The 13 Clocks


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Book Review

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

In a cold castle where the hands on 13 clocks have stopped moving, an evil duke pretends to be the uncle of Princess Saralinda. In reality, the duke stole Saralinda as a young child from her kingly father and brought her to his castle, where he intends to eventually marry her. Her nursemaid, however, was a witch. She cast a spell on the duke so he can’t wed the princess until her 21st birthday, he must keep her in a chamber safely away from himself, and he must give any prince the chance to seek her hand in marriage.

The duke enjoys the last part of the curse. For years he’s thought up impossible tasks for the suitors of Saralinda to perform — cutting a slice of the moon, making the ocean into wine or finding objects that do not exist. When her suitors inevitably fail, he slices them from “zatch to guggle” and feeds them to his geese. Many suitors faced this fate. Some were fed to the geese because they used names that started with an X. The nursemaid witch had prophesied that the one to save Saralinda from the duke would have a name that starts with X, and yet doesn’t.

A new suitor, Prince Zorn, disguised as a minstrel called Xingu, wants to win the princess’s hand. An odd man named Golux meets the disguised prince and advises him to tell the duke that he will perform any task set for him, so long as the duke doesn’t ask him to retrieve 1,000 jewels.

Of course, this is a performable task. The trick works, and the duke sets him the task of acquiring 1,000 jewels in 99 hours, with the twist that the 13 stopped clocks in the castle must strike upon his return. The nearest jewels are 99 days’ journey from the castle, so the duke believes that this task is impossible. What he doesn’t know is that there is a woman blessed with the gift of crying jewels.

Golux and Zorn find this woman. They tell her all sorts of sad stories to make her cry, but to no avail. They discover, though, that the woman also cries jewels when she weeps tears of laughter. The catch is that these jewels only last a fortnight before becoming tears once more. The two men, satisfied with temporary jewels, make the woman laugh until they have 1,000 jewels. Then they rush back to the castle.

While Zorn distracts the duke’s guards so they’ll leave their posts beside the stopped clocks, Golux engages Saralinda’s assistance. They go from frozen clock to frozen clock. Saralinda warms the clocks, and they begin to tick once more. When the jewels are delivered, the clocks chime.

The duke begrudgingly honors the terms of his agreement and allows Saralinda and the prince to leave for Zorn’s kingdom. The duke likes his jewels, until a fortnight later, when they turn to tears. At that time, the Todal, an “agent of the Devil” who punishes people who are evil for not doing more evil, takes the duke away forever.

Christian Beliefs

Golux mentions angels in the context of beings that live too long. The Todal is an agent of the Devil.

Other Belief Systems

Several different references are made to witches and wizards having cast spells. No witch or wizard is in the story, but several are mentioned. The Golux disappears when the duke’s guards find Zorn. It reappears in the dungeon. The Golux’s mother was a witch whose spells always went haywire. The princess’s nursemaid casts spells.

Authority Roles

The duke uses his authority for evil and his own personal gain by kidnapping Saralinda and forcing her to marry him. The control he has over Saralinda’s suitors is used to destroy each one.

Profanity & Violence

The duke displays clear cruelty and commits many acts of violence, such as killing suitors with his sword and feeding them to his geese, kicking puppies and kittens, slaying time and kidnapping Princess Saralinda. A simile is used that compares movement to the duke killing mice and using a knife to kill bats and spiders. Mention is made of a firefly setting a spider web on fire. Zorn has his hands tied behind his back to meet the duke. The duke canes Zorn’s hands when he holds the princess’s hand. Zorn is held captive in a dark and dirty dungeon.

The duke explains that a mother bird once mauled him and cost him an eye. A guard describes an agent of the Devil whose job is to punish evildoers for failing to do evil enough deeds. The Todal looks like a glob of matter, sounds like a screaming rabbit and smells like a musty, old room. It can’t die. In the end, it destroys the duke.

Sexual Content


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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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