The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber – Book Review

The clocks were dead, and in the end, brooding on it, the Duke decided he had murdered time, slain it with his sword, and wiped his bloody blade upon its beard and left it lying there, bleeding hours and minutes, its springs uncoiled and sprawling, its pendulum disintegrating.

-James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks

13 clocks

If you’re a fan of books like Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tolbooth, you’ll love The Thirteen Clocks. This book can easily be placed in the “bizarre-as-hell-but-it’s-okay-because-it’s-for-kids” genre of books, and as someone who is a huge fan of that genre myself, I welcomed The Thirteen Clocks with open arms when I first read it.

James Thurber is by far the most distinguished and accomplished author on this blog so far. You’ve probably heard of him, or at the very least seen his work. His Wikipedia article describes him as “an American cartoonist, author, journalist, playwright, and celebrated wit.” He did a lot of cartoons for The New Yorker – I guarantee you’ve seen his stuff somewhere.

Thurber wrote The Thirteen Clocks while he was in the process of finishing another book. Based on what I know about Thurber, it probably didn’t take him very long. The book, which is a mere 124 pages including illustrations and a fairly large-sized font, is primarily targeted towards children. But I have a theory that it’s so much more than a children’s book.

It’s really quite difficult to describe The Thirteen Clocks; in a way this book can be compared with Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, which is another book that has escaped bearing a definite label or genre. The Thirteen Clocks is a fable of sorts, but it’s so bizarre and there’s not exactly a clear moral message. It seems to be satirical in some fashion, but it’s not clear what exactly it’s satirizing. It is set like a fairy tale might be set, but it seems so much more than a fairy tale.

Ah, I love it. I absolutely love it. It’s one of my favorite books. Of all time.

The story of The Thirteen Clocks is this – a cold Duke keeps his niece, the Princess Saralinda, locked away in a castle because she is the only warm thing there. There are many suitors that come trying for Saralinda’s hand, but the Duke gives them impossible tasks to perform, and when they can’t complete them (and they never can) he kills them. One day, a wandering minstrel (who is really a prince in disguise) meets the Golux, a short man with an “indescribable hat” and the two set off to the castle to confront the Duke and try for the Princess. He, of course, has many impossible tasks planned for the prince, and the rest of the book consists of the Prince and the Golux trying to complete the Duke’s tasks in order to win Saralinda’s hand. I won’t explain the rest of the plot, because you really need to read it, but there it is.

It is brilliant. There are so many touches of humor, wit, and bizarreness I can’t possibly count them all. I loved it when I was a kid, and your kid will probably love it to, especially if you read it aloud to them. It’s a great book to read aloud.

It’s also a great book for adults to read, too. Because – and here is my grand theory – I believe there’s way more to this book than meets the eye, way more than I’ve even figured out yet. The so-called “nonsense” in the book may not be nonsense, it could be the greatest piece of information or writing or knowledge to be written down in the last seventy years, and it’s been under our noses this whole time.

This book should be carefully studied and analyzed. It should be required reading for college. There is a layer of brilliance that hasn’t even been cracked yet. Perhaps, with years of careful study, we will finally understand the true message underneath.

Unfortunately, I was rejected almost immediately when I emailed the Literature Department at my university and told them they had to add The Thirteen Clocks as required reading. I told them it was more than just a children’s story, but they didn’t believe me. So now it’s up to the internet.

Read The Thirteen Clocks. Take notes. And if you find anything, by all means comment and let me know.

Or, you can just enjoy the book, because it’s so damn good. The end.

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