1950 – the 13 clocks ~ james thurber

Just pretend you’ve discovered something genuinely special. Something no one else knows about. Something amazing.

It could be anything. It could be a bar or a beach or a band. Or even a book.

Do you keep it to yourself, so no one else finds out about it? Do you swear never to tell a soul, clutching your discovery to your chest for as long as you possibly can? When someone else finally discovers this special, unique thing and loves it just as much as you do…do you resent that?

Or do you love your discovery so completely that every moment it remains a secret is like torture to you? The merest thought of this mysterious thing sets your soul soaring; you can’t keep it to yourself, or you just might explode. It simply must be shared.

While I’m not saying that I’m the first person to have ever read James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks, this is precisely the way I feel about it. I have to share this novel with you. I can’t keep it a secret any longer…

The 13 Clocks

by James Thurber

Published in 1950

I read The 13 Clocks when I was meant to be reading something else – which is rather appropriate, because James Thurber wrote The 13 Clocks when he was meant to be writing something else.

When I finished reading The 13 Clocks, I did something rather extraordinary – I turned to the front page and started again.

Over the course of the next few days, I carried this book with me, and re-read it slowly, poring over every page; every illustration. I’d take it from my bag and read it on the train to work, or even on my lunch break at work.

I was overcome with the strangest temptation: the temptation to read this quirky little book out loud. Yes, even on the train. In fact, if I didn’t have to review The 13 Clocks, I’d have sidled up to a complete stranger; someone who looked as if they needed a Golux in their life, and I’d have pressed my copy of this book firmly into their hands, looking at them with wide, crazy eyes. This book has a way of making you feel a little unhinged.

The 13 Clocks is such a clever, unusual little book. I’ve become quite attached to it. And really, with passages like this, can you blame me?

“The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Farther along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee-deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets” (p. 73)

See? How can you read that sentence and not want to read it aloud to someone, just to feel how it sounds? Of course, the entire book isn’t written like this. But, here and there, Thurber lapses into poetry; his words gain a kind of momentum that carries the reader away.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I haven’t even told you yet what this enchanting book is about – or even about the Golux.

The Duke of Coffin Castle has killed time. Literally. He stabbed it with his sword and watched it bleed seconds and minutes upon his sleeve. Now the castle’s thirteen clocks chime no longer, and the Duke is happy. Another thing that makes the Duke happy is his niece, the beautiful Princess Saralinda. He keeps her locked in his castle, and takes special delight in tormenting the princes who hope to win Saralinda’s hand in marriage.

Xingu, a travelling minstrel who isn’t all he seems, hears of the Princess Saralinda’s plight, and devises a cunning plan to set her free. But Xingu doesn’t know just how dangerous the Duke is. So, to his rescue comes the Golux – a strange, wide-eyed little man with “an indescribable hat”. Together, the pair come up with a brilliant plan to defeat the Duke, save the Princess and restore time to the cold halls of Coffin Castle.

On one hand, this is definitely a fairytale for children. It has beautiful, colourful illustrations by Marc Simont, a big letter at the beginning of every chapter and it’s short enough to read within the space of a single hour.

But, on the other hand, The 13 Clocks is not your average story for children. There’s a seriously evil Duke, carnivorous geese, a castle haunted by the souls of dead children, who can still be heard playing in the tower in which they starved to death…and the Todal, a terrifying, immortal creature which lurks in the shadows, “sent to punish evil-doers for having done less evil than they should”.

The 13 Clocks is deliciously creepy. It’s also spectacularly absurd, and even laugh-out-loud hilarious. In this passage, to capture the attention of the Duke’s spies, Xingu the minstrel sings silly songs mocking the Duke:

“Hark, hark, the dogs do bark

The Duke is fond of kittens,

He likes to take their insides out

And use their fur for mittens” (p. 28)

The 13 Clocks had me laughing one moment, shivering the next. It’s shadowy and strange and sticks in your mind.

There’s something astounding about the way in which Thurber uses language. He invents nonsensical words as he sees fit. His prose occasionally tumbles into verse, then back out again. He moves from one idea to the next with such breathtaking grace. I was particularly taken with the opening passage, in which Thurber describes the cold castle, then the cold hands of the Duke, who always wears gloves, which he contrasts with the warmth of Saralinda’s hands, then back to the metaphorically frozen hands of the castle’s thirteen clocks.

For what looks ostensibly like a children’s book Thurber’s The 13 Clocks is overflowing with a genius far more complicated than your average picture book. Pinning this unusual novel down is nearly as difficult as telling you about the Golux’s indescribable hat. By its very nature, this novel defies classification. The 13 Clocks might be a fairytale…but it’s the creepiest, most bizarre fairytale I’ve ever encountered.

Find a copy of this book. Read it. Don’t keep it to yourself. Pass it around. Enjoy it. It deserves to be more widely read.


Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should you read it?

I cannot stress to you how much I want you to read this book! Okay, it’s a little obscure, but it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read…and possibly will ever read again. It’s very short. It’s beautifully illustrated. Read this book, okay?

In a word:


Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

3 thoughts on “1950 – the 13 clocks ~ james thurber”

  1. My teacher just read this book to us in class. It’s also his favourite book, he’s read it so many time he practically has it memorised. We all enjoyed too and now we’re learning about the many poetry techniques used by the author.

    1. Hi Sarah! I love the fact that your teacher is reading you The 13 Clocks! He sounds like an excellent teacher. I wish I’d had a teacher who read me this book when I was in school!

      Thank you so much for visiting my blog and leaving me a comment – I really liked The 13 Clocks and I think it’s great to hear from other people who enjoyed it too. Everyone should know what a Golux is!

  2. Michelle, I know exactly how you feel about this book. The first time i read it, I thought I had found a secret that only my mother and I shared. The only difference is that I first read it in 1959 when I was 7!!. After 50+ years this continues to be one of my favorite books. I treated myself to a reading of the book by Lauren Bacall, so if I’ve had a particularly difficult day and need to “get away from it all”, I clamp on headphones and listen to Ms. Bacall’s wonderful reading of the book. I hope you continue to enjoy it! Jan

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