The 13 Clocks

by James Thurber

Illustrator: Marc Simont
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Copyright: 1950
ISBN: 0-671-22944-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 126

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James Thurber is best known as a writer and cartoonist for the New Yorker from 1927 until the 1950s. Over that period, he also wrote five children's books. This is one of them, a short illustrated children's fantasy, although illustrated by Marc Simont rather than by Thurber himself.

The 13 Clocks has a very traditional plot structure. A beautiful princess is kept captive in a castle by an evil duke. A prince in disguise arrives in town and attracts the ire of the duke, who sets him an impossible challenge to win the hand of the princess. He's aided by the mysterious, magical Golux ("the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device") to a predictable happy ending. The princess is never more than a goal and plot device, and barely gets any dialogue in the story.

This feels stock, but Thurber writes with a playfulness and surrealistic edginess that rises above the plot. The story of the book is pitched young enough to be the sort of book that a parent would read to their child and the child would later read themselves, and it would be great fun to read aloud with silly voices. Thurber's writing is full of word play, puns, and bits of near poetry. The characters frequently make snide comments or contrasting comments after longer speeches or poetic sections; Thurber mixes up the language and gives the story a rhythm that draws the reader along. I also liked that the Golux feels only partly in this world and a bit incompetent because he isn't completely real; that's typical of a slightly twisted outlook that makes the story feel riskier. Thurber is capable of taking matters around odd corners, even if none of those corners step far out of the basic fantasy plot.

Marc Simont's illustrations are a good match to the age target. They're a step above an early children's book in sophistication and illustrate rather than tell the story, but they're more frequent than chapter headings or occasional inserts. Sometimes they show whole scenes, but often they pick out particular images or themes from the text and display them in inserts or facing pages. His style fits the book; the images are simple, with strong lines and solid colors, and show emotions in posture or facial expressions. He uses dark backgrounds effectively to reinforce the secret, nighttime mood of the story.

I was recommended this book after a discussion of The Last Unicorn, and I agree with the resemblence of style. Thurber never offers the moments of transcendent beauty that Beagle writes, and I noticed less adult symbolism, but the feeling of surreality and disconnected meaning is similar. The 13 Clocks reminds me most of the parts of The Last Unicorn that aren't contributing directly to the plot: the asides of world-building, problem-solving, and simple random encounters with strange creatures. I do wonder if the tone served as partial inspiration, or if Thurber and Beagle had similar inspirations.

For an adult, The 13 Clocks isn't horribly compelling. Some of the characters are memorable and some of the wordplay is fun, but the plot is far too simple and predictable. Recommended, though, for reading to a child once they have the patience for a longer children's book.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-10-10

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21