Thursday, October 30, 2014

On Dracula and Vlad the Impaler

Last week, io9 ran an article titled “No, Bram Stoker Did Not Model Dracula On Vlad The Impaler,” which debunks the belief that Stoker’s legendary vampire was based on the notorious Wallachian prince. In fact, in early drafts of the novel, Stoker’s antagonist was apparently named “Count Wampyr.” You can’t make this up.

The historical Dracula
I found the io9 article fascinating, and you can read the whole piece here. Below is an excerpt of the part I found most interesting.
The truth is, there's no evidence that Bram Stoker was even aware of the name Vlad III—much less that he was called "Vlad the Impaler." Miller warns that we can't assume that Stoker's notes are the end-all, be-all of the creation of Dracula, but they do provide the only factual information we currently have about Stoker's research. And the notes tell us exactly where Stoker got the name "Dracula."
While in Whitby in the summer of 1890 (after, it should be noted, his much-discussed dinner with Vambery), Stoker came across a copy of William Wilkinson's book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. We know that, because he copied sections of the book into his notes. Wilkinson's book contains references to multiple voivodes named Dracula, and some of the sparse details on one such Voivode Dracula make it into Stoker's text: that he crossed the Danube to attack Turkish troops and had some success. That's it. There is no reference to a "Vlad," no mention of a nickname Tepes or "the Impaler," no detailing of his legendary atrocities.
So why did Stoker choose that name, Dracula? Well, we can infer that from his own notes. He copied information from a footnote from Wilkinson's book that read in his own notes, "DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL," with those capital letters. The footnote explained that Wallachians gave the name "Dracula" to people who were especially courageous, cruel, or cunning. Stoker chose the name, it appears, because of its devilish associations, not because of the history and legends attached to its owner.
After reading the article, I tend to agree with its conclusion. There are no explicit references to Vlad III in Stoker’s Dracula, and his novel contains no historical details about the violent conflict with the Ottoman Turks that dominated the story of the historical “Dracula.” That said, I believe storytellers since Stoker have improved on Dracula by making a more direct connection between him and Vlad III.

History and Dracula combined
For one, linking Dracula to the historical Vlad the Impaler helps transform the story into historical fantasy, a genre I prefer to horror or modern day vampire tales. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a perfect example. In her novel, Dracula and Vlad Tepes are one in the same. The quest for Dracula’s tomb drives the story, which takes the reader to communist Romania and Istanbul in an attempt to find evidence in ancient texts, all grounded in the history of Vlad the Impaler and his enmity with the Ottoman Turks. As I wrote in my review of The Historian, “[t]hese types of historical mysteries, steeped in religion and legend, are my cup of tea, and despite the novel’s considerable length (my paperback is 676 pages), it captivated me until the end.”

Coppola improved on the original
Another good example is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite its titular reference to Stoker’s novel and general faithfulness to Stoker’s plot, Coppola clearly portrays Dracula as Vlad Tepes, a member of the Order of the Dragon (“Draco” is translated to “Dracula”). Vlad renounces God and succumbs to darkness when he returns from a battle with the Ottoman Turks only to discover his beloved wife has committed suicide after being tricked into believing he was slain on the battlefield. This sets up tremendous motivation for Dracula, who becomes convinced that Mina Harker is the reincarnation of his lost wife. The desire to be reunited with his beloved lends far greater purpose to Dracula’s actions than in the book, where Dracula is simply a monster to be reckoned with. I much preferred the complexity of Coppola’s Dracula, whom I almost felt sympathy for at times. And let’s face it, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the vampire was damn near perfect. In short, I thought Coppola’s take far surpassed its source material, and his link to the historical Dracula was one of the major reasons why.

But that’s just my view – let me know what you think about the io9 article or whether others have improved on Bram Stoker’s original. And most of all, have a happy Halloween!


Bill said...

Are you familiar with S. M. Stirling's "Shadowspawn" series of vampire novels, Joe? These fantasies posit that the descendants of ice-age era mutants have special powers and are all too real and extremely dangerous.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, I had not heard of that, but I will check it out. Thanks for the comment!