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Guest Blog: Voivode vs. Vampire – Dracula in Modern Literature

By Gemma Norman, University of Birmingham

The name ‘Dracula’ is a name synonymous with vampires: the handsome, seductive aristocratic Count of Bram Stoker’s novel is the image that first comes to mind upon hearing the name. Most people have also heard the name Vlad the Impaler, but it’s rare to find someone who knows that they are one and the same person. Known in Romanian as Vlad Ţepeş and in Turkish as Kazıkulu Bey (The Impaler Prince) Vlad III ruled three times as Voivode (from the Slavic for warlord) of Wallachia. A member of the House of Drăculeşti, a branch of the House of Basarab Vlad gained the name ‘Dracula’ from his father, also called Vlad who was known as ‘Dracul’ or ‘The Dragon’ due to his membership in this chivalric order under the patronage of King Sigismund of Hungary. This Order was sworn to fight the Ottoman Turks and keep the Balkan lands free of Turkish invasion. So proud was the young Vlad of his father’s role that he came to be called ‘Dracula’ meaning ‘Son of the Dragon’ though some interpretations have read it as ‘Son of the Devil’ and in addition he took upon himself the mission of war against the Turks.

Vlad.dracula (2)Whatever the translation of the name Bram Stoker found it appropriately macabre enough to rename his protagonist, who was originally to be called ‘Count Vampyre’, to ‘Dracula’ thus precipitating over a century of gothic horror canon which became more famous than the actual history. However there is indication that Stoker’s research did go beyond simply the borrowing of a name. In the novel the Count boasts of the exploits of his ancestors as great warlords and gives hints as to the history of the real Dracula. Also in 2009 the Official sequel to the gothic horror bestseller was published as Dracula: The Un-Dead. Author credits go Dacre Stoker, a descendent of Bram, and Ian Holt a prominent Dracula historian who between them resurrected information in Bram Stoker’s old research notebooks which hinted that a sequel had been planned. In The Un-Dead another famous historical ‘vampire’ is brought out to play in the form of Countess Elizabeth Bathory; often credited for having played a significant role in the characterisation of Stoker’s original, this sequel now sees both Bathory and Dracula in a very alpha vampire battle, settling old debts and grudges with the wealth of history and animosity that only immortals could have.

Despite the constant popularity of vampires the historical Dracula has made a recent comeback of his own in modern literature with many authors taking research into his vampire alter-ego a step further. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian both use Dracula as a vampire but he is also the historical Vlad who has been turned into a vampire. This representation of Dracula is effective in romanticising his history as it pits the immortality and seductiveness of the vampire against the barbarity of the Impaler’s age which is a dramatic contrast. Stoker’s Dracula was to some extent a ‘fish out of water’ protagonist who aspired to the urbanity of the Victorian gentleman, which was an identity at odds with the blood-lust of the vampire. Anno Dracula shows that blood-lust given full licence in Victorian England and Dracula is very much the villain of the novel. The Historian is a little more complex. Kostova’s vampire is a scholar as well as a seducer and still has the ability to control human slaves by his bite which he uses to lure the brightest academic minds he can find into researching his history, to some extent trying to keep his legacy alive through the agency of the historians. But there is the suggestion of his trying to encourage a revisionist scholarship in his own history, and despite the cavalier attitude of Kostova’s Dracula he does attempt to justify his history and defend himself against false accusations.

Historical novelists have also started using Dracula’s history independently of the vampire legend. These titles include Vlad Dracula: The Dragon Prince by Michael Augustyn, Dracula Chronicles: Son of the Dragon by Victor T. Foia and Vlad: The Last Confession by C. C. Humphreys. These stories also use the chivalric legacy of the Order of the Dragon in their representations of Dracula in his warlord persona. The problem of this is the same as with any other work of historical fiction, how far should historical accuracy be compromised for the sake of artistic licence? With the Dracula legend already so far removed from historical reality already there is a temptation for a historian to be overly strict on this point. Vlad: The Last Confession is thoroughly researched (you can find the photo album of the author’s research visit to Romania on his website) and uses the framing device of a confession given by Dracula’s former priest, his best friend and his mistress after his death. This selection of characters allows for covering several keys of the historical Vlad’s identity, as a Christian against the Muslim Turk, as a patriotic warlord protecting his land and as a lascivious individual having famously fathered several bastards in a style similar to Henry VIII. Humphreys makes much of Vlad Dracula’s youth spent as a hostage at the Ottoman court and the rift that occurred between himself and his brother due to the latter’s conversion to Islam and loyalty to Sultan Mehmet II. That said, Humphreys is not above using the fantastic elements of the Dracula legend when he stages a seeming return from the dead for his main character in a style very similar to the conspiracy theories that surround the death of Christopher Marlowe in Elizabethan England. Whether or not such possibilities occurred in reality is difficult to say given the obstacles to researching Dracula’s history. The first of these is the problem of any historical investigation which is the bias of primary sources: even if an author had the linguistic skills needed to plough through the Romanian and Slavonic language source material there is the lack of the historian’s training in assessment of these sources. Additionally Drăculeşti historiography is marred by blatant nationalism on the part of Balkan historians, where he is still revered as a hero, and the Western temptation towards the sensational aspects of his life with an omission of more mundane matters such as economic policy. However history and literature are not the same discipline and it is unfair to impose the limitations of the historian’s craft upon the novelists whose skill is in their imagination. On the other hand it is gratifying to see a growing awareness of the potential of Dracula’s history as inspiration for popular culture. The vampire legend will always be a colourful aspect of Dracula literature but present readers now have more options for Voivode as well as vampire in the selection of their reading material.

