Was Dracula a Hero or a Savage? One can never really know since history is written by the survivors. What follows is a wonderful paper written by one of my students, Diane Huxley. I have made the block quotes bold since I am uncertain how to code the block.
The tales began to unfold several years in the past. In fact, many of these stories began to emerge during the reign of Vlad III, Dracula, also known as Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, Vlad III, Tepes or Vlad III, the Impaler. The history of Dracula is riddled with explanations as to how a person can start out as a savior for his country and how a series of personal actions can morph and take on a more sinister appeal. His behaviors have saturated generations with stories throughout history and these tales have inspired books and in more modern times, movies.
Dracula did not begin his existence with a cruel demeanor. In 1431, the son of Vlad II Dracul or Basarab the Dragon was born. In the Romanian language Dracul means “dragon” and having an “a” at the end denotes “son of” (Wolcott 31). In his early years of childhood, Dracula received a distinguished education. The young prince learned combat skills, the classical arts, and philosophy. He also mastered several languages including German, Romanian, Latin, and Bulgarian. As documented by Florescu and McNally’s book, Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times, Dracula’s initial existence was seemingly “normal” until age eleven. Then this benign human changed into a character that would be talked about for years to come. By diving into the real life of Vlad III, Dracula's, subsequent second reign and captivity, short lived third reign, and the vast amount of tales that began almost instantaneously after his execution, the researcher can unearth a larger amount of documentation on Dracula and how the myth subsequently came to be.
In 1436, Vlad II Dracul, Dracula’s father, ascended the throne of Wallachia. Vlad II, Dracul was ousted in 1442 by rival factions in league with Hungary. He was then able to secure Ottoman support for his return by agreeing to pay tribute to the Sultan by sending his two younger sons, Vlad III, Dracula and Radu the Handsome, to the Ottoman court, to serve as hostages of his loyalty. At eleven years of age, Dracula was imprisoned while staying in the Ottoman Empire. He was often whipped and beaten because he talked disrespectfully towards his captors. Dracula’s behavior was seen as stubborn, when in reality he was just a scared little boy in a foreign environment. His younger brother, Radu the Handsome, was much easier to tame. Radu converted to Islam, entered the service of Sultan Murad II's son, Mehmed II, the Conqueror, and was given admittance into the Ottoman royal court (Florescu and McNally 29).
These years had a profound effect on Dracula's character, leading to his well-known hatred for the Ottoman Turks, his brother for becoming an Ottoman, and the young Ottoman prince, Mehmed II. He distrusted and loathed his father for trading him to the Turks and betraying the Order of the Dragon's oath to fight them. It was in Turkey where a young Dracula first witnessed the act of impalement (the Ottomans often beheaded traitors and deserters). The boys' father, Vlad II Dracul, was arrested but then quickly released in 1443, and with the support of the Ottomans he returned to Wallachia and took back his throne from Basarab II but not for long. Dracula’s father was eventually assassinated. Vlad II, Dracul set the wrong example for Dracula and at his son’s expense. Dracul played right into the hands of his enemies by placing his trust in the wrong individuals. A lesson Dracula would fail to remember, and his forgetfulness would come with consequences (Florescu and McNally 33-37).
Years later, Dracula began to reign, although he had a documented first reign it was his second or subsequent reign that ignited his passion for bloodshed. The “bloodthirsty tyrant named Dracula” (Beresford 91) began with the acquaintance of Matthias Corvinus, the King of Hungary. Corvinus had received constant financial support from the Pope to fight against the Turks, but he spent the money on completely different purposes. The Ottomans closed in on Corvinus and were at his borders. Panicking, he knew he needed someone to use as a scapegoat. When Dracula came to him to ask for his help with fighting the war, Corvinus arrested him using false documents. The forged letter stated that Dracula pledged loyalty to Mehmed II, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and promised to strike an agreement with the Ottomans over Wallachia. Dracula, was forced to be separated from his first wife and family due to being wrongfully imprisoned at Oratia and then in Visegrad (western Hungary), where he was held for approximately ten years. The exact length of his period of captivity is somewhat disputed, though indications are that it was from 1462 until 1474. During this time of imprisonment, a legend was born which over the centuries would be transformed into the vampire myth of today (Fluorescu, McNally 153, 155-156).
