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Dracula: The History of Myth and the Myth of History

by Elizabeth Miller


In spite of all that we know about Vlad Dracula, he is still somewhat of an enigma. Not only are there still unsolved mysteries about his life and death, but there has been much speculation about the exact nature of the connection between Vlad and the Count Dracula of Bram Stoker's classic novel. Most assume that Stoker, inspired by accounts he had read or heard about the fifteenth-century Wallachian ruler, made a conscious decision to base the character of Count Dracula on the historical personage. But this assumption is highly speculative. All we know for certain is that Stoker borrowed the name "Dracula" and a few scraps of information about Wallachian history from William Wilkinson's An Account of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820).

On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that any more than a few historians would be paying the slightest bit of attention to Vlad Dracula today, were it not for Stoker's novel and the revelations in Florescu and McNally's In Search of Dracula (1972; revised 1994). Much has been written about this, and I do not intend to pursue it here. Rather, I want to focus on how Vlad is viewed in Romania, and how many Romanians respond to the "fact" that for many Westerners, Vlad and the Count have become one.

To begin with, there is the question of nomenclature. The name "Dracula" has links with the Romanian word "drac" (derived from the Latin "draco") which can mean both "dragon" and "devil." The general consensus among historians now is that Vlad adopted it as a sobriquet derived from the Order of the Dragon which had been bestowed upon his father, Vlad Dracul, in 1431. (There is no evidence, however, that Stoker would have been aware of this connection.) Romanian historians have traditionally resisted referring to Vlad as "Dracula" for two reasons: it was used in late fifteenth-century German documents which maligned the voivode's reputation, and it reinforces the connection to Stoker's vampire Count. However, the name "Dracula" is now being more widely accepted. As Florescu and McNally point out, this is justifiable: Vlad himself used "Dracula" (or variations thereof) in a number of documents bearing his signature, and several of the printed sources of information about Vlad, published in the late fifteenth century, refer to him as "Dracula" or one of its derivatives.

The majority of Romanians, however, still refer to Vlad as "Tepes" ("The Impaler"), the name first bestowed on Vlad by Turkish chroniclers, and view the "Dracula" connection as an affront to their history. There is a fairly widespread view in Romania that the vampire connection has been deliberately emphasized in the West to undermine a figure who, to many Romanians, is something of a national hero. One Romanian historian, Alexandru Dutu, has stated that "In 1897, Vlad Tepes was transformed into a vampire in the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, a late reflection of the slanders concocted to destroy him centuries earlier" (in Treptow, Dracula: Essays on the Life and Times of Vlad Tepes, 242). To suggest that Stoker deliberately sat down with the intention of discrediting a fifteenth-century ruler about which he knew very little is, of course, preposterous. Even more absurd is the view of a few Romanians who, according to Florescu and McNally, view the progressive vampirization of Dracula by western novelists and movie producers as a "Hungarian plot, originally inspired by King Matthias, continued by [Arminius] Vambery, Stoker's Hungarian informant, and given its most masterful stroke by Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian" (Dracula: Prince of Many Faces, 220). While there may very well be some grounds for the accusation against Corvinus, there is no evidence that Vambery gave any information about Vlad (biased or otherwise) to Stoker, and the 1931 movie in which Lugosi starred totally ignores even the vague connection made in Stoker.

Such sentiments are part of a somewhat schizophrenic response to the whole Dracula phenomenon in Romania. It begins with Vlad himself. Was he a hero or a psychopathic tyrant? Are his atrocities in any way defensible? It depends on what you read. The problem originates, of course, with primary sources, many of which (especially Beheim's poem and the Saxon pamphlets) are heavily biased against him. Many of the stories about Vlad's atrocities that are so well-known today come from these sources. By contrast, Romanian folk narratives (still told in the villages near his fortress at Poenari) present a very different Vlad: a supporter of the peasants against the treacherous boyars, an upholder of law and order in lawless times, and a valiant defender of his small principality against the might of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet Romanians themselves have been and still are ambivalent about Vlad. This duality of response is evident, for example, in the literature of the second half of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, a number of writers, swept up in the fervor of a revolutionary movement that culminated in the formation of a Romanian state in 1859, looked back to Vlad as a symbol of independence and nationhood. Ion Budai-Deleanu's epic poem Tiganiada (though actually written in the last decade of the eighteenth century) was published in 1875: here, Vlad Tepes is presented as one of Romania's first great national heroes, fighting against the Turks, the boyars, and the legions of evil. Poet Dimitrie Bolintineanu, in his "Battles of the Romanians," also praised Dracula's military exploits. And the famous late nineteenth-century poet Mihai Eminescu who, in his historical ballad The Third Letter (1881), called on the Impaler to come once again and save his country.

