Friday, September 25, 2009

Dracula Was Framed



Or: The Importance of Good PR



Quite a few of you know that I'm something of a Dracula geek, and that I've spent a good chunk of time researching both the 15th century Wallachian prince and the vampire mythos that's grown mostly from Stoker's novel. Given the popularity of the undead porn subgenre, I don't think there's any need to discuss PR for vampires, but Vlad III Dracula, "the Impaler", definitely suffered from bad PR.



Okay, I can hear people thinking "Yeah, right. They didn't call him "the Impaler" because he was a nice guy.", and yes, you do have a point. Vlad was not a saint by anyone's standards. But - and there's a message in here for us, now - if you look at him and his life without looking at the context of the era and his contemporaries, you get a very distorted picture.



Perhaps the main source of information today on the kind of man Vlad was are the Dracula stories. The problem with using these to judge him is that the Dracula pamphlets and the Russian chronicles were written by his enemies. The Russians regarded him as apostate for converting to Catholicism (something he did because it was the only way he was going to regain anything resembling freedom). The writer of the German/Saxon pamphlets was financially dependent on the King of Hungary and the Germanic merchant families in Transylvania, both of whom had reasons to want Vlad portrayed as an evil monster. Even the name by which he is mostly known today - "the Impaler" - was coined by the Ottoman Turks, who were probably his bitterest enemies.



Possibly the only sympathetic sources are the Romanian peasant legends, which portray him as harsh but just, and have a subtext that he needed to take drastic action to restore a country which today would be considered a failed state.



Now to his contemporaries. One of the best insights I got into the mindset of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, "the Conquerer", came from translations of contemporary accounts of the siege and fall of Constantinople. All three accounts I found, two from the defenders perspective and one from the besiegers, agreed closely on the events. The short-short version is that Mehmed besieged the city while building an immense cannon to bombard the walls, and carried his ships around the chain stretched across the mouth of the Golden Horn to position them where he could attack the weaker sea-walls. Even so, he might still have failed if not for the good fortune of a small gate left open (or possibly deliberately opened) through which he was able to send forces and get one of the larger gates opened, after which his armies went on a rampage of rape and slaughter (which Mehmed had encouraged - and that information comes from the sympathetic source).



Some of the side excursions proved most illuminating. While the great cannon (also known as the Great Turkish Bombard) was being built, Mehmed took a smaller force to one of the ancillary fortresses, where he besieged it, bombarded it with cannon fire and threw men at it until the garrison surrendered - after which he took the men who surrendered back to Constantinople and impaled them outside the walls of the city. Oh, and standard operating procedure for the Ottoman customs forts further up the Bosphorus Straits? If a ship tried to evade them, sink the ship and impale the survivors.



Mehmed is - mostly - remembered today as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan man who oversaw the restoration of Constantinople to a major trade and cultural center. What's forgotten is that he had his infant brother drowned while the child's mother was congratulating him on his succession to the Imperial Ottoman throne. His harem of attractive young boys and boyish young men is also mostly forgotten - although some of the braver clerics of the time condemned that particular habit. Then there's the known fact that he was precocious in matters of intrigue and murder, and is suspected of arranging the murder of at least one of his older brothers. I've never seen any suggestions that he was involved in his father's short illness and death, but the illness is curiously unspecified.



Then there's the hero of Hungary and his father the White Knight - King Matthias of Hungary, and his father John Hunyadi. Hunyadi's efforts included attempting to negotiate a truce with the Ottoman Sultan while he was organizing a war alliance against the Ottomans. Matthias went one better - he received a good deal of money from the Pope to finance a campaign against Mehmed II, and used the money to ransom the Hungarian crown from Poland. The leader of that campaign? Vlad Dracula. Matthias arrested Dracula on obviously false charges to deflect questions about his lack of action - and his employee produced the first of the Dracula pamphlets shortly afterwards. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pamphlets depict Dracula as a bloodthirsty madman.



So... Filtering the various Dracula stories through that lens (as well as the knowledge that there is simply not enough space in his castles and palaces for him to have impaled hundreds there)... The Dracula 'atrocities' fall into three broad categories. First, there's the law and order set. Remember, he was ruling a failed state. In order to shut down rampant crime, fast, he opted for severe penalties for pretty much everything. Given that he started from a culture where mutilation for minor crime was the norm, he didn't go that much further. Then there are the politically motivated executions. Those were done to break the power base of the Wallachian Boyar class - not least because they were quite willing to swear life-long loyalty to a man, then murder him a couple of months later to install someone else on the throne. The notorious "Forest of the Impaled" falls into this category as well - it was calculated to terrify Mehmed, because Dracula didn't have the numbers to defeat Mehmed in battle. It worked: Mehmed remained terrified of Dracula despite the disparity of power between the two men, and never attempted to directly attack him again. The third category was perhaps Dracula's biggest weakness. He was prone to insane rages that resembled berserk fits. The only Dracula stories that involve him doing something clearly counterproductive show him in one of these rages.