Vlad III, Dracula, was held in a stone dungeon where he was tortured daily with whips, hot pokers, and deprived of food and water. Many prisoners were crushed under massive wheels, shot with arrows, and even eaten alive by animals. Yet, impalement was seen as the worst way to die. While not being tormented by his captors, which were only a couple of hours per day, he had a small glimpse into the world around him via a tiny window from his cell. He peered out from his window, “his face was strong, and his mouth was fixed and rather cruel-looking . . .” (Stoker 22). From there he learned of the art of impalement. “Dracula’s eyes flashed” (Stoker and Holt) while he saw men, women, and children being impaled by his enemy, and he became fascinated by this torturous method of execution (Wolcott 32).
Impalement, as a method of torture and execution, involves a person being pierced with a long stake. The penetration could be through the sides, the rectum, the vaginal area, or through the mouth. This method led to an excruciating death. The stake would often be planted in the ground, leaving the impaled person suspended to die. In some forms of impalement, the stake would be inserted so as to avoid immediate death, and would function as a plug to prevent blood loss. After preparation of the victim for public torture, the victim was disrobed and an incision was made in the perineum (area between the genitals and rectum). A stout pole with a blunt end greased with pigs’ fat would be inserted pushing vital organs to the side, slowing death even more. The pole would often come out of the body at the top of the sternum and be placed against the lower jaw so that the victim would not slide too far down the pole. Often, the victim was hoisted into the air after partial impalement, using gravity and the victim's own weight and struggle as a way to have them slide slightly further down the pole (“Impalement”).
While he was imprisoned, Dracula's first wife, Elisabeta, committed suicide. Before her demise she did bare him at least one son, Mihnea cel Rau, who would later rule Wallachia from 1508 to 1510. According to local legend, she died during a siege of the castle, which was surrounded by the Ottoman army. A woodland archer, having seen the shadow of Dracula's wife behind a window, shot an arrow through the opening into the castle's main quarters with a message warning her that Radu's army was approaching. The archer was one of Dracula's relatives who sent the warning out of loyalty despite having converted to Islam to escape enslavement or execution by the Turks. Upon reading the message, Dracula's wife threw herself from the tower into a tributary of the Arges River flowing below the castle, saying, “she would rather rot and be eaten by the fish of the Arges River than be led into captivity by the Turks”. She was “fearsome, cold and deadly as a steel blade” (Hambley 191).Today, the tributary is called Raul Doamnei or the "Lady's River" (Dracula).
Since Dracula’s initial upbringing was relatively “normal” to a certain age, one wonders if he was acting out due to the torment he endured as a child then once again as a man. Once he was released, Dracula took his time acting out his revenge on his old enemies, a sadistic quality he will become well known for. He savored the demise of those he held as nemeses. However, Dracula’s appetite grew for those around him that he felt did him wrong or disrespected his will. In a passage from Martin Gilman Wolcott:
One of Dracula’s noblemen made a crucial mistake during the feast. When a person is impaled, their bowels release and they hemorrhage huge amounts of blood. The combined smell of the blood and feces of thirty thousand people was probably a little overwhelming for the nobleman, who almost certainly reflexively, held his nose. When Dracula saw him doing this, he was livid. He immediately ordered him impaled. ‘Let him join these others,’ Dracula proclaimed, ‘but because he had been loyal until today, hoist him higher than the rest that he does not have to smell his company.’ (33)
In this case, the nobleman could not bear the stench wafting from the victims and he was held accountable, fatally, for his impulsive actions.