But another picture was also emerging. In 1874, Romanian poet Vasile Alecsandri wrote a narrative entitled "Vlad Tepes and the Oaktree" which reprimands the harshness of Vlad, particularly with respect to the impalements at Tirgoviste. However, the chief challenge to the "Vlad as hero" concept came from renowned historian Ion Bogdan, whose treatise Vlad Tepes (1896) questioned the traditional image of Vlad by presenting him as a bloodthirsty tyrant whose cruelty could only be accounted for in terms of mental abberation, a sick man who killed and tortured out of sadistic pleasure. Bogdan even went so far as to depict Vlad as a politically weak leader. Needless to say, the publication sparked a vigorous debate.

Interest in Vlad Tepes among Romanian historians and fiction writers continued throughout the twentieth century. Literary works such as the poem "Vlad Tepes" by Tudor Arghezi (1940), the short story "Soimul" by Radu Theodoru (1967) and Georgina Viorica Rogoz' novel Vlad, fiul Dracului (1970) maintained the sympathetic image of the Wallachian voivode, while historians such as Nicolae Iorga struggled with the conflicting accounts of his life and deeds. But it was the decade of the 1970s that saw the most significant production. Part of this was no doubt motivated by a desire to counteract the association made by Florescu and McNally between the historical hero and a supernatural vampire. This, however, was only one factor. By the early 1970s, Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had consolidated his power in Romania and was developing a clearly nationalistic policy. He revived elements of traditional Romanian nationalism, coupled with a xenophobia which targeted (among others) ethnic Hungarians and gypsies. Included were constant references to the great heroes of the past, one of whom was Vlad Tepes whom he elevated to a place of honor. The Party line in the 1970s was that, while Vlad Tepes was ruthless (few will deny that), his ruthlessness was necessary under the circumstances in which he found himself and in this respect he was little different from other contemporary leaders in Europe.

A number of historical articles and books about Vlad appeared in Romania in the 1970s, especially in 1976, when the country commemorated the 500th anniversary of his death. Perhaps the most interesting publication, in that it directly addresses the Stoker connection, is a book by Nicolae Stoicescu entitled Vlad Tepes (1976). Stoicescu clearly expresses resentment about how the historical figure of Dracula has been appropriated by the West and converted into a popular horror icon: "Whoever knows something about Vlad Tepes may smile on reading such nonsense, but this nonsense ascribed to Dracula [the novel] is highly popular and overshadows the true image of the Prince of Walachia" (178). "Those," continues Stoicescu, "who would like to go on cultivating Dracula the vampire are free to do it without, however, forgetting that he has nothing in common with the Romanian history where the real Vlad Tepes whom we know by his deeds holds a place of honour" (179). Stoicescu takes great pains to separate Vlad not only from the Dracula legend of the decadent West, but from the highly propagandistic accounts in the fifteenth-century German texts. Writing of the Brasov atrocities, he declares, "Vlad Tepes did what was customary in his time ... to ensure the freedom of his country's trade, and ... to remove the claimants to his throne who had been given shelter in Transylvania and punish their supporters" (67).

