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Letter from Castle Dracula

The newsbullettin of The Transylvanian Society of Dracula

August 2005


The Transylvanian Society of Dracula, established in 1991, is a cultural-historic, non-profit organization, with chapters  and members in Romania and abroad. The TSD summons yearly, scholarly seminars, symposia, colloquiums on both the historical Vlad the Impaler-Dracula and on the supernatural vampire-count.  


The latest best-seller on the American market (and not only)  -  “The Historian”, a novel by Elizabeth Kostova, seems to justify, once more, the theme of the TSD’s forthcoming  IV-th World Dracula Congress:  “The battle between  Reality and Virtuality in the XXI-st century”.  Ever more voices lament the defeat of Reality with all its unpleasant, sometime dangerous trail of consequences, also with its illusory delights.

Elizabeth Kostova has masterfully overcome one enormous obstacle in declaring Prince Vlad the Impaler-Dracula (1431 – 1476) of Valahia (southern province of Romania) a full-blown vampire:  the documents mentioned Vlad’s head being taken to Constantinopole, for the Ottomans to see and relax. Therefore Vlad couldn’t be a vampire. Not any more, anyway. Beheading has been a means of disposing of vampires.  Kostova builds her novel on the rejoining of the body and the head, a task undertaken by monks (!) for reasons rather obscure.

Once the vampire Vlad was brought back to life, an international team of vampire-hunters track him down (just like in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”) and pulverize him with a silver bullet.  Faint spells of the cold-war clichés blow through the novel, like the smell of lavender in the grandma’s dowry chest. 

Powerful novels like Kostova’s need a moment of reflection. Look at what Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” did to Romania:  the minute Stoker moved the location of the vampire-count’s castle from Styria (Austria) to Transylvania – an unprecedented, huge transfer of competence occurred – from the whole world toward the Romanians, as far as the vampire lore is concerned  (Romania’s folklore does not know of vampires) – on the simple, childish account that “Stoker placed the castle of the vampire-count in your country”.  One wonders how would the Austrians have coped with it, had Stoker retained the original setting. Probably better, as the famous vampire outbursts were reported in Austria, Serbia, Slovakia, Germany and Hungary.  None in Transylvania.

Let us discuss, therefore, the implications generated by a novelist’s use of the history and the culture of a country.  Suppose one writes a novel about Abraham Lincoln (or John F. Kennedy, if you prefer) as a serial killer.  Fiction, of course.  Freely using data from Lincoln’s actual biography. Would that be considered an attempt at slandering the history of the United States? Would that be viewed as fun? Would that novel be turned into a film? Would anyone care?

The supposition is not that far-fetched. The Romanians respect and evoke their Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) whenever the country crosses a moment of crisis – as a provider and implementer of law and order:  a justice king.  Hence the painful reception of every other book or film which slaughters the memory of their revered mediaeval ruler.

 Kostova plays with the earthly remains of Prince Vlad in a charmingly innocent manner, tossing them from Snagov to Istanbul then to Bulgaria  -  the same Bulgaria which was raided by Vlad in the winter of 1461, to kill 23,884  Turkish soldiers stationed there. Vlad allowed several thousand Bulgarians to cross the Danube and settle in Valahia,  to escape Turkish oppression and retaliation. Vlad knew how to get to all hearts.

  But what could have turned Vlad into a vampire, in the first place, while alive?  Kostova suggests that by belonging to The Order of the Dragon (set up in 1408 by Emperor Sigismund of  Luxemburg to oppose the expanding Ottoman Empire).  If that is true, all members of The Order of the Dragon were vampires, beginning with Sigismund and ending with Prince Charles – who recently claimed to be a relative of the family Dracula.  What a venue for sequels!

  Just for the record – how many times has Vlad’s image been butchered in the last 530 years?

#   The beginning was made by the Saxon merchants of Transylvania, who hated Vlad dearly for his protectionist commercial policy. Vlad’s new custom laws and taxes were unwisely ignored by the greedy Saxons (who saw their profits sink).  That attracted warning letters on the part of Vlad (how civilized), followed by armed raids against the fat Saxon city of Brasov, in 1459.  Vlad had no plan to destroy  the city, which provided him with weapons. He wanted to teach it a lesson;  several dozen Saxon merchants were impaled, in good Saxon tradition, on a hill overlooking the city (impalement, contrary to many current beliefs, was not a Turkish invention. Impalement was a common punishment in all German-inhabited areas of Europe. Vlad had learned the impalement techniques from the Saxons of Transylvania. The Turks learned them from Vlad, the hard way).

    Deprived of fat profits, punished for their own guilt, the Saxons wanted Vlad removed from the throne of Valahia.  They found an eager, willing ally in Mathias Corvinus, king of Hungary – who had received 40,000 gold ducats from Pope Pius II-nd  to aid Vlad battling the armies of Sultan Mehmed II-nd,  but didn’t.  Together, they accused Vlad of gory, unimaginable cruelties, wantonness and treachery (Vlad’s sword was still wet from fighting the invaders of Valahia) – a concerted blackening of the name and image of this valiant ruler who, single-handedly, managed to confront and drive away the Ottoman army.

   In 2002, a Saxon priest from Sighisoara, Transylvania,  publicly apologized to Vlad for all the slanders and lies and inventions cast upon him by the fellow-Saxons of the XV century  (Vlad must have accepted the apology, as the projected Dracula-park near-by Sighisoara was removed and forgotten).

   Note that the biased Saxon pamphlets did not accuse Vlad of drinking blood – something left for Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally in their “In Search of Dracula”.

   # Ivan the IV-th (the Terrible), centralizer of Russia, was given Vlad’s example of “tolerance zero” to install law and order, prosperity and personal security in his Valahia, in less than 6 years of rule.

 #   The discovery of Bram Stoker’s working notes for his famous novel explain why the vampire-count was named “Dracula” and not otherwise:  because  ‘Dracula means devil in Romanian”.  Stoker gave no explanation why this Prince Dracula (Stoker didn’t know Dracula’s first name, or nickname) would turn into a vampire after his death. To make Dracula as bad as possible, Stoker changed his identity twice : from a Valahian Dracula becomes a Transylvanian (“We, Transylvanian nobles…”) and from a Romanian he turns him into a Szeckler (ethnic minority in Transylvania) to make him a follower of Attila, the Hun, the worst man known to the Europeans. Learning history from Bram Stoker is futile.

 #   In 1972 the best-seller “In Search of Dracula”  (by Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, professors of history at Boston College) circled the globe. Playing with one word, “Dracula”, for both the historical Dracula and for the vampire-count, and translating all the categories of the Romanian folkloric supernatural with one word, “vampire”, (precisely the category missing from the Romanian folklore), sparing no dark, ugly, filthy words in describing Prince Vlad (worse than the Saxons did), the authors left no doubt that Vlad is the vampire materialized by Stoker.  “A job well done”, would have said Mathias Corvinus, who would have surely employed the services of the two professors rather than those of the meeker Saxon pamphleteers.

 #   Endless novels have revived Vlad, Vlad’s sons and grand-sons ever since – as ferocious, lethal vampires. Kostova’s is just the latest.

        Now, that the vampire Vlad had been turned to dust by a silver bullet, could we hope to let him rest in peace? Unlikely. The good guys cannot exist without the bad ones.

        The Romanians will have to learn to live with this globalized myth-inside-history about their respected and revered Prince. It is also their duty to offer the alternative points of view, hoping that the simple rule “history and supernatural are two different realms” may find followers. Reality may have lost another battle with Kostova’s novel, but not yet the war with Virtuality.

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