Even Dracula’s own people were not safe from his rage. It did not matter if they were young or old, men, women or children. For example, if they were caught stealing or engaged in adulterous behaviors, they would be impaled with their Romanian enemies. He held a special place in his viciousness for women; they seemed to meet with their fate the quickest. For example, Dracula once had a wife of a farmer impaled for shoddy tailoring. The man was wearing a pair of pants and a shirt made too short by his wife, Dracula saw this and was offended. He assumed that the woman was too lazy to finish the pants and shirt. Though the farmer begged for his wife’s life, claiming she was a good woman, Dracula still impaled her. Afterward he supplied the man with a new wife. Dracula did not hesitant to show her what her destiny would be should she choose to follow in the first wife’s footsteps (Florescu and McNally 68).
Kurt W. Treptow wrote, "Dracula went into Brasov as far as the chapel of St. Jakob and ordered that the suburbs burned down . . . the men, women, and young and old alike, should be impaled next to the chapel, at the foot of the mountain. He then sat down at a table in their midst and ate his breakfast with great pleasure"(Treptow 15). Now, while Vlad III, Dracula never drank blood, he had been known to dip his bread in the blood of his enemies and ingest it, as was with the case above that Treptow mentioned.
Although impalement was Dracula’s favorite method of torture, it was by no means his only method. The list of tortures employed by this cruel prince was great indeed. It read like an inventory of hell’s tools: nails in heads, cutting off of limbs, blinding, strangulation, burning, cutting off of noses and ears, mutilation of sexual organs (especially in the case of women), scalping, skinning, exposure to the elements or to wild animals, and burning alive all gave the impression of something out of a nightmare (Haunted America Tours).
Other examples of Dracula’s cruelty include one of his mistresses, her name unknown; thought she was being coy and stated that she carried his child. He told her not to kid with such statements. The woman not taking heed to his tone kept up the lie with dire consequences. He ended up cutting her open from breast to groin in order to show everyone where he had been. Another incident occurred with the poor, sick, and homeless of his country. Dracula invited hundreds of them to his castle for an immense feast, “the promise of a sweet reward” (Kalogridis 23). They were told to eat and drink as much as they wanted. He then had the doors and windows locked and flaming arrows were shot into the room. “The poor unloved creatures, it is best that they leave this world now, on a full stomach.” Everyone was burned alive. (Wolcott 33).
Dracula also enjoyed having people stripped naked and buried in the ground up to their waists. Fixated in place, they were stoned or shot to death. He was one of the first in Europe to use the new invention of gunpowder. Although he was quite inventive on his own. He had a huge pot constructed so that it could hold several people at once. Over top he had a large heavy board with holes carved out big enough to fit a human head. After the pot was filled with water he would have the naked victims climb in the holed board placed over top of their heads to prevent escape and the water brought to a boil. The people were literally boiled to death (Wolcott 33).
Dracula’s stories began to manifest and grow over the years; his barbaric behaviors made him even more villainous. The tales left Romania and crept from country to country. Though Romanians still held Dracula in high regard, those in other nations did not. For instance, Ion N. Theodorescu’s, (pseudonym Tudor Arghezi) poem, “The Impaler Prince” placed Dracula initially on a high pedestal but he is quickly knocked from that height due to his cruelty.
With due concern for class distinction for the magnates be they Wallachian or Turks Dracula reserved special stakes so that there be no question of violating rank the Vizirs were impaled at proper height on the nimble tops of poplar trees and for the saints be they abbots or bishops the Impaler reserved holy and sweet smelling wood while the courtiers and friends in the hall raised their wine glasses honoring his deeds Dracula pondered on the kind of stakes that would befit them most.(qtd. in Florescu, McNally 143)
Alas, even Theodorescu could not condone shoving sticks into the rectum and throats of men for the sake of a country and he was a very opinionated and outspoken poet on the necessities of carnage while engaged in war.
Still, the Romanian’s continued to support Dracula since he was ridding them of the Ottoman rule. He was their savior from evil. Once, when two monks visited him, he showed off a row of impaled corpses in his courtyard. He then asked what the two monks thought of the actions he had taken. The first monk responded, “You are appointed by God to punish evil-doers” (Haunted America Tours). The second monk was more critical and condemned Dracula’s actions. Thus, the second monk was rewarded with impalement.