Gemma Norman is a first-year PhD student in Ottoman Studies at the University of Birmingham.
In addition to having an interest in representations of History in Popular Culture and several other historical fields, she is also involved with the postgraduate student society for the Centre for Byzantine Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. http://gembirmingham.org/

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on July 19, 2013, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 52 Comments.

  1. Glad to see an article with correctly represented names and facts. The potential for dark fantasy has always been quite high in the history and folklore of Romania. Not all literature that came from this is good but Bram Stalker is not only the first, but one of my favorites. As a note, I find equally interesting (while historically wrong) the setting –Bran- of the novel Dracula. While Tepes never lived there, I must admit it works great for the novel. So as an innocent reader, should I be bothered by it? Although I always knew it wasn’t accurate, it never crossed my mind to think about it, because I always treated it as what it was and is-fiction.

    • Thanks for your feedback! I agree that fiction should be allowed to be fiction, but I am endlessly fascinated in what routes an artist follows from a historical inspiration to their final creation. I’m also happy to see more use of the historical Vlad creeping into modern literature as popular culture is how a lot of people who do not read or practice academic history actually learn about the past and often enjoying a historical novel can prompt a person to engage in factual historical research on the topic. If you have an interest in dark fiction based on history and folklore of Romania I can recommend (on a non-Dracula theme) Piper by Helen McCabe.

  2. Thanks. A very interesting post. I particularly enjoyed The Historian because of the cultural and geographical history, not just blood sucky bits!

  3. Was one of my favorite topics to read about when I was younger…before vampires were so popular! Thanks for the post.

    • I do like the ‘old school’ vampire, they are a very refreshing thing when you look at current vampire literature in the YA genre!

  4. Walt Whitman was the model for the character of Dracula. Bram Stoker said in his notes that Dracula represented the quintessential male, which, to Stoker, was Whitman, with whom he corresponded until Whitman’s death. Another piece of trivia around Stoker is that he married Wilde’s first love Florence Balcombe on the rebound.

  5. Gemma, there is a lengthy in Humanities on Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman. Mention of Stoker drafting some of Whitman into Dracula is made at the end of the article. I’ll send a link. Once Interesting Literature thank you, Oliver.

  6. http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2012/novemberdecember/feature/when-bram-met-walt

    Lengthy article on Stoker and Whitman. Good luck with the research and loved the post. Thanks to Oliver as well

  7. Reblogged this on Merida's Night Writer and commented:
    The best blog on the web I know of for stuff literary. By the way who knew the connection between Walt Whitman and Dracula? See the link
    http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2012/novemberdecember/feature/when-bram-met-walt.

  8. Such a good article! I’ll be sure to read this again when I am doing my monster series this Halloween. Very helpful, I am glad this has been published x

  9. This is a fascinating article! I’ve always been attracted to the story of Dracula and once (many, many years ago) did a fair amount of research into the history of Dracula and Vlad the Impaler as well as other “monsters” (e.g., Elizabeth of Bathory who supposedly bathed in the blood of virgins in order to retain her youthful appearance). Thanks for this post ;)

  10. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    A fascinating article on the history of Dracula. The comments to the post are as equally illuminating.

  11. Reblogged this on The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog and commented:
    An interesting little article on the modern place of Dracula…

  12. Reblogged this on what max thinks and commented:
    I’ve always been fascinated by the mythology of Dracula and Vampyrism. Check this out!!!

  13. Vampire fiction has currently steered way off course from the historical origins of the European myth. Your article does a good job of reminding people that Dracula isn’t Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi or Buffy, but a very real person from a time of extraordinary violence and a land of deep-seated superstition. A far cry from the mopy teenagers of the current vampire trend. Vlad Tepes would be turning in his grave if he was still in it.

    • As I said I like my vampires ‘old school’. Modern fiction if done well can be entertaining but it does have tp have some of the darkness of the original for me to be truly vampire authentic. Thanks for your feedback, I appreciate it.

  14. Interesting piece. I’d read up on Vlad when I completed Stoker’s Dracula and had learned of many of the facts mentioned here. Your article adds a whole lot to it though! It gave me some real respect for Stoker’s research and story! And like you, I like my vampires ‘old school’ too. Sure, vampires with a conscience is an interesting aspect of it, for entertainment at least; but the fact remains that vampires are dark creatures. I just wish people who swoon over teenaged vampires nowadays remembered (or at least knew) that!

