So one of the places I had the fortune of visiting was the country of Romania, spending most of my time in Bucharest but taking a day out to do some castle-touring as well. One of Romania’s big tourist draws is, of course, the vampire phenomenon as kindled by Bram Stoker when he made the home of his famous monster amidst the cloud-shrouded hills of Transylvania in his Gothic masterpiece Dracula.
Of course, any fan of history or folklore will tell you that Stoker took a heaping handful of liberties when writing it. The closest Romanian folklore has to a vampire is a creature called a “Strigoi”, similar in character to a Revenant or Ghoul. As for the man himself, well as many have said before me, Dracula was based on the real man Vlad III, also known as Vlad Dracula (names for his father), and Vlad the Impaler. And it is this man, and what he represents, that I wish to discuss.
Vlad III is a polarizing man to say the least. He was characterized by the local Romanians as a folk hero, who bravely held the line against Ottoman invasion even as the church and his fellow nobles attempted to stab him in the back. Of course, to fight a war of extreme odds, one tends to use aggravated methods. In Vlad’s case, the punishment of “Death by impalement” was his favored penalty for every conceivable crime. He was described as “A Man of Extremes in Extreme Times”. Brutal he most certainly was, but he lived in a place and period that demanded brutality to keep one’s way of life afloat.
Books can and have been written on this man. But I’m more interested on what this kind of figure represents in literature. It is often said that iconic villains are those who are sympathetic (Though this is variably true). At the very least that’s what’s popular, and in fantasy literature in particular the dark overlord popularized by Sauron has mostly had its day unless you mess with the formula.
But Vlad III there represents that rare kind of character. The man who is at once both hero and villain. Vlad Dracula was a warlord who fought a brutal campaign against an invading force, and delivered a unique form of psychological warfare by impaling POWs, letting them die slowly over days upon the pikes so that the Ottomans could see just what awaited them, a measure he inflicted upon his own people as well. By the same token he kept the sovereignty of his people going against all odds, and had to fight both for his freedom and for his throne.
Vlad III was more than just a villain with good publicity, he was certainly more complex than a ruthless tyrant, although ruthless he certainly was even by the standards of his day. A “good” villain will often see themselves as the hero, but someone like Vlad III, like many before him both real and fictitious, is the rare breed where just as many call him a savior as a monster, sometimes both at once.
A man of extremes in extreme times indeed.