During the 1970s, the Communist government also undertook many practical projects to re-enforce Vlad's reputation as a national hero: statues were erected, streets were renamed, restoration of his Arges castle was undertaken, and a commemorative postage stamp was issued in 1976 to mark the anniversary. In 1978, a feature movie entitled Vlad Tepes was produced which, according to Stoicescu, "portrays the true personality of a great prince" (142). Though I found the movie rather tedious, it is an interesting "reading" of Vlad from a contemporary political point of view: it comprises thinly veiled parallels between Vlad's political and military policies and the position taken by the Communist Party with respect to nationalism, the aristocracy, foreigners, and the maintenance of law and order.

As for Count Dracula, the fictional vampire was practically unknown in Romania until the fall of Communism in 1989. While there were a few concessions made to Western tourists who came to the country during the 1970s in search of the vampire Count, Stoker's novel and the movies based on it were not available. However, that is now changing. Romanian tourism officials are realizing the benefits of catering to visitors who travel to Romania to visit Transylvania, home of Count Dracula, the vampire. This has created an interesting dilemma for Romanians: how to accommodate this demand while at the same time keeping clear the distinction between the fictional vampire and their own national hero. It is no easy task!

Most of the sites visited on a typical "Dracula tour" in Romania are associated with Vlad: his birthplace in Sighisoara, his palace at Tirgoviste, the ruins of his fortress at Poenari, the Old Court in Bucharest, and Snagov Monastery, where he is presumed to have been buried. (I do not include Bran Castle in this list. Even though it is still touted by many tour guides as "Dracula's Castle," its connection with Vlad is minimal and its association with Stoker's Count is non-existent.) As for Count Dracula, one must travel further north to Bistritz and the Borgo Pass. In Bistritz, one can find a Golden Krone Hotel (named after the one where Jonathan Harker stayed). And high in the Borgo Pass (Piatra Fintinele) is the Castle Dracula Hotel, built in the early 1980s to accommodate the waves of tourists who were starting the trek to Transylvania to find the Count.

Many Romanians are concerned about promoting their country as "Dracula Country." And with good reason! Tour guides have to contend with uninformed tourists who insist that Vlad Dracula was a vampire and that Count Dracula is buried at Snagov. This, however, can be handled by providing informed tour guides who are well versed in both Draculas. A far more serious problem, in my opinion, is a tendency on the part of some enterprising Romanians to cash in on the confusion, at the expense of their own history and culture. During my visits to Romania, I have seen a number of examples of this crass commercialism. There was the salesperson in the medieval square of Sighisoara who was selling small portraits of Vlad Tepes with fangs and who was quoted in a local paper as saying "I sell it only to foreigners ­ Romanians would be angry." In other locations one can find questionable souvenirs. I saw a post card of Bran Castle (labelled "Dracula's Castle") complete with a small icon of a Western-style vampire with widow's peak and black cape who is superimposed on the photograph of the castle as if welcoming unsuspecting tourists. Even worse, at Bran Castle itself I found a T-shirt depicting Vlad Tepes with fangs extended, leaning over a bare-breasted and willing female victim. Equally tacky is the decision of at least one tour group to offer a Halloween party at "Casa Vlad Dracul" (Vlad's birth house) in Sighisoara! Perhaps the most disturbing was that during a recent visit (May 1998), I noticed in the courtyard outside Casa Vlad Dracul (in Sighisoara) a life-sized model of Vlad where tourists were invited to have their "bloody photo taken." Such promotion flies in the face of both history and culture, and serves only to exacerbate the resentment that many Romanians already feel about Dracula-centred tourism.

There is no doubt whatsoever that interest in Vlad Dracula in the West is directly connected with the popularity of Stoker's novel (both the book itself and its offspring). Yet Vlad is much more than just the historical figure whose name was appropriated for the world's most famous literary vampire. He is a significant figure in Romanian history. Though many Westerners are baffled that a man whose political and military career was as steeped in blood as was that of Vlad Dracula, the fact remains that for many Romanians he is an icon of heroism and national pride. It is this duality that is part of his appeal.

[A slightly altered version of this article was first published in JOURNAL OF THE DARK, Number 9, 1996. Copyright Elizabeth Miller.]

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COPYRIGHT©2005 Dr. Elizabeth Miller