"Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn't go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda."
So begins The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber, a book I loved when I was a child and which I just finished reading, to our great mutual pleasure, to my ten year-old boy. It tells of the brave prince who comes to rescue Saralinda, despite the fact that all others who tried ended up being slit by the Duke from guggle to zatch, and then fed to the geese (he's not a nice Duke at all. "We all have flaws," he said, "and mine is being wicked." page 114).
But this prince has the help of the Golux, a strange little person, child of incompetent magic using parents and uncertain about reality. He knows the story that will save the prince and Saralinda...if the Duke can be tricked into setting a particular impossible task.
To win the princess, the prince must find a thousand jewels in three days, and start the thirteen frozen clocks again. The way is dark, and getting darker, and there is little hope, as the task is, as the Duke had planned, impossible.
But the impossible is achieved, and time begins again...
I do so utterly enjoy Thurber's language. It is funny, and scary, and macabre and delightful, and I wish I could quote the whole book! He makes up words that I love, and his sentences have a swinging cadence that makes it a pleasure to read out loud (although you have to be careful not to hit the many rhyming words in the dialogue too hard). My son laughed at one point till he cried, and our eyes got very big indeed at times...If you haven't read it, do!
The book is generously illustrated, with pictures that are variously scary, funny, and beautiful. At right is Saralinda, who when I was seven or so I thought was the most beautiful princess ever. The picture of the Duke below, however, is more typical.
I can't retype the whole book, but here are some samples:
"The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried. Now might bring a certain knight of gay and shinning courage--"But no!" the cold Duke muttered. "The Prince will break himself against a new and awful labor: a place too high to reach, a thing too far to find, a burden too heavy to lift." The Duke was afraid of Now, but he tampered with the clocks to see if they would go, out of a strange perversity, praying that they wouldn't." (page 19)
"A purple ball with gold stars on it came slowly bouncing down the iron stairs and winked and twinkled, like a naked child saluting priests.
"What insolence is this?" the Duke demanded. "What is that thing?"
"A ball," said Hark.
"I know that!" screamed the Duke. "But why? What does its ghastly presence signify?" (page 95)
Warning: I didn't include my seven year old in this reading experience; he is Sensitive, and would probably have been disturbed by the gleeping Todal and the thing without a head, as well as other unpleasantnesses.