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Literature / The 13 Clocks

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"We all have flaws," [The Duke] said, "and mine is being wicked."

The 13 Clocks is a fantasy novel by James Thurber. A modern Fairy Tale, recounting the tale of the evil duke who thinks he killed time, in whose castle the 13 clocks never move, and the impossible tasks he sets to those who would marry his niece, the princess.

Full of whimsy and word play. And containing the Golux — the only Golux in the world and not a mere device.

Thurber also wrote three more tales in the same vein, Many Moons, The White Deer and The Wonderful O.

The story is a favorite of Neil Gaiman, who wrote the introduction to the current edition and narrated a short animated film of the first chapter (which can be viewed here.)


It contains examples of:

  • Blessed with Suck: Hagga's tears turn into jewels. This doesn't work out quite as well as hoped. People have made Hagga cry so much, she's heard every possible sob story you could ever tell. Now she can only cry when she laughs, and those only last 14 days before turning to tears again.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: The Duke is evil and relishes it, saying that being wicked is only one of his little flaws.
  • Deus ex Machina:
    • Or, strictly speaking Golux Ex Machina. Lampshaded by the Duke.
    • And lampshaded well in advance by the Golux himself: from his first appearance, the Golux declares that he is "no mere device" and the Duke constantly refers to him as "a mere device."
  • Description Porn: Thurber is clearly having a lot of fun with his prose, and the narrator occasionally almost lapses into poetry:
    "The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Farther along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee-deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets."
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  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Duke has people killed and fed to his geese for the most minor transgressions, including not complimenting his wines or staring at his gloves for too long.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Todal, which is only ever described in the most oblique of language.
    • It moves like monkeys and shadows.
    • It makes a sound like rabbits screaming and smells of old unopened rooms.
    • It gleeps. *shudder*
    • It's made of lip.
  • Engagement Challenge: The plot involves Xingu having to complete an impossible challenge for the hand of Saralinda. Many other princes have tried before, only to be slit from their guggle to their zatch and fed to the geese.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: The Duke goes on and on about how cold his evil makes the castle, to the point where even Hark gets annoyed.
  • Evil Uncle: The Duke imprisons his niece Saralanda in the tower. Subverted when it's revealed that he actually kidnapped Saralinda and plans to marry her himself.
  • Eyepatch of Power: The Duke lost an eye from an unfortunate encounter with a bird in his youth, and wears an eyepatch to cover it.
  • Fed to Pigs: Or, rather, geese. This is how the Duke disposes of Saralinda's suitors after they fail his tasks.
  • Happily Ever After: Literally, in that the last shot of the hero has him sailing away "to the shores of Ever After."
  • Haunted Castle: The Duke's castle is haunted by at least three ghosts.
  • High-Class Glass: The Duke wears an eyepatch over his blinded eye, and a monocle on his good eye.
  • Inept Mage: The Golux's father, who lacks the power of concentration, and mother, who, "when she changed her rivals into fish, all she ever got was mermaids." The Golux keeps up the family tradition.
  • Kick the Dog: Literally; the Duke is lame because "when he was young, he spent his mornings place-kicking pups and punting kittens."
  • King Incognito: Xingu turns out to be Zorn of Zorna.
  • The Quest: Find ten thousand jewels before ninety-nine hours are up.
  • Race Against the Clock: Xingu must complete The Quest by making all thirteen clocks strike five.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: Everybody, including the Lemony Narrator, slips spontaneously into rhyme in the course of any normal conversation.
  • Royal Blood: Xingu tries to protest that he should not be sent to do the fatal Engagement Challenge since he is not a prince. The Duke has seen through his disguise and realized that he is really Prince Zorn of Zorna.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: When Hagga is granted the ability to weep jewels, the result is a depression in the value of gemstones.
  • Sword Cane: The Duke sports one, with which he constantly threatens to slit people from their guggle to their zatch.
  • Tongue-Tied: When Saralinda first sees Xingu, she says "I wish him well." Turns out, the Duke hired a witch to put a curse on her so that the only words she can say in his presence are "I wish him well." Hark considers this bad taste.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The Golux, in-universe. He's not even sure himself which of the stories he tells the Prince are true and which he made up.
  • Unusual Euphemism: A non-sexual variety. Even the hero wonders where his guggle and zatch are. Turns out, they're his throat and stomach, respectively.
  • Wandering Minstrel: Xingu, when we first meet him, is disguised as a traveling bard. He alludes to The Mikado several times, calling himself "a thing of threads and patches". This is also a hint that he's really royalty, just like the wandering minstrel who delivers that line in The Mikado.
  • We Help the Helpless:
    The Golux: "What would you do without me? Say 'nothing.'"
    The Prince: "Nothing."
    The Golux: "Good. Then you're helpless and I'll help you."
  • You Have Failed Me:
    • Any minion who fails the Duke is fed to his geese.
    • This is the function of the Todal, an agent of The Devil who punishes evildoers for not doing enough evil. One stalks the Duke, causing him to be terrified of what will happen to him if he isn't villainous enough.

Alternative Title(s): The Thirteen Clocks