Saturday, October 21, 2006

UKTV: Who was Count Dracula?

Who was Count Dracula?
Scottish writer Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 tale of the bloodthirsty vampire Count Dracula is one of the most famous stories ever told, spawning scores of stage and screen adaptations. In particular, Stoker’s portrayal of the Count is now seen by many as the definitive understanding of vampire mythology

However, Stoker did not actually invent the vampire myth; rather he drew on folklore and historical fact to create his evil character and the world in which he lived. We look at the role these elements played in the creation of literature’s most famous monster. Cursed Land In the novel, Stoker wrote that Dracula came from the ‘cursed land’ of Transylvania. Stoker’s original intention was to use the Austrian region of Styria as Count Dracula’s homeland but this changed when he read “Transylvanian Superstitions”, published in July 1885 and written by Emily Gerard, the Scottish wife of a Hungarian cavalryman. Gerard’s article provided Stoker with some of the folklore surrounding the area, particularly tales of occult meetings taking place at night in ruined castles and a wolf that haunts the Transylvanian forests. Also from Gerard came the term “nosferatu,” as well as the use of garlic and the wooden stake. Another major source of inspiration for Stoker was ‘An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ by William Wilkinson, first published in 1820. In Wilkinson’s account Stoker read that Transylvania is one of three former principalities - the others being Moldavia and Wallachia - which form the modern state of Romania. At the time Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it would be joined after World War I with Moldavia and Wallachia to form the modern state of Romania. Wallachia in particular caught Stoker’s eye. Situated north of the Danube and south of the Carpathian Mountains, Wallachia was neighbours with Bulgaria and The Ottoman Empire - what is now Turkey, with Transylvania to the northwest and Moldavia to the northeast. However, it was when Stoker read about events from the Fifteenth Century, and in particular the life of a notorious Prince named Vlad III, that the Scottish writer knew he had found inspiration for his monstrous character. Wallachian Prince It’s important stating from the start that truly accurate facts about Vlad are scarce, as chroniclers of his life have often been clearly biased – some paint him as a heroic patriot, while others a brutal butcher of staggering proportions. What is known for sure is that Vlad III reigned over Wallachia no less than three periods: the first in 1448, then for six years from 1456 to 1462, and finally in 1476. He ruled at a time of civil unrest when many feuding families sought control over the region, combined with the mighty Ottoman Empire dominating the European map, invading all other principalities. During his various times on the throne Vlad spent most of his time in wars against the invading Turks or having to deal with in-fighting from other noble families. It was a bloody period and bloody tactics were often required to secure Vlad’s position of authority. The Impaler During his six-year reign, Vlad III earned a reputation as a cruel leader, and it is believed he executed up to 40,000 civilians, including political rivals, criminals, as well as women and children. He earned the grisly nickname Tepes, meaning ‘The Impaler’, because tradition has it that his favourite method of dispatching his victims was impaling them on a sharp pole. Despite this grisly and violent reputation today Vlad is still revered as a folk hero by Romanians for being last Walachian prince to remain independent from the Ottoman Empire, and it is believed by some that among his impaled victims are said to been as many as 100,000 Turkish invaders! To this day the Turks call him Kaziglu Bey, or ‘the Impaler Prince.’ However, over the centuries tales of these atrocities are largely believed by historians to have grossly exaggerated. While Vlad certainly did use brutal tactics to intimidate his opponents, the numbers may well be much lower. Vlad III himself was killed while fighting the Turks near Bucharest in December 1476 and the sultan impaled his head on a spike in Constantinople to prove to others that the mighty Kaziglu Bey was dead. The Dragon The connection between Vlad III and the name Dracula comes from a secret order of knights called the Order of the Dragon, founded by King Sigismund of Hungary, who was Holy Roman Emperor in 1410. Much like the Knights Templar, this order was put in place to uphold Christianity and defend the Empire against the Ottoman Turks. Vlad’s father – also called Vlad - was admitted to the Order on account of his bravery in fighting the Turks, and from that day he wore the emblem of the order and later, as ruler of Wallachia, his coinage bore the dragon symbol. During the middles ages, a dragon was synonymous with the devil, and so the people called him Vlad the Devil, or ‘Vlad Dracul’. However, when his son ascended to a position of power and recognition, he became known as ‘Vlad Dracula’, meaning "The Son of the Devil" in archaic Romanian. Stoker originally wanted to call his villain Count Wampyr, but by researching Eastern European history, Stoker found a man whose reputation, he thought, was more deserving of such a blood-thirsty character. Ancient History However, today many believe that Stoker’s research did not extend much beyond these general details. Vlad was not a count, nor has their ever been links made between the Wallachian Prince and vampirism. It is also significant that the name Vlad never appears in Stoker’s novel. Of course, there is no one element that would have singularly influenced Stoker. Other historic characters include Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a Slovak noblewoman from the Sixteenth Century who was branded ‘The Blood Countess’ for murdering hundreds of young women then apparently bathing in their blood. In more general terms, vampire mythology has existed for centuries, in countries as diverse as China and Ireland. Within the canon of these countries’ folklore, tales are rife of children being snatched in the night by ‘undead’ ghouls and demons, only to be discovered in the morning completely drained of blood. Dracula’s Castle In the years since Dracula was published, much has been made of the connection between Vlad Tepes and the most famous vampire of them all, to the extent that a booming tourist industry now exists in Romania following the fall of Communism. Today millions come to this ‘cursed land’ to visit Dracula’s homeland, his castle and mysterious forests that surround it. In fact as recently as May this year one of Vlad’s temporary homes, the gothic and grandiose Bran Castle, has made the international press as being ceremoniously given back to it’s rightful owners the Van Hapsburg family sixty years after it was seized by communists. Even though Vlad may have only stayed there briefly, the castle is now one of Romania’s top tourist attractions for it is now, and forever will be, Dracula’s Castle. Thanks to the work of fiction Vlad has been granted that which Stoker gave his fictional counterpart: immortality.


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