His fellow Romanians shared his lust for blood. They cheered and shouted in jubilation when their enemies, foreign or domestic, were put on display. In the book Dracula, Prince of Many Faces, by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally, they wrote, "Dracula became somewhat less of a "devil" (the very reference to the devil was dropped from many of these later manuscripts)" (137). “Budai-Deleanu, like Homer, sought a hero to be immortalized above all other heroes of Romanian history. In his eyes Dracula was “the brave,” not the “Impaler,” leading his disorganized gypsy army in battle array, with the help of angels and the forces of good against the Turks, the evil boyars (a higher class of Russian nobility), and the forces of Satan” (Florescu, McNally 138). Romanian folklore and literature continues to paint Dracula as a hero. He had a reputation in his native country as a man who stood up to his enemies. There is documentation that he was even viewed as a kind of Robin Hood because he often raised humble men to high rank. Due to this, the peasants remained faithful to him. In Romania, he is still considered one of the greatest leader’s in the country’s history (Florescu, McNally 65).
Countless people have also attempted to justify Vlad III, Dracula’s cruel and savage actions on the basis of political necessity. Many of the merchants in Transylvania and Wallachia were German Saxons, who were seen as parasites, preying upon Romanian natives of Wallachia. The wealthy land owning Russian boyars exerted their own often impulsive and unfaithful influence over the reigning princes. However, Dracula did do his country a service in times of war by getting rid of thousands of enemies, although many of Dracula’s victims were also Wallachians and few deny that he gained a perverted pleasure from his actions (Florescu, McNally 95).
Author Michael Guest, believes that Dracula was “the devil’s puppet.” In an excerpt he has the devil talking with one of his demons, Murduk. The devil states that “life has brought him to me” and he will serve the devil “willingly or unwillingly,” he has no choice in the matter (9). In essence, Guest is claiming that Dracula was perhaps acting not from his own actions but that a demonic force caused him to do those heinous acts.
One thing is for sure, Vlad III, Dracula was a force to be reckoned with. He put fear into his enemies; therefore he had to be silenced. “Every moment since his accession during his brief third reign was dominated by the certainty of death: the odds against Dracula’s survival were simply too great.” Dracula inevitably could sense his up and coming demise, “The fact that he was aware of these dangers is proven by his unwillingness to bring his second wife and son with him . . . where undoubtedly they would be assassinated” along with him (Florescu and McNally 120). Ultimately, Dracula was caught and killed in battle against the Turks near the town of Bucharest in “December of 1476” (Kostova 472). He had only begun his third reign two months prior.
Some reports indicate that he was assassinated by disloyal Wallachian aristocrats just as he was about to sweep the Turks from the field. Other accounts have him falling in defeat, surrounded by the ranks of his loyal bodyguards. Still other reports claim that Dracula, at the moment of victory, was accidentally struck down by one of his own men. The one undisputed fact is that in the end his bloody and mangled body was separated from his head by the Turks. His head was then transferred to Constantinople where the Sultan had it displayed on a stake as proof that the horrible Impaler was finally dead. He was reportedly buried at Snagov, an island monastery located near Bucharest (Haunted America Tours).
Surely it would seem that Dracula did not set out to become one of the most hated and beloved rulers of Romania. His life started out in a sea of uncertainty during times of war. His own father gave his brother and himself as hostages to an enemy that was slowly suffocating his land. Imprisoned and tortured at the tender age of eleven for being a scared child most definitely had psychological ramifications. Then as an adult, being betrayed once again, only to be imprisoned this time for approximately ten years, his days being spent repeatedly tortured and starved with his only a view of life watching others being impaled outside his cell window. Environmentally, Vlad III, Dracula was transformed, and when he was released from his second imprisonment he left out of there with an unfathomable amount of wrath that had been brewing for some time. His ill-fated circumstances clouded his judgments’; he lost himself and in a sense went mad. Dracula’s actions made him infamous. His name is one that will not be quickly forgotten for many years to come and his lack of empathy and sadistic qualities will continue to saturate the modern world whether it is in written in a book or seen on the film screen.
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