May 26 is the 120th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula,’ whose title character may have been inspired by a 15th-century monstrous and heroic ruler.
We all know the clichés. The pale-moonlit night. The deep fog drifting over graveyard monuments. From out of the thick, foreboding darkness, a tall foreigner strides forth wearing a tuxedo. A high-collared cape encircles his neck. Slicked-back hair accentuates a widow’s-peak hairline. Alabaster skin glistens in the gloom. Iconic, accented words fall from red lips: “Good evening… I am Count Dracula.” Cue the flashing studio lights and Foley thunder orchestrated by a stagehand shaking a tin sheet.
Nowadays just about everyone who’s anyone knows who Dracula is. From the introduction of the King Vampire at the hand of Abraham “Bram” Stoker in 1863, to the CGI-laced epic films of our modern age, to any number of books, graphic novels, poems, songs, radio plays, dances, spoofs and paraphernalia that have flooded our lives over the years, Dracula is a staple monster we know all too much about… Or do we?
Truthfully, the character of Dracula is but a shadow of an actual living, breathing man who walked the earth in the 1400s. His name was Vlad Tepes, a feared ruler and military strategist with a history so violent and drenched in blood it would make his fictional persona shriek and seek comfort in the silk-lined confines of his ornate casket.
There is much debate as to whether Bram Stoker based his Count Dracula on the historical Vlad Tepes. This is not an attempt to establish that fact. The only true relevant connection is the name: Dracula.
The New World Encyclopedia describes him as “Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia called ‘Vlad the Impaler’ and also known as Vlad Dracula or simply Dracula, in Romanian Drăculea (1431 – December 1476)…known for the exceedingly cruel punishments he imposed during his reign as recorded in later chronicles. However, in many stories of Slavic origin and in his native Romania he is a national and Christian hero, helping to save Europe from the Turks.”
The tales of the real Vlad Dracula are far more entertaining than vampire fiction. What might be most surprising about the real man is not his penchant for striking terror in his enemies and subjects, or his iconic dining experience in the midst of a gallery of impaled victims while drinking blood from a goblet. No, the most surprising thing may be that many of his exploits were penned by his enemies and likely don’t have much truth behind them.
Only a few original sources of information are available on Vlad Dracula, and they should be taken with varying degrees of salt. Ray Porter’s essay “The Historical Dracula” states, “Much of the information we have about Vlad III comes from pamphlets published in Germany and Russia after his death…. At that time Matthias Corvinus of Hungary was seeking to bolster his own reputation in the Holy Roman Empire and may have intended the early pamphlets as justification of his less than vigorous support of his vassal. The pamphlets were also a form of mass entertainment in a society where the printing press was just coming into widespread use.”
The historical Dracula would be the equivalent of a modern celebrity at the mercy of tabloid sensationalism and gossip. Considering how horrific the fictional Dracula vampire is, it may come as a surprise that the historical Dracula is a bona fide folk hero, the savior of Romania. He has been the symbol of bravery and righteousness in his homeland and is honored to this day as a true hero — and with good reason.
Political intrigue and turmoil are a part of every culture, and Romania in the late Middle Ages was no different. The Holy Roman Emperor at this time was King Sigismund of Hungary. Due to the wartime climate of the kingdom, he created a special order of knights, the Order of the Dragon, to serve and protect the interests of the kingdom. According to legend, “The Order, similar to the Order of the Teutonic Knights, was a semi-military and religious organization established in 1387 in Rome in order to promote Catholic interests and crusades.” Dracula’s father, Vlad II, was inducted into the order and fought so valiantly that he was soon named Vlad Dracul, or Vlad the Dragon. His son, Vlad III, became known as the son of the dragon — or Dracula.
Vlad II became prince of Wallachia and was forced to pay tribute to the sultan, just as his father, Mircea the Old, had been. This tribute consisted of Vlad sending his two sons — Vlad III (Dracula) and Radu the Handsome — to Constantinople as hostages. Dracula was released five years later when his father was assassinated, and that’s when he learned of his older brother’s torture and death at the hands of his father’s own men.
At 17 years old, Dracula took revenge on the traitors and claimed the Wallachian throne, where he stayed and became the image of Dracula that we now know, implementing many horrific practices both to maintain order among his people and to defeat the Turkish army. Various stories tell of the terrifying acts perpetrated by Dracula, impaling his enemies and destroying his own villages to prevent his enemies from exploiting local resources.
This begs the question: Why, then, consider him a hero? I think it depends on your point of view. To the Turks, Dracula was a demonic, bloodthirsty terrorist who fed on the flesh of his victims and wanted nothing more than total destruction. But to the Romanians, he was a righteous ruler, albeit severe at times, who saved them from the invading Turks and preserved peace for generations.
In times of war and turmoil, I suppose the mantle of hero can be determined only at the end of the conflict and in seeing what an individual’s decisions wrought. All leaders must make mind-reeling choices in times of war, and many political heroes have faced accusations that may or may not be altogether true. In his case, Dracula gained the allegiance of his subjects, who trusted him to protect them.