On the positive side: he was the only one of his contemporaries who never broke an oath. The evidence I could find suggests that while he initially paid the tribute required by the Ottomans, he didn't actually swear loyalty to them and never considered himself a vassal of the Sultan. He remained loyal to the Hungarian King despite Matthias's lack of support and later betrayal. He risked his life to help one of his few friends, Mihaly Szilagy (who was later sawn in two by the Ottomans) and helped his cousin Stephen of Moldavia (known today as St Stephen the Great) to claim the Moldavian throne. He appears to have belived in honor and duty, and maintained both to the best of his ability all his life. He was also acutely aware of his failings, if his time praying and the large amounts he donated to various churches are any guide.



Complicated? Hell yes. Easy to find? Not bloody likely. To find out more about Dracula the man, I spent a lot of time digging through obscure legends, translations of primary documents that would leave you cross-eyed, and a whole lot of international politics in 15th century Eastern Europe. The point, of course, being that ultimately what gets remembered is what other people say about you, not why they said it.



I should probably apologize for inflicting so much Dracula geekery on you, but I'm not going to because it illustrates something particularly useful to us as writers - good PR matters. None of us are likely to be remembered as one of history's greatest villains, but we writers do work in an industry largely driven by gossip, and gossip is basically viral PR. If we don't control it and seed the rumors that help us, we will be controlled by it and not in a good way.



What other historical figures got really bad PR? Conversely, who's been unfairly glorified? And what tactics can be used to seed helpful rumors for the gossip mill?

20 comments:

Ori Pomerantz said...

Not a figure, but a group - and not vilified but glorified, the Jewish zealots of the first century. Based on all ancient sources, they were the 1st century version of Al Qaeda. That includes not only Josephus, writing in Rome as a Freedman, but also also the Talmud, written centuries after the events in the Parthian empire, Rome's traditional enemy under the emperors.

Yet, when the Zionist movement needed a nationalistic tradition, they were rehabilitated. Suddenly the Roman rule became intolerable, and the zealots patriots. Never mind that their strategy made as much sense as Austin seceding from the US (not even all of Texas, just Austin), their main occupation seems to have been fighting other Jews, and their great achievement was the destruction of Jerusalem.

Dave Freer said...

It's interesting how respect and affection for Dracula remains to this day in among the peasant classes and their descendents among the Vlachs. Their veiw does not gel with the Saxon pamphleteers.
History is going through a bit of a revisionist phase now - and I can think of a good few egs where the pendulum has swung way too far (which I am not going to dig up here. I really don't have the time for that sort of shit-kicking) and the truth lies somewhere betwixt. (The romans were neither (and both) the civilizing bringers of law and straight roads nor the rapists and hedonists who pillaged the ecology and peaceful tribal societies of Europe to feed their greed etc.)
But yes, you are right Kate. We need to feed our POV into the rumour mills - hence my own pushing of certain issues re electronic rights etc.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate,
I agree. Judging past peoples by modern standards of morality is so pointless. Guess what, they fail.

Personaly I want an apolgy from the Italian Government for littering Kent's beaches with all those bloody galleys - damn illegal immigrants.

Dear Ori

This year's terrorists are next year's freedom fighters and visa versa.

John

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

This was fascinating, Kate.

Judging the actions of people from history, by modern standards is impractical.

Kate said...

Ori,

There's no way I could respond to this without straying into places that this isn't the forum for. Too many landmines, there.

Kate said...

Dave,

Agreed, to everything. We get a very different view looking back, and part of that is the perspective of the times. Most of history would see us as ridiculously powerful, and utter wusses :)

And yes, we do need to feed our side into the rumor mill. There are going to be rumors no matter what we do. I'd much rather I had some input into them than have them all created by people who don't know me - or worse, people who hate me.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Kate, why are you worried of landmines? So we'll have an argument - big deal.

Seriously, if you want to discuss this by e-mail, I'm ori [at] simple [dash] tech [dot] com.

Kate said...

John,

Absolutely. Our standards and lifestyle are very different from most historical eras - heck, even adults of 50 years ago would see us as alien, and vice versa. The best we can do is try to understand how the era in question worked and put as much as we can in context with it.

Of course, after I've marinaded in 15th century Eastern Europe for a while, it's really not a good idea to irritate me. Writing from the POV of someone in that era necessitates being as much as possible in the mindset of the era.

Kate said...

