit the previous chapters, but it seems like a bit of struggle to have got that far and not had the material properly set up for this insightful and balanced discussion. It also seems a little late in the book for it then to be further reinforced in the concluding chapter, "Who was the Real Dracula?"

One of the book's strongest points is one that needs more discussion and perhaps in a separate work. This is the concept that Stoker did far more than draw the name and a rough location for his famous vampire from the historical Wallachian prince. There appears to be some compelling arguments put forward in the prologue and final chapter before the conclusion that Stoker researched Vlad's history and the location of "Castle Dracula" very well. The authors of "Dracula: Prince of Many Faces" remark on how impressed they were at Stoker's research into the topography, folklore, geography and even the culinary details of Romania. They explain how they used the novel to follow in Jonathan Harker's footsteps. It is quite remarkable to consider how accurate Stoker had been in his descriptions given that he never visited the country. This research by both authors could have made for an interesting book on its own.

"Dracula: Prince of Many Faces" presents an excellent study on the historical Dracula and it is a great shame it hasn't been more widely read since its publication in 1989. Given the huge upsurge in interest in Vlad III that has occurred since the book came out, it is rather frustrating to still hear the same pulp non-fiction reported as accepted fact in some history books and programmes.


Reflecting on Vlad Tepes

I first heard about the historical Dracula in a documentary called "Vincent Price's Dracula". The idea that such a man actually existed and was celebrated some fascinated me. I then read about him in a sensationalist book, "The World's Most Evil Men", which was part of the "The World's Greatest" series of pulp non-fiction books. There was nothing of the Romanian hero in this chapter with every single piece of German propaganda linked together to best represent him as a ghoulish tyrant with sadistic tendencies, the living embodiment of his vampire namesake. Such a view was not discouraged during the animated movie, "GI Joe: Arise Serpentor! Arise!", where Vlad's tomb is raided by the villainous Cobra organization to contribute DNA towards the creation of their new emperor. Francis Ford Coppola's decision to establish a firm link between the historical Dracula and Bram Stoker's character to form an origin story for his adaptation of the novel in 1992 made information on Vlad even more accessible. Recalling the reference Vincent Price had made to an heroic Vlad III in the documentary I had watched as a child, I started looking out for this other side of Dracula.

In wake of the success of Coppola's film, the fictional Dracula's connection to his historic past became a more regular feature. There were certainly worse films than "Dark Prince: The Legend of Dracula", which did well to show a balanced account of the Dracula character although, a la the Countess Bathory movies, there was clear pressure to dramatize the various myths attached to Vlad's history. The film's worst concession was to have the tale transcend completely from history and into fantasy at its conclusion. However, this is no less than what happened with an entertaining comic strip on Vlad's life that I collected in the mid-90s when Dracula fever was high.

Going by "Dracula: Prince of Many Faces", most of Western Europe and the USA largely buy into the German version of Vlad III's story. There is often a feeling of a slight concession towards the fact that Romanian history still reveres him as a hero, but overall the vision of the real Dracula being a blood-thirsty tyrant lends itself best to Bram Stoker's fictional creation.

When I look at the history of Vlad Tepes I cannot help but see a parallel with Che Guevara. Usually when we look at historic figures, we draw the conclusion that many tyrants were born out of their time. What makes their crimes so horrendous is that they contrast with the values of their era. Put any number of the 20th century despots back to medieval times and they would not be regarded so harshly. However, Che Guevara is seen as a hero. He is a symbol of freedom and just rebellion. A combination of good looks, intelligence, education, charisma and a courageous willingness to directly apply himself to a cause, ending in martyrdom, has assured his iconography. Yet over 200 prisoners of war were tortured and executed on his orders. He may have helped overthrow an oppressive regime, but the leader who replaced the Batista government remained in power for over half a century afterwards only to be replaced by his brother. The cause Che represented, Communism, was responsible for more organized killings and oppression than any other in the 20th century. Vlad, like Che, fought for his people and was beloved by them. He fought against an occupying force and despite once being the friend of the oppressor refused to be his puppet prince. Just as Che's methods in warfare are often justified by his circumstances, the same might be said for Vlad who was facing some truly brutal enemies.

I do not seek to lionize Vlad, but I like to see a more rounded view of any historical figure. That doesn't mean I want any of his successes, strengths or virtues exaggerated, but everything  should be weighed in the balance. He was far more than just another blood-thirsty tyrant or a footnote to a Victorian Gothic icon.  

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