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The Tale of Dracula

 

The Tale of Dracula is based on legends about the Wallachian (Rumanian) prince of the middle of the fifteenth century Vlad Tepes (Dracula) famed for his cruelty. These legends circulated and were written down in the neighbour­ing countries of Hungary and Germany that bordered on Wallachia. The Russian Tale of Dracula was composed in the 1480s by a member of the Russian embassy who travelled in Moldavia and Hungary during these years. Most likely its author was Fyodor Kuritsyn, the head of the embassy, an eminent statesman who held heretical beliefs. The Russian Tale of Dracula was not a translation of the foreign stories about him, just as the foreign texts do not derive from the Russian tale. The common basis for all the stories about Dracula are the oral anecdotes about him recorded in different ways in Russian, Italo-Hungarian and German texts; the Russian Tale of Dracula is an original rendering of “itinerant” plots.28

The Tale of Dracula was not regarded as an historical tale in Russia; the author makes no mention of the period, the circumstances of the reign and the real name of the main character, Vlad Tepes, and calls him Dracula (dragon, devil), the nickname by which this prince was called outside Wallachia.

The tale begins with a brief statement that “in the land of Wallachia” there was “a Christian voevoda by the name of Dracula in Wallachian, meaning the devil” and that this voevoda was “evil-wise” both in name and in way of life. As in The Life of St Michael of Klopsk, the author begins his story not at the beginning of the main character’s life, but in the middle: he tells how Turkish envoys came to Dracula and refused to take off their caps. They said that this was a law of their land. “I wish to uphold your law, that you may observe it well,” Dracula announced and ordered their caps to be nailed to their heads. After this comes a story about Dracula’s war with the Turkish Sultan, during which he frequently defeated the Sultan and covered him with shame. Then follow a number of anecdotes about Dracula’s “evil­wiseness”. There is a description of Dracula’s defeat in a war against a neighbouring ruler, King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and his captivity in Hungary. At the price of renouncing Orthodoxy and embracing Catholicism, Dracula got back his crown and again embarked on war against the Turks. It was in this war that he perished: during a battle he left his soldiers “and rode up a hill for joy”; some Wallachian soldiers took their sovereign for a Turk and stabbed him to death with their spears.

Like the tales of Solomon and Kitovras, The Tale of Dracula consists for the most part of disconnected episodes and, again as in Solomon and Kitovras, this fragmented structure does not mean the absence of a single theme. Episode by episode we are shown the “evil-wiseness” of the Wallachian prince, a strange combina­tion of refined cruelty and sharp-wittedness. These episodes take the form of anecdotes, many of which were composed like riddles with a metaphorical meaning. Dracula does not simply execute the people who fall into his hands—he puts them to the test, and the slow-witted and “unrefined” (lacking in cunning) who cannot “pay him back in kind” pay a tragic price for their “lack of refinement”. This is seen most clearly in the episode with the beggars. Having assembled “a vast multitude of beggars and wanderers” from all over his land and given them food and drink in a “great mansion”, Dracula asks them: “Do you not wish that I should deliver you from the cares of this world, so that you will not need for anything?” Not understanding the sinister hidden meaning of his words, the beggars agree joyfully. Dracula delivers them “from poverty” and “from disease” by locking them in the church and burning them. He behaves in a similar way with the Turkish Sultan, promising to “serve” him. The Turkish Sultan takes these words literally and is overjoyed; Dracula devastates the Turkish possessions and informs the Sultan that “he has served him as much as he could”. The first episode of the tale is also based on the same ambiguity. Dracula promises the Turkish envoys to “uphold” their custom of not removing their headgear to anyone and does so by nailing their caps to their heads.

The theme of testing which runs through all these episodes is a favourite motif of mediaeval literature and folklore. This motif was well known in Old Russian literature as well: Olga “tests” the Drevlyane envoys in The Tale of Bygone Years just as cruelly as Dracula; and the testing motif is also found in The Tale of Akir the Wise.

What then was the purpose of The Tale of Dracula? What did the author want to convey in presenting his “evil-wise” hero to the reader? All manner of answers to this question have been proffered by specialists29: some see the tale as a condemnation of tyranny and believe that it was popular with the nobility hostile to absolute monarchy; others believe, on the contrary, that the tale was written in support of a strong, just monarchy and the punishment that the feudal state meted out to its enemies. The possibility of such conflicting interpretations is explained by the fact that the subject of The Tale of Dracula, like that of Solomon and kitovras and Stefanit and Ikhnilat cannot be reduced to any single conclusion or homily. Dracula performs many wicked acts, burning beggars to death, killing monks, women and the coopers who make him barrels for hiding treasure; he dines among stakes on which the dead bodies of the executed are rotting. But he also wages war against the Turks, an heroic struggle which was bound to arouse the reader’s approval, and perishes in this struggle. He hates evil, puts an end to theft and sets up a fair and impartial judiciary in his state: “And Dracula so hated evil in his land that if any man did commit a crime, steal or rob, or deceive, he was sure to die. Whether he was a nobleman, or a priest, a monk, or a common man, even if he possessed countless riches, he could still not escape death.”

We can see the author’s attitude towards Dracula by comparing his tale with Western works about the same character. Whereas the authors of German tales described only the cruelty of a “great monster”, the Italian humanist Bonfini, who wrote in Hungary, stressed, like his Russian confrere, the combination in Dracula of “unprecedented cruelty and justice”. But unlike Bonfini’s chroni­cle, The Tale of Dracula was a work of fictional narrative, not a publicistic work, which is why the author does not evaluate his hero directly, but gives a most unusual and vivid portrait of the prince. Dracula is not simply a villain, yet nor does he resemble the just ruler, who was portrayed as kind and pious in mediaeval works. Dracula is a monster who amuses himself by putting his victims to the test (such monsters are found in certain folk tales). Totally unusual for the vita or heroic military tale, Dracula was closer to the main characters of translated fictional narrative than the hero of The Tale of the Monk. Kitovras in Solomon and Kitovras was wise; Ikhnilat in Stefanit and Ikhnilat was clever and cunning. Dracula’s self-justification concerning the killing of the beggars or the execution of the envoys is in many respects reminiscent of Ikhnilat’s cunning arguments during his trial.

As with Solomon and Kitovras and Stefanit and Ikhnilat, the reader himself has to decide what to think of the hero.

As a result this tale has been even more diversely interpreted than other similar works. In the sixteenth century The Tale of Dracula was not transcribed and disappeared from the manuscript tradition. In addition to the general reasons for the disappearance of secular tales which is discussed in the following chapter, this was also because the tale gave too frank a picture of the cruelty of “terrible” rule. In the seventeenth century the tale reappeared, but in many copies changes were made in an attempt to simplify the complex, ambiguous character of Dracula—he was turned either into a completely cruel or into a completely wise ruler.

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