Monday, October 18

Vlad Ţepeș and the Worst "Where's Waldo" Ever

Since Halloween is coming up, a bit of seasonal ghoulishness for your edification. I have been re-reading Elizabeth Kostova's rather enjoyable The Historian, one of the few reasonably memorable contributions to the vampire-slaying genre of page and screen since the late Terrence Fisher, serious High Church Anglican and horror filmmaker, left the field. The greatest achievement of this first-time author, though, seems to have been being able to camouflage, with considerable charm and suspense, the fact that on the whole not much really happens in the course of the book, nor does she seem quite able to develop even some of her own more interesting contributions to vampire legend and lore, like trying to vaguely link up Vlad the Impaler with the various heretical Cathars and Bogomils of southern France and old Bulgaria, or some rough fictional equivalent. This goes, oddly, almost nowhere, despite the fact that Cathars are, nowadays, the new Beanie Babies. (Are Beanie Babies still the new Beanie Babies? I can't keep track of these things.)

That being said, it is something of a relief to see in Kostova-land, the blood-sucking fiends still recoil in horror from a crucifix, however much the authoress seems to ignore the metaphysical assumptions this requires to work, rather than simply moping around moodily and acting all sparkly. (On the other hand, sparkly teenagers are terrifying in themselves.)

I bring this up because I ran across a rather curious sidelight on Vlad the Impaler the other day. (Which in all fairness has nothing to do with vampires--Bram Stoker's character has nothing in common with the bloodthirsty Romanian prince, save the name, and at various times in the book seems to be either a Hungarian Szekeler or perhaps even a Serb, rather than Wallachian or even properly Transylvanian, and vampires are, when you get down to it, more Greek--!--than Transylvanian. He also looks a bit like the late Victor Borge in the novel.) It is an open question exactly how nasty a piece of work the fellow was, though I doubt he was an angel, in any case.

Romanians ar understandably somewhat baffled by their national hero's Bela Lugosi reputation in the west. Imagine going to Kazakstan and discovering in their culture, er, say, Andrew Jackson, with all the good and bad that implies, is a blood-drinking undead sex symbol with a bad Canadian accent. All the Romanians I know are pleasant Mediterranean types, rather than pale ghouls, and they know, wine.

Much of Vlad III Drăculea's reputation in the West seems to stem from King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary's various the-nosferatu-ate-my-homework attempts to explain why the heck he didn't team up with Dracula to run the Turks out of Dodge (for Dodge read: Rumelia), and thus why he didn't owe his creditors back all that money they gave him. There was even a poem about it: Von ainem wutrich der hies Trakle waida von der Walache. Indeed, it seems Vlad had supporters at one time or another in Poland, Venice and even the Holy See. It seems much of his atrocities were wildly exaggerated, and while perhaps a nasty little man, was certainly not insane, for what it's worth. That being said, Corvinus or no, I am not sure I would want to get on the wrong side of someone a) named "the Impaler," and b) who doesn't drink... wine.

One of the odder bits of this propaganda campaign (in addition to the usual broadsheets and pamphlets) must be a couple of images that put the Impaler in place of Pontius Pilate, and in the place of the Roman consul watching over St. Andrew's crucifixion. The elegant court hat, the feral little face, the big Marshal Kûrvi-Tasch mustache--it is immediately recognizable and disturbingly out of place. The effect is oddly chilling and yet, brainwashed from birth by images of Chocula and the Count von Count, weirdly funny in a completely inappropriate way. It is like the Where's Waldo from hell.

Yet, it does get one thinking. It is too easy to write off Pilate as an overworked lightweight, in over his head, a bad man, a foolish man, a weak man, but perhaps not a wicked man. Yet, in letting himself be cowed by the rabble, and sending off a man he knows to be innocent as the tidiest (or least-headache-inducing) solution to a bureacratic snafu, one may rightly put him on the same footing of wickedness as the Impaler. Pilate's muzzy, dispassionate condemnation is just as inhuman and chilling as the bitter, ruthless, hot-and-cold hatred of Vlad Ţepeș. At least the Impaler never killed anyone out of sheer moral laziness.


And now, Sesame Street's Count von Count singing in German. Just in case you thought this was getting too serious.


  1. I remember learning in univ. that Vlad converted to Roman least for a while. It had to do with his alliances. Prior to that he was Eastern Orthodox (if he were ethnically Magyar he very likely would have been Unitarian, but you can't get more Orthodox than "Vlad"). Transylvania was one of the two "dual fatherlands" for Hungarians, but there were always a lot of "Romanians" hanging around from the days of the Vlakh migrations, or from the Roman colony of Dacia, whichever theory you prefer. His title, I believe, was voyevoda, which means prince-by-conquest. Names like "Vlad" and "voyevoda" indicate that early Romanians received Christianity and civil culture from Slavs.

    Mark R

  2. I highly recommend British author Ann Wroe's book "Pilate" - known as "Pontius Pilate" in the States - which explores several different possibilities for the character of Pilate as he has been understood through history. It's a fascinating read.

  3. Considering European legend has him dying as a suicide and Coptic legend as a saint, he certainly would make for a fascinating topic of discussion.

  4. Stoker's use of the name "Dracula" was almost certainly cribbed from a footnote which identified the word as meaning "Devil". His sense of history was "creative" to say the least, and though some references in the novel loosely apply to Vlad, they all conflate the Impaler (of whose colorful nickname the good Bram was seemingly unaware) with Vlad's father and various other figures about which Stoker knew next to nothing.

    Of such things, masterpieces are made.

    (An Ignatius Critical Edition of Dracula is forthcoming...)

  5. Chiming in with two crucial contributions:

    1. Of course Romanians are pleasant, wine-drinking Mediterranean types. They speak a Romance language.

    2. I prefer "The Batty Bat" of all the Count's oeuvre. I heard it playing in a store yesterday and about died of joy.

  6. Oh darn, here goes, now, Julie, I'm going to have that stuck in my head. (For the record, I think the German is a translation of "The Bones Song.")

    Eleanor--thanks for the info! You'd be the one to ask.

  7. I know a direct descendant of Vlad Tepes. He claims the man was monstrous but so were many Translyvanian princes when fighting the Turks. So not exceptionally so given the circumstances. And the kind of people Bram Stoker describes do exit, but only in one region of Romania. They are the Transylvanians, and they have existed long before most of the surrounding Greek, Slavic, Magyar, and Germanic people around them have. They are a minority people and always have been. Not known for their birth what they are known for is their appetite, their habit of drinking constantly without getting drunk, and their fierceness when angered. They are also very pale, have bright blue eyes, are very nocturnal, and are very tolerant of cold weather. This is among the reasons they tend to stay in the mountains rather than approach the Wallachians or other Romanian peoples. To non-Transylvanians (including other Romanians), their customs can seem very creepy but also very hospitable.

  8. I take it you mean the Szekelers? (Who I think are kinda-sorta-Hungarian, yes?) Or are you talking about the Transylvanians as a whole?

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