6 November 2017

Who Is Dracula’s Father? John Sutherland Investigates

Posted by John Sutherland

EVENT: John Sutherland will be at the Bookshop on Thursday 9 November to discuss his new compendium of curious literary questions Who Is Dracula’s Father with Professor Martyn Rady. Book tickets now. Read on for the book’s titular chapter.

Who spawned Dracula? There are two contenders worthy of discussion here. Elsewhere we will examine the popular notion that Dracula is none other than Vlad the Impaler, the infamous 15th-century prince of Wallachia – in which case his father would be Vlad II Dracul, a nobleman of similar rank. But there is another possibility.

Before he goes to Transylvania, Jonathan Harker bones up in the reading room of the British Museum. One can indulge a fanciful vision of him under Panizzi’s great dome, alongside George Bernard Shaw.

We may note, in passing, that Bram Stoker actually started his five years of casual research for Dracula in the public library of Whitby, over a relaxing summer holiday in the town, in 1890. One book in particular caught his fancy, William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. From that volume (there cannot have been an overwhelming demand for it in the library) Stoker took the following, transcribed, supposedly by Harker, verbatim into the narrative:

In the population of Transylvania there are four distinct nationalities: Saxons in the South, and mixed with them the Wallachs, who are the descendants of the Dacians; Magyars in the West, and Szekelys in the East and North. I am going among the latter, who claim to be descended from Attila and the Huns.

Later, in an outburst of genealogical bombast, Dracula, a distinguished member of Szekely nobility (who did not, incidentally, use the title ‘count’, but ‘boyar’), makes the point that he did not originate among the lowly Hunnish rapers and pillagers, but from the loins of the great Hun himself:

‘We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, ay, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the werewolves themselves had come. Here, too, when they came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of those old witches, who, expelled from Scythia had mated with the devils in the desert. Fools, fools! What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?’ He held up his arms.

Stoker made a note to himself that Dracula’s first language is not Romanian. It is certified in the printed text, rather pedantically, when he informs the newly arrived lawyer: ‘my friend Harker Jonathan – nay, pardon me. I fall into my country’s habit of putting your patronymic first’. He means Hungarian. Hunnish.

Attila (406–453) qualifies as one of the cruellest world conquerors in history. The name remains well known and much referenced – as in Mrs Thatcher’s nickname, ‘Attila the Hen’. Once heard, never forgotten.

Attila preyed on the rubble of the Roman Empire earning himself the title ‘The Scourge of God’. He approved the title, suggesting as it did that: (1) he was God’s punitive instrument; (2) he could himself punish God, if the whim took him. He centred his evil empire in the land of the Hun, now called, in his memory, Hungary.

Dracula’s claim, of course, may suggest only that he is Attila’s distant descendant, but given that he has lived for many centuries, could he in fact be the direct offspring of the great Hun? Interesting in this respect is the unusually detailed (for the 5th century) account of the tyrant’s death and funeral, as recorded at the time by the Roman historian Priscus of Panium. Attila died mysteriously, on his wedding night, still in his forties. God, doubtless, prepared a warm welcome for him. Jordanes (another Roman historian) summarises Priscus’s account thus:

Shortly before he died … [Attila] took in marriage a very beautiful girl named Ildico, after countless other wives, as was the custom of his race. He had given himself up to excessive joy at his wedding, and as he lay on his back, heavy with wine and sleep, a rush of superfluous blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in deadly course down his throat and killed him, since it was hindered in the usual passages … On the following day, when a great part of the morning was spent, the royal attendants suspected some ill and, after a great uproar, broke in the doors. There they found the death of Attila accomplished by an effusion of blood, without any wound, and the girl with downcast face weeping beneath her veil. Then, as is the custom of that race, they plucked out the hair of their heads and made their faces hideous with deep wounds, that the renowned warrior might be mourned, not by effeminate wailings and tears, but by the blood of men.

His body lay in state for a statutory number of days. His army, frantic with grief, mourned by smearing their faces with blood, circling the silken burial tent on their horses. He was buried with huge pomp – but no one knows where. Legend has it a river was diverted to flow over his resting place, lest anyone find and despoil it. Millions of people had a bone to pick with Attila the Hun.

But was he really dead? Is Dracula Attila reincarnate – or even the still-alive Attila? Attila died by drinking his own blood. Is that what Dracula hints by holding up his arm in Jonathan’s face? Or, more likely, was Ildico, on that gory wedding night, impregnated? There is a Dan Brown novel lurking in that idea.

Attila, if we pursue this line of speculation, has waited all these centuries for what? To conquer not just a slice of eastern Europe, but the whole planet, man, woman and child. Now, in 1893, God’s Scourge, in the (un)person of Count Dracula, is ready to strike. Beware humanity. Call on a talkative old Dutch professor: he may save us.

Who Is Dracula’s Father’ is published by Icon Books, price £9.99. John Sutherland will be in conversation with Martyn Rady on Thursday 9 November. Book tickets here.