Lost and Found
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
Most people have a favorite book. A book they foist upon everyone around them, a book they insist upon reading aloud to potential mates as a sort of test, a book they give as a gift to people they want to impress with the brilliance of their taste. Since the sixth grade this book, for me, has been James Thurber's The 13 Clocks. I wrote a book report on it and I got an A+. Not to crow but there it is. As I have grown older the only book I have added to that list is The House of Mirth, but I rarely give it as a gift because it ends badly and in the past people have accused me of trying to bring them down.
If you don't know what The 13 Clocks is about, or worse, if you have never heard of it, it is the story of a cold, evil, gloating Duke who would do anything to prevent his beautiful niece, the Princess Saralinda, from marrying. She is not really his niece (they never are), and it is his plan to marry her himself on the day she turns twenty-one. Until that day, however, the Duke must, as per a witch's spell (one of many), allow her to entertain suitors, whom he, in turn, thwarts by setting them to accomplish impossible tasks—to cut a slice of moon, or change the ocean into wine, or turn November into June, or slay the Thorny Boar of Borythorn, although the Thorny Boar of Borythorn does not actually exist. Perforce the suitors fail, and the Duke kills them and feeds them either to his geese or to the Todal, a mysterious, lurking presence that is described as being made of lip and making a sound like rabbits screaming.
So one day a wandering minstrel shows up determined to outwit the Duke. He sings an insurgent song intending to get himself arrested, which he does, and once inside the castle the minstrel is revealed to be a famously courageous prince in disguise, (they always are). Upon pleading his suit he is ordered by the Duke to produce one thousand jewels (sounds easy for a prince but there was a serious time limit) and to restart the thirteen clocks in the castle, which froze one snowy night long ago when someone left a door open. The Prince accomplishes both of these tasks and he wins the hand of the Princess and the Duke is left to the mercy of the Todal.
And that's the story.
But that not really the story. The story is this: Every time the Prince is at a loss as to how to continue, a little man in a strange hat shows up to help him. This man, whom Thurber calls the Golux, is part magician, part logician, and part idiot, but he always manages to weasel them out of a tight spot. (The Prince may be brave but he's not a rocket scientist.) The Golux is willing to try anything, even the ridiculous, or definitely the ridiculous, to ensure that the Prince and Saralinda might live happily ever after. Perhaps we all should have a Golux when we really need one. Perhaps we do. That's a little Martin Buber-ish, but then, so am I. Next month, I and Thou. Just kidding.
And of course, there is nothing like the way Thurber wrote. While The 13 Clocks is, ostensibly, a children's book, it is rich with the kind of sly, sophisticated doubletalk that Thurber was famous for, and, it makes excellent adult reading. I'd put the entire book in quotes here, if I could, and I should, because the thing is out of print, but I can't, so here's a sample:
"Who are you?" the minstrel asked.
"I am the Golux," said the Golux, proudly, "the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device."
"You resemble one," the minstrel said, "as Saralinda resembles the rose."
"I resemble only half the things I say I don't," the Golux said. "The other half resemble me." He sighed. "I must always be on hand when people are in peril."
"My peril is my own," the minstrel said.
"Half of it is yours and half is Saralinda's."
"I hadn't thought of that," the minstrel said. "I place my faith in you, and where you lead, I will follow."
"Not so fast," the Golux said. "Half the places I have been to, never were. I make things up. Half the things I say are there cannot be found. When I was young I told a tale of buried gold, and men from leagues around dug in the woods. I dug myself."
"I thought the tale of treasure might be true."
"You said you made it up."
"I know I did, but then I didn't know I had. I forget things, too." The minstrel felt a vague uncertainty. " I make mistakes, but I am on the side of Good," the Golux said, "by accident and happenchance. I had high hopes of being Evil when I was two, but in my youth I came upon a firefly burning in a spider's web. I saved the victim's life."
"The firefly's?" said the minstrel.
"The spider's. The blinking arsonist had set the web on fire."
As I thumb back through my 1945 paperback edition of The Thurber Carnival, it's pages flaking in my lap, I am reminded of a veritable army of little Thurber men, small, milquetoast, vague so as to be indescribable little men, who, like the Golux, continually triumph over adversity (often in the form of some battleaxe woman, but that's another story) by realizing that their power lay in the fact that while they are definitely not prince charmings, they are something much more potent—capable of taking the enemy by surprise. Among the Duke's spies in The 13 Clocks there is one named Listen. Listen is invisible. It turns out that Listen is the Golux. "Never trust a spy you cannot see," the Golux tells the Prince. Sometimes it pays to be underestimated. From the time that I was twelve years old I was buoyed by this notion. I always knew I would never be a Princess Saralinda, but I thought that one day I might be a Golux.