With Halloween fast approaching, mentions of the macabre, the ghoulish, and the otherwise spooky begin to fill the ever-cooling air. For me, the literary mainstays of the season include Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, the eerie short works of American sci-fi pioneer H.P. Lovecraft, the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and Anglo-Irishman Bram Stoker’s best-selling novel Dracula.
First published in 1897, Dracula chronicles in epistolary form (through letters, journal entries, newspaper articles, etc.) the attempts of the eponymous Transylvanian count to move from his homeland in the Carpathian Mountains of what is now Romania to the bustling metropolis of London. From quite close to the story’s onset it becomes clear that Dracula is an ancient vampire. It is up to Dutch polymath Dr. Abraham Van Helsing and his friends to stop the monster from invading England with his undead curse.
In Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula, the author explains, “[Dracula] has, at different times, and in different places, been portrayed as either a saint or a sinner, and in one sense or another continues to be seen this way” (Treptow 2000: 7). It is this conflicting nature that has been the most alluring component of the Dracula mythos, even before it was immortalized by Bram Stoker in 1897.
Stoker employed much creative license in his novel, but who was Dracula, really, and what does this historical figure tell us about the multi-ethnic and -linguistic Balkan region from which he emerged and rose to notoriety? In Stoker’s story, Count Dracula claims to be a Székely, or a descendant of the mysterious Huns, of Attila fame, part of the ruling boyar class of Transylvania. However, the historical Dracula, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (b.1431-d.1476 or 77), also known as “The Impaler” (Țepeș in Romanian) was in fact an ethnic-Romanian prince, and not a count. With Transylvania and Moldovia, Wallachia is one of the three historical and geographical regions that make up the modern-day nation-states of Romania and Moldova.
Though controversial in other parts of the region, Vlad III Dracula is celebrated to this day in Romania and Bulgaria for consolidating Wallachian independence and defending his people against the encroaching Ottoman Turks from the east. Historically, outside of Romania, Dracula has also been seen as a sadist – hence his epithet “The Impaler” – wreaking havoc on any and all peoples he deemed his enemies. Much of the inspiration for his carnage, it appears, was in revenge for the murders of his oldest brother Mircea and his father, Vlad II Dracul, by those at war against the Wallachians in the complex political situation occurring in the region at the time (Treptow 2000: 51-62).
And who are the Romanians, exactly? While often grouped with the Slavic languages and cultures, the Romanian language is in fact descended from Latin and thus has at its base much in common with Spanish, Italian, French, and the other Romance languages. But the influences of its neighbors – Bulgaria, Ukraine, Macedonia, Serbia (all Slavic-speaking nations) and Uralic (non-Indo-European) Hungary – have had much influence on Romanian culture and elements of the language itself as well. Romania has been called a gateway to the East and indeed stands at a crossroads between Western Europe (via its Latin roots), the Slavic states, non-Indo-European Hungary, and Muslim Turkey. Add to this mixture the largest European populations of nomadic Roma people (“gypsies”), and we can see that Romania – and the Balkans region in general – is an extremely diverse and complex locale.
As summarized by Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally in their Dracula: Prince of Many Faces, “Dracula [the novel] was the product of the wild imagination of the author; the only thing the vampire shared with any historical prototype was the name” (1989: 3). I would argue that there is more than just a name that binds these two Draculas, however: Both are elusive, dynamic figures that we either love to hate or fear deeply. Depending on which side of history we fall on, both Draculas are powerful, decisive and, whether fictional or historical, compelling figures to be reckoned with.
Our Subject and Reference Specialists Specialists here at the International and Area Studies Library working in the Central European/Balkans region are Joseph Lenkart, Kit Condill, Marek Sroka, and Jan Adamczyk. They are available for consultation for any research or reference assistance that you may need. The University of Illinois Library’s Slavic, East European & Eurasian Collections is home to an extensive array of materials relating to Romania.
Check out these other sources for more on Romania, Dracula, the Balkans region, and beyond:
Abondolo, Daniel, ed. 1998. The Uralic Languages. New York: Routledge.
Centre for Romanian Studies. Online: http://www.romanianstudies.org/content/.
Comrie, Bernard and Greville G. Corbett. 1993. The Slavonic Languages. London; New York: Routledge.
Diaconovich, Corneliu. 1904. Enciclopedia română. Sibiiu: W. Krafft. (Short entries on Vlad I; Vlad II; Vlad III; Vlad IV on pp. 1228-1229.)
Florescu, Radu R. and Raymond T. McNally. 1989. Dracula: Prince of Many Faces. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Groza, Adriana. 2014. Transylvanian Vampires: Folktales of the Living Dead Retold. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
Johanson, Lars and Eva A. C’sato. 1998. The Turkic Languages. London: Routledge.
“References Sources on Romania.” S.E.E.E. Collections & Services. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois. Online: http://www.library.illinois.edu/spx/webct/subjectresources/subsourrom/romhistbib2.html.
“Romanian Studies Resources in USA.” Romanian Cultural Institute New York. Online: http://www.icrny.org/d30-1-Romanian_Studies_Resources_in_USA.html.
Treptow, Kurt W. and Marcel Popa. 1996. Historical Dictionary of Romania (European Historical Dictionaries, No. 15). Lanham, MD & London: The Scarecrow Press.
Treptow, Kurt W. 2000. Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula. Portland, OR: The Center for Romanian Studies.
Treptow, Kurt W. 2001. Tradition and Modernity in Romanian Culture and Civilization, 1600-2000. Portland, OR: The Center for Romanian Studies.