  15. Excellent article–as a Romanian by birth, I have always been interested in the history of my country, particularly since my mother came from the region formerly known as Wallachia. I visited there not terribly long ago, and it is easy to see how that region of the country could inspire the Gothic sensibility. I am also an ardent researcher of mythology, including vampire mythology, and I am a lover of vampire fiction of all kinds…with some exceptions. Sparkling being one of them. If you enjoy the old school vampire, maybe you would like to check out my novel, True Immortality. The first two chapters are on my blog, but the whole novel can be found on Amazon and Smashwords.com. I apologize for the self-promotion…but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity on a blog post featuring Dracula and vampires! Again, a wonderful read, and I appreciate the history!

  16. This post took me back to my university days when I studied Dracula during my first degree. Stoker did, of course, write a prequel (or at least discarded first chapter) which was published as “Dracula’s Guest” after Stoker’s death.

    While the name and setting come from the well-known source of Vlad the impaler, it is worth pointing out that this is where the similarity ends. The nature of the monster comes from a variety of sources, not least being that Stoker was Irish and witnessed the potato famine in his land. On top of that is the Victorian issue of sex which was a taboo subject. Stoker brilliantly wrote a novel which is really about a man seducing women. Dracula is handsome and seductive and, ultimately, inserts himself into his female victims who are not unwilling. A book about sex which is not about sex is one of the things that made it so appeal and it is this sensuous side to the story that continues to give it appeal – in all its forms – today.

    • Yes, the connection between the historical figure (Vlad) and Stoker’s vampire Count has been vastly overstated. Stoker certainly borrowed the nickname “Dracula” from Vlad (he tells us so in his Notes) but he apparently knew very little else about the Wallachian voivode – certainly not enough to have (as many claim) based his novel on his life & atrocities.

  17. As a fellow Romanian, it’s nice to see the story finally presented the way it actually happened. I tip my hat to you, Gemma.

    • Been so long since I was here but I had to thank you for your kind comment! I’m glad I could show you in a little way that there are people out there interested in the history of your country as well as the folklore!

  18. There is a new Dracula film coming up called The Impaler – see trailer here: http://youtu.be/qn-c01XEB3Y

  19. Elizabeth Miller:

    Who is the voivode referenced in the novel by both the Count and Van Helsing if not Vlad Dracula?

    • Joseph. Of course the voivode mentioned in the novel is the person we now know as Vlad the Impaler (but no evidence that Stoker knew this). My argument is that Vlad, or Vlad’s life & deeds, did not inspire Stoker in his creation of Count Dracula. To claim that Count Dracula is “based” on Vlad is a major overstatement. Stoker borrowed the name “Dracula” (his Notes prove this) but little else. To see my full argument, far too detailed to present here, read my article “Filing for Divorce: Count Dracula and Vlad the Impaler.” You will find it at my Dracula Research Centre. Go to http://www.blooferland.com/drc, click on “Stoker & Dracula: Miscellaneous Articles”. It’s the first one. I also devote a full chapter to this (in nit-picky detail) in my book Dracula: Sense & Nonsense (now available as an ebook for kindle).

  20. Also, Dr Miller, I just ordered Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Documentary Volume, and I am eager to read it.

    And, Ms Norman, excellent guest blog post, too.

  21. Dr Miller:

    I’ve your essays (in the volume you edited, Bram Stoker’s Dracula—which is absolutely superb) your case is cogent and I appreciate its scholarly rigor (this goes for the entire collection as well). I am curious about this particular claim though, that is, do you think that Stoker intended in his novel the identity between the Voivode Dracula he read about in Wilkinson and his Count? This is not the same as saying that Count Dracula’s character is derived from this Voivode—a claim which you persuasively reject. If we were to enter completely into the fictional world of Stoker’s novel, is Count Dracula the Voivode Dracula, or, in Stoker’s fictional universe, are they two separate individuals?

    I am less clear on this point in your writings.

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, I believe that Stoker made the connection between the voivode Dracula and his Count. (“He must have been that voivode Dracula…”) But this was shaped solely by the few sentences he read in Wilkinson. Actually, Wilkinson mentions Dracula 3 times – but one of them actually refers to Drac’s father, Vlad Dracul. In the novel, Stoker constructs a “history” for his fictional Dracula which comprises bits and pieces taken from his research and has nothing to do with Vlad. There is no evidence that Stoker knew anything more about the real Dracula (Vlad) than what he found in Wilkinson.

  22. Thank you very much, Dr Miller, for taking time to answer my questions! I am not a professional scholar myself, merely an avid Dracula fan and sanguivoriphile, but I imagine you must get asked these questions all the time, so I really appreciate your patience. It was also a pleasure. Thank you again.

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