Thursday, January 5, 2017


And finally there is the matter of that name—Dracula!

Had Bram Stoker not come across a copy of William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, in which he learned of a 15th-century Romanian prince named Dracula who fought the Ottoman Turks, we might today have a forgotten 19th-century novel about a Count Wampyr—the author’s original choice for his main character’s name. Happily for literary posterity, however, Stoker responded positively to the name Dracula: Drakul is Romanian for “dragon,” but it also means “devil,” as in those distinctive Romanian landscape features Gregynia Drakuluj (Devil’s Garden) and Gania Drakuluj (Devil’s Mountain).

That may be all there is to it. Stoker might never have known about Dracula’s other Romanian sobriquet, Vlad Tepes, or “Vlad the Impaler.”

A portrait of Vlad Tepes hangs in Ambras Castle, Austria, alongside one of a man so hirsute he resembles a were-wolf and another of a person who lived with a lance sticking through his head. Vlad won a place in this notorious “Chamber of Curiosities” because he was considered the archetype of the bloodthirsty ruler. This reputation had been fostered by a series of best-selling German pamphlets that depicted him, in one case, dining serenely while severed limbs covered the ground and all around him bodies hung from sharpened stakes.

Over the past several decades, a fierce debate has erupted about whether Stoker knew of Vlad’s bloodthirsty reputation. If so, did he model his Dracula directly on that historical figure? The debate is not merely academic; many, if not most, tourists visiting Romania today equate Count Dracula with Vlad the Impaler. And many, if not most, Romanians object to this misconception, for Vlad is a national hero as the defender of their country. Celebrated in poems and ballads, his statue gazes over Romanian towns, and his visage has appeared on commemorative stamps. Under no circumstances, therefore, should Vlad be associated with the world’s most famous vampire. Some locals, perceiving a business opportunity, shrug their shoulders and opt not to sweat the distinction; others justifiably resent the Vlad-vampire conflation as a myth imposed on them from outside.

No doubt both camps are correct. Whatever sins may be attributed to Vlad, however, vampirism cannot be counted among them. True, Vlad was accused in the old German pamphlets of dipping his bread in the blood of his victims. But it’s unlikely that Bram Stoker knew much about him. The general traits of Stoker’s vampire seem to have been settled when he was still known as Count Wampyr; from Vlad, Stoker borrowed only the more dramatic name—and perhaps the hint of a proud military past. Otherwise, the fictional Count Dracula owes more to the traditional villain of Gothic romance than he does to the historical prince of Wallachia.

That prince—he was actually a voivode, generally translated as “prince” or “duke”—was born in Transylvania in 1431. That was the year when Vlad’s father, in charge of guarding the Carpathian passes against the Ottomans, was summoned to Nuremberg, Germany. There, the Holy Roman Emperor inducted Vlad’s father into the Order of the Dragon, a military fraternity dedicated to defending Christendom against the Muslim Turks. As voivode of Wallachia, he became known as Vlad II Dracul, or “Vlad the Dragon.” When his son eventually succeeded him as voivode, he naturally became Vlad III Dracula — “the Dragon’s Son.”

Part of southern Romania today, Wallachia is a grassy plain bordered on the east and south by the Danube River and on the north and west by the Carpathians. As the gateway to further Ottoman expansion in Europe, it lay fully exposed to the Turkish forces patrolling the river’s south bank. Therefore, Vlad II, despite his oath to the Order of the Dragon, bought a tenuous security by paying annual tribute to the sultan. He also surrendered his two younger sons as hostages for good behavior.

By the time Vlad III Dracula became voivode in 1456, he was nursing two long-standing grievances: His years of captivity had imbued in him a deep hatred for the Turks, and the murder of his father and older brother (the brother had been buried alive) had induced a lasting enmity toward their killers, the Wallachian boyars, or nobles.

This is where the stories of Vlad’s barbarism begin. In 1457, he invited the boyars to Tirgoviste, the Wallachian capital, for an Easter feast. There, Vlad sprang a trap: He impaled those complicit in the murders of his father and brother. The others he marched off to the mountains to build his castle, where he worked them until their clothes fell from their bodies in tatters and they were forced to slave away naked.

Emboldened by his coup, Vlad terrorized the Transylvanians between 1459 and 1460, impaling 10,000 in the city of Sibiu, and 30,000 boyars and merchants in Brasov—allegedly in a single day. In the midst of these killing fields, a table was laid so that boyars who escaped punishment might join Dracula for an alfresco feast. Unfortunately, one of his guests could not stomach the spectacle; the nauseating odors of the rotting corpses, the Impaler noticed, seemed to overcome the man. The sensitive noble was therefore impaled on a stake higher than all the rest, thus permitting him to die above the stench.

Two monks passing through Wallachia were accosted by Dracula, who asked them if his actions might be justified in the eyes of God. The first monk more or less told him what he wanted to hear. The second one, however, condemned his actions as reprehensible. In most German pamphlets depicting this episode, the honest monk is hoisted aloft while the cowardly one is rewarded. In most Russian pamphlets, by contrast, the honest monk is spared.

In another tale of savagery, two ambassadors arrive from a foreign court and decline to remove their hats in the presence of Dracula. Vlad thereupon orders that their hats be nailed to their heads.

There are dozens of such stories, and most of them are clearly exaggerated. This is not to suggest that executions did not take place—death by impalement was a custom in eastern Europe and among the Turks—but the numbers and incidents are almost certainly inflated. A typical impalement seems to have involved hitching a horse to each of a victim’s legs and by those means pulling him slowly onto the point of a horizontal greased stake, driving it through the rectum and running it up through the bowels. The stake with its gory burden was then hoisted into a vertical position. Done correctly—if that is the word for it—the agony of death might be prolonged for hours. Whatever method was employed, impalement was unquestionably labor- and resource-intensive: It demanded time, men, horses, and wood. Vlad’s forces were never very large, and although he had access to abundant timber in the Carpathians, most of Wallachia was steppe.

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