(Book) “The 13 Clocks” Review

“We all have flaws,” he said, “and mine is being wicked.”
– James Thurber, The 13 Clocks


Reading classic tales where a prince wants to save a beautiful, radiant princess from an evil villain is certainly nothing new to most readers. The very format of a damsel in distress is heavily utilized in various narratives, from “Rapunzel” to “Shrek”, this particular formula can be found everywhere, to the extent that it may seem to be bland and lacking in quality as well as engagement since deep down, most of us know that the prince and princess will live happily ever after. James Thurbers’ “The 13 Clocks” is exactly that form of story, minus the tedium, resulting in a common theme being unique on its own while staying true to the classic format.

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. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.

Okay, I didn’t laze out to type the synopsis of the story there by using the exact same passage in the book, but the paragraph is just so compelling to me that I believe it would pique most people’s interest in picking up the book and reading it right away XD . Now, to complement the paragraph above, the Duke didn’t want the only warmth in the solitary castle to go away, so he either sent all the princes courting Princess Saralinda to perform impossible tasks, such as cutting a slice of the moon, or finding things that never were. One day, a prince, disguised as a minstrel, planned to free the dazzling princess from the frigid castle where time stayed still. Assisted by the only Golux in the world, the prince went on a memorable quest that will be etched on the readers’ mind for quite some time.

To clarify, and as a confession, I haven’t read a lot of fairy tales except for a number of Grimm’s (I plan to read more Grimm’s fairy tales soon); most of the time, I watch their on-screen adaptations rather than reading them. Nevertheless, when reading “The 13 Clocks”, I was interested enough to keep on being curious of what peculiar events and obstacles would the prince and the Golux face. From being entrusted a seemingly impossible task to encountering an equally queer resolution to the issues, the events unfolding in the story were unique and new enough despite being inserted into a repetitive theme of a plot. Here, we know how the story is probably going to end, but the way the plot presented itself, the hurdles imposed upon the protagonist, and the path to the eventual demise of the ingenious villain are what keep the readers turning the pages, and reading the passages word by word.

In the era where a lot of damsel-in-distress-movies and books are of abundance, “The 13 Clocks” offers a fresh, dark, fun read similar to the Grimm’s centuries ago (only a bit lighter, in some respect). Thurber believes that some gores and brutalities are fine for children, and indeed it is in my opinion; the Duke’s wicked approaches and decisions were disturbing, but such a one-sided villain is precisely what fairy tales need from time to time. When a villain capable of gathering sympathy is present (and there is quite an amount of them nowadays), we are broken apart in those rooting for the prince and those supporting the villain; “The 13 Clocks” will have you root for the prince while satisfied with the Duke’s vintage nefariousness. Additionally, despite a number of absurd resolutions to the problems, the book will make those usually frustrating points of no importance; the development encourages (and perhaps, will) result in you reading for pure parable fun without analyzing too deep into its flaws.


Hark and the invisible Listen, two of the Evil Duke’s spies. Entertaining much?

Another plus point is the brilliance of Thurbers’ wordplay. Throughout the book, you’ll see plenty of end rhymes, alliterations, and a number of others. These written wonders provide something else to be enjoyed aside from the quirky and pleasant storytelling; mash them up together, and you will get a story delightful in concept and wording, charming the mind and the eyes. Below, I will provide an excerpt of my personal favorite passage regarding the wordplay:

“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.”

The descriptions of the setting itself is nice without being overwhelming, and the book contains very little lengthy descriptions such as the one above. When there is one, however, Thurber employs the clever wordplay or an interesting, odd descriptive through the passages. Moreover, the overabundance of texts is further mitigated with Marc Simont’s simple, gorgeous illustrations which could be found in nearly every page of the book. Clearly, children are put into consideration while writing, and being a children’s book which can definitely be enjoyed by adults, “The 13 Clocks” is never boring.

In the end, I couldn’t say much about this book in specifics. For me, “The 13 Clocks” is a book that is somehow perplexing to be described in detail, and after reading it, I couldn’t really state my opinion regarding it in tremendous detail like a literary critic. After arriving at the final page and finishing it, my mind did not construct complicated sentences regarding its pros and cons, but rather, three simple words, as probably most fairy tales or children’s tales should be.

“I love this”.

Rating from me: 4/5

Have you read this wonderful story? What is your take on it? 


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