I have nothing against Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or its free publicity for my native Transylvania. But Universal Pictures’ latest vampire flick, “Dracula Untold,” attempts something no other vampire tale did before: to understand the man behind the myth.
As devoid of humor and sensuality as critics accuse it to be, the new version revives the historical figure that inspired Stoker’s protagonist: Vlad III aka the Impaler, a 15th-century prince who briefly ruled Wallachia, a Romanian province between the Danube River and the Carpathian Mountains.
Dracula’s Faustian pact in the movie – the price he pays to defend his land and family – is not far from the historical truth. During his three short reigns, Vlad defended Wallachia’s autonomy against the Ottoman Empire and the Hungarian Kingdom, using every weapon in his arsenal: politics, guerilla warfare, fear and intimidation.
Was the real Dracula as monstrous as the legends portray him? You bet.
But he was also one of the most revered leaders in Romanian history. Here is what most people don’t know: Vlad the Impaler was far more terrifying than vampires. He was a psychopathic killer, but just what his country and Europe needed at a time when Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, was pressing against Christian Europe like a tsunami wave, ready to swallow it. With a few thousand men, he kept Mehmed’s impressive army at bay for years, while fighting scheming nobles and contenders to the throne at home.
In the most notorious episode in Vlad’s anti-Ottoman campaigns, Mehmed retreated south of the Danube after finding 20,000 of his soldiers impaled outside the Wallachian capital. The forest of decomposing cadavers greeted Mehmed’s army as they approached the city of Tirgoviste, after marching for days through burned villages with poisoned fountains. Mehmed gave up, saying: “I cannot take the country away from a man who fights so hard to defend it, and who deserves so much more.”
Vlad used fear as a tactic, and it worked. He did not hesitate to impale, burn and bury his enemies alive. The justice-obsessed ruler applied the same principles to dishonest noblemen and commoners at home. A legend says people drank water from a public fountain with a golden cup that never disappeared as long as Vlad ruled. If a purse was found on the side of the road, it was immediately returned to its owner or to Vlad’s palace. The finder knew better than to lie about the amount of money inside. The boyars who plotted against Vlad were quickly eliminated. Vlad invited them to feasts, and served them stakes for dessert.
Vlad was no rarity in a medieval Europe dominated by the likes of the Borgias and the Spanish Inquisition, and he certainly did not invent impaling. The Saxon legends that gave him the name of Dracula – and inspired Stoker – may have exaggerated his reputation. Transylvanian Saxons hated Vlad, who challenged their trade privileges in Wallachia and asked for reciprocity. But they might have done him a favor by building him up to his enemies.
He did not bow to pressure, even when he had everything to lose. Noblemen betrayed him. Turks either used or fought him. His cousin, the ruler of Transylvania, turned his back on him. And still, he held the shield high. People respected him because he never gave up. It eventually cost him his life, but Vlad never let anyone off the hook for dishonesty, betrayal or lack of patriotism. He talked to the Sultan as an equal, and when the Turkish envoys refused to remove their hats before him, he had them nailed to their heads.
Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu invoked the Impaler in a 19th century poem dealing with the problems of his day: dishonest and cowardly politicians responsible for instability and a servile foreign policy. This was a testament to Vlad’s legacy: He reined in corruption, gained the respect of large empires, and kept the Turks at the gates of Europe.
I cannot help but wonder, how would Vlad deal with today’s chaos?
He would probably impale half of the Islamic State and make the rest of them fight each other to death.
Putin would think twice about making empty threats toward the West.
As for cowardly or self-serving politicians, well … you probably guessed that one.
OK, maybe a psychopathic mass-murderer – even a well-intentioned one – is not the answer to our problems. How about principles, or the courage to be unpopular? Here’s a theme for this Halloween and election season.
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