Rowena,

Thanks! I certainly find it fascinating - as people have discovered to their cost when I just won't shut up about it ;)

And yeah, you can't judge the past on today's standards. It's not just another country sometimes, it's an alien world.

Kate said...

Ori,

It's not so much an argument with you - or anyone - that I'm concerned about. I think you've noticed I'm quite willing to wade in boots and all for a "vigorous discussion".

It's more that I don't think I could do your example justice without getting into politics and religion - and this isn't the venue for that - and offending everyone - which is something that can wait for another time, when I'm really pissed off about something.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Kate: Of course, after I've marinaded in 15th century Eastern Europe for a while, it's really not a good idea to irritate me.

Ori: The best writer I know for showing how mindsets change is Tom Kratman, specifically his Desert Called Peace series. It starts with a pretty sympathetic character, and at the end of book two this character orders a bunch of people crucified. The scary this is that by the end of book two you understand why he does this.

Kate said...

Ori,

When someone can portray a changing mindset like that so that it's both understandable and to some extent sympathetic, they've done a good job.

Francis Turner said...

Richard III was of course foully slandered by a certain W Shakespeare. Like Vlad you can't say he was perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but his main fault was failing to beat Henry Tudor when that chancer rebelled. Unfortunately for Richard the Tudors had the luck to employ one of the best writers in the world as their dynastic publicist.

Kate said...

Francis,

That is probably the best known example of someone getting lousy PR, historically speaking.

matapam said...

Hmm, and is my continued antipathy for vampires a matter of following the old mythos or failing to fall for the new PR?

Witches, werewolves, dragons. Our current society seems to be ripe for the refurbished images of the old stock Bad Guys. Or at least able to identify with the One Good One among the hordes of Still Bad Guys.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Interesting article, Kate! On the one hand, we don't want to fall into the trap of moral relativism, but on the other hand, we need to remember that we weren't walking in these folks' shoes when the feces hit the fan. What is outrageous and barbaric to our 21st century Euro-American standards, was merely grim necessity by their standards.

IMO, David Drake does an exceptional job of portraying this in his fiction, of turning shocking, horrific events and actions into "day in the life" routine in the minds' eye of his characters. Yet, he not only doesn't dilute the tragedy and the horror the slightest bit, he puts an even keener edge on it by doing this.

I think this is why, when it comes to movies, many "historical" pieces take such liberties with historical accuracy -- if not throw it out the window completely. Many of the motivations, desires, and values of a protagonist of a past time are incompatible with and incomprehensible to the worldview of a 21st century audience. And since the job of movie-makers is to put maximum gluteus maximii in theater seats, bye-bye historical accuracy.

I can't remember where I read it, but I remember coming across an article on SF writing that said that the average Roman citizen would seem far more alien to us than all the aliens portrayed in science fiction.

Kate said...

Matapam,

I'd say a bit of both, actually. Most of the legendary Bad Things are a threat to people. Personally, I like playing at the margins and finding circumstances where the threat can become a beneficial thing (like the dragon protecting the villagers in return for regular offerings of livestock and the occasional virgin maiden), but I'm weird by anyone's standards.

On the question of society recognizing the Bad Guy, and supporting the Good Guy, that tends to be an ongoing problem. A smart Bad Guy can seem to be a good guy, if he's careful about choosing his targets and has a good PR team. And a Good Guy with crappy PR is very vulnerable to that kind of Bad Guy. Hm... there a story in... (pauses to tell my subconscious to shut up).

Kate said...

Robert,

The average Roman would definitely be more alien to us than most SFnal aliens - everyone has a tendency to assume that everyone else is more or less like them (do unto others etc springs from that). What we tend to forget is that what was good, what was bad, and what was not that great but something you lived with changes over time and over distance.

The average Roman is probably closer to our mindset than the average medieval English farmer - Romans were the product of a sophisticated, civilized culture with a high level of technology. Heck, the average Roman is probably more familiar to us than the average Papua New Guinea highlander.

If you want to understand history, you've got to try to at least follow the mindset of the people involved. Authors - like, as you said, Dave Drake (Sarah does an excellent job of this too, in her Shakespeare series and the dead queens books) - who can do this are sadly rare. (For really alien aliens that are still understandable, Dave Freer is good, too - the Magh and the Korozhet in the RBV books are both alien and very much understandable.)

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Kate,

Agree on all points :-) One to add to the list of Dave's aliens is S'kith 235 from his debut novel, The Forlorn. I thought S'kith was a really good example of what a human raised by some truly alien aliens might be like, and I thought Dave did a damn fine job pulling it off.

Kate said...

Robert,

Oh, yeah. Those were seriously alien aliens, and that was a very alien human viewpoint.