The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The wicked, one-eyed duke of Coffin Castle lives in his cold fortress along with his beautiful, warm niece Saralinda. There are thirteen clocks in the castle that stopped marking time at the same moment. The duke hates time; indeed, he believes he has killed it. The only things he loves are his jewels and, apparently, his niece. There have been many suitors for Saralinda, but all failed to pass the terrible tests the duke set for them.

A prince, Zorn of Zorna, disguised as a minstrel, comes to seek Saralinda’s hand. He is helped by the Golux, a little wizard who appears and disappears and is not really sure if he can perform the magic he knows. The duke has many spies, and through them Zorn is captured and identified as a prince. In order to win Saralinda’s hand, he is set the tasks of first getting one thousand jewels within ninety-nine hours, then of making the thirteen clocks run again.

The Golux remembers a woman who had been given the power of weeping jewels by a king she saved from a trap. With great difficulty, Zorn and the Golux search out the woman, Hagga. She has lost the power to weep, and their attempts to make her weep fail. Finally, by chance, she laughs, and the laughter produces jewels that last only a fortnight and then turn to tears.

While Zorn and the Golux are gone, the duke admits to one of his spies that Saralinda is not his real niece and that he intends to marry her. Zorn arrives back at the castle at the last moment. The duke’s men try to kill him but cannot, and Saralinda herself, by warming the clocks, makes them run again. In a sense, time and life begin: “Then” leaves the castle and all is “Now.”

The duke must yield up Saralinda. The Golux reveals that Saralinda is the daughter of the king Hagga had saved. The lovers ride away. Two weeks later, the duke, gloating over the thousand jewels, sees them turn to tears. He is carried off by a terrifying “blob of glup” called the Todal, an agent of the devil, for having failed to do as much evil as he could have.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill"—this is the setting of The Thirteen Clocks. Though the prince comes from...

(The entire section is 223 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Thirteen Clocks is, on one level, an allegory of the struggle of humanity to create and sustain meaning in an indifferent...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

As in many of his stories, including his fairy tales, Thurber here responds to the many aspects of modern culture that threaten love and...

(The entire section is 202 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What are the main features of the Duke's character? What does he seem to want from life?

2. Why does the Duke want to marry...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. The Golux tells the story of Hagga at some length. What connections do you see between Hagga's story and the whole tale?

2. In...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Thurber wrote no other stories with these characters. Thurber's other fairy tales show similar themes and qualities. In Many Moons, a...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bernstein, Burton. Thurber. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975. Though the balance of this biography has been challenged, it...

(The entire section is 343 words.)


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Fensch, Thomas, ed. Conversations with James Thurber. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Grauer, Neil A. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Holmes, Charles S. The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

Kinney, Harrison. James Thurber: His Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

Kinney, Harrison, and Rosemary A. Thurber, eds. The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Rosen, Michael J., ed. Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor, and Himself. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Tobias, Richard C. The Art of James Thurber. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1970.