The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

The 13 ClocksInformation

Goodreads: The 13 Clocks
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1950


In a castle where time has stopped, an evil Duke devises impossible quests for the suitors of his niece to complete.  But one day a prince in disguise arrives–and time for the Duke is about to run out.


In The 13 Clocks, James Thurber pays homage to classic fairy tale elements, populating his story with stock characters such as the beautiful princess and the disguised prince, and having his characters speak knowingly of the way their story has to work out, according to the rules.  Witch’s spells have loopholes.  Beautiful princesses must be rescued.  Evil never wins.  The characters play their roles accordingly, but the story loses no suspense for it–Thurber invests the tale with his unique brand of with and humor, his own inventive elements.  This combination of familiar tropes with Thurber’s imagination makes the tale fresh, a wild and quirky adventure to be enjoyed by all ages.

Though Thurber’s story takes the rules of Faerie seriously enough, never doubting that impossible quests can be fulfilled by the chosen or that the worthy must triumph over the wicked, The 13 Clocks arguably never achieves the true air of a fairy tale.  It is a little too knowing, glancing aside at the readers to see if they get the joke, to see if they recognize how well the author can play this game of tropes and cliches.  You want a quest? it asks.  You’ll get a quest–the questiest of quests there ever was.  I know, after all, how these things work.

This tone matches Thurber’s sense of humor, which adds other inventive and somewhat knowing elements to the story, such as the Golux–who wears an indescribable hat and mostly goes around spouting witty and ridiculous sayings.  The Golux wants readers to delight in his cleverness, to revel in his absurdity.  Younger readers may take him at face value, as an oddity.  Older ones will recognize the effort behind the wit–and this may destroy some of the magic.

Creating a believable secondary world is no mean feat, but following certain guidelines can help.  To refer to the rules of the story jolts the reader out of the tale.  While reading The 13 Clocks I never believed myself in its world; I saw Thurber the writer behind it all.

Of course, not every story demands a self-contained secondary world and not every reader wants one.  If readers do not look for the true Faerie in The 13 Clocks but instead only desire a delightful tale full of princesses and princes, quests and oddities, good and evil, all wrapped in humor, then this little gem of a story may prove just the thing to satisfy that hunger.

Krysta 64

4 thoughts on “The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

    • Krysta says:

      I learned about Thurber while reading Fantasists on Fantasy, so when I saw this book at the library, I thought I’d check it out–and I’m glad I did!


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