Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The 13 Clocks

Time to maintain the HOTT content of this blog, since HOTT is supposed to be its primary focus. This is another article rescued from the original Stronghold. It is pretty much as John wrote it; I have merely applied a deft editorial hand - that means any errors in spelling or grammar are probably mine.

‘The 13 Clocks’ by James Thurber
Army Lists for ‘Hordes of the Things’ 
By John Whitbourn

First published 1951. Original illustrations by Mark Simont, but there is an edition with illustrations by Ronald Searle. This post uses pieces by both artists, culled from the 'net via the offices of Google.

Naturally, I have excluded many plot revelations and denouements for the benefit of those who have the pleasure of reading this book yet to come. You can read about it HERE of course.


Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill' (there is an evocative picture as a frontispiece).
I’d always imagined the book to be circa 18th century set, but in the absence of gunpowder references and from the general appearance of Searle’s illustrations the high Renaissance seems more likely.

Within the Castle time within is frozen at ten to five (accounts vary as to whether am or pm). Either way, it is always Then, but never Now. The temporal concept, 'Then', at one point materialises as a vulture and departs the Castle, ushering in 'Now'.

The castle’s windows are described as ‘Gothic’ and its stairs are made of iron. The main ‘black oak’ audience room at least is accessible via secret passages. Lances and shields hang on its torch-lit walls.

A ‘deep bell’ in the castle signals alerts.

In a terrible security lapse, climbing vines permit unauthorised access to some chambers by the intrepid.

The Castle’s dungeon contains horrible things including a (dead ?) thing without a head, plus ‘amusing’ bats, spiders and snakes. I’ve collectively termed them‘Dungeon Beasties’.

The world of the 13 Clocks is evidently a patchwork of islands collectively called ‘the thousand islands of the ocean seas’. The story’s setting is not named as ‘Coffin Castle’ until the penultimate page! Other named islands include: The Blessed Isles of Ever After, Yarrow and Zorn. ‘Good’ King Gwain of Yarrow is known to hunt wolves in woods on Coffin Castle Island although Yarrow is ‘many leagues’ away (and halfway from Coffin Island to Zorn).

Incidentally, Zorn lies 33 days travel by sea from Coffin Castle island.

Other islands are described as being ruled by kings and queens, whereas Coffin Island merely has a Duke. However, no higher allegiance owed by the Duke is ever mentioned and Coffin Castle is described as ‘his kingdom’ by the spy Hark.

The Duke ransacks ships in the vicinity and raids other islands. Coffin Castle’s island (it is never otherwise named) contains no deposits of precious stones - hence perhaps the Duke’s piratic tendencies.

Religion on the Island is unmentioned other than a reference to St Wistow’s Day. Taken in conjunction with reference to priests and monks, the thousand islands of the ocean seas’ are presumably nominally Christian.

There is a town below the castle, containing inns and taverns, including one called ‘The Silver Swan’. Is patrons include: 'taverners, travellers. tale-tellers, tosspots andtroublemakers'.

There is a town clock which strikes the hour. Also mentioned are dogs and citizenry in velvet gowns - the latter implying a degree of prosperity. A Town militia is not an unreasonable assumption given the existence of pirates - even if they are their own pirates ! In the army lists below I've assumed at least a portion of the militia could be swung to rebel against the Duke’s less than enlightened rule.

A ‘cool green glade’ leads down from the Castle to a harbour, where the Duke presumably keeps his ship(s) and inter-island trade is conducted.

Forests on Coffin Island contain wolf traps and therefore, logically, wolves. Other parts of the island are farmed (and ploughed by the dragging points of stars - in whose smoking furrows purple-smocked peasants sew seeds). Meadows are also mentioned, possibly implying rivers or streams.

The climate is not specified, although tangerines are referred to by Hagga, as is chocolate by the Duke. Either the local climes permit either/both or there is substantial international trade.


The Duke

The ruler of Coffin Castle (only named as such on the penultimate page ) is ‘a cold and aggressive Duke’. He is described as gaunt, six feet four and forty-six and ‘even colder than he thought he was’. His voice is like air dropped on velvet. He wears jewelled gloves (to cover disfigurements), one eye is covered a velvet patch (lost as a youth to a mother shrike bird he was going to maul) and the other glitters through a monocle. He limps due to his youthful addiction to place-kicking pups. He is armed with an apparently two edged sword concealed in a cane, which is put to frequent use to ‘slit people from their guggle [stomach] to their zatch. [throat]’ He has slain eleven men merely for staring at his gloved hands. When not engaged in homicide or piracy (he raids other Island Castles to kidnap inhabitants and plunder ships), the Duke amuses himself with torturing and killing animals (frequently mentioned in the tale), murderously thwarting suitors for his niece’s hand or in ‘thinking about beetles’.

In sum, 'His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes'. You get the picture. He also believes he has slain Time in his castle. Though avaricious for jewels, the Duke hates pearls, thinking them made of fish.

The Duke memorably sums himself thus: ‘We all have flaws … and mine is being wicked.’ For all his faults he has a way with words and a certain admirable bravery.

The Duke commands obedient ‘Varlets’ who can appear without word or sound to feed his enemies to a gaggle of voracious carnivorous geese who live in the Castle courtyard. Apparently, the geese relish such meals. Elsewhen, they subsist on hunting snails.


The Duke shares the Castle with his niece, Princess Saralinda, who is tall and 20 years old (going on 21). She wears freesias in her dark hair and is beautiful beyond compare. Her mere presence can light up a window like a star, permitting the Castle to be seen from afar by night. She floats like a cloud, her voice is like faraway music etc. etc. Even the Duke holds up his palms to her as if to warm them by her sheer gloriousness. An illustration depicts her as a swan-necked high-medieval princess.

A witch’s ‘tiny’, ‘clever’ and ‘awful’ spell has restricted her speech in the Duke’s presence to just ‘I wish him well.’ However, even then she can speak a silent language with her eyes. She also possesses intrinsic magical powers which can, for instance, imbue a rose with direction finding powers, or effect clockwork.

The Iron Guard

The Duke’s ‘Iron Guard’ of soldiers appear as a stream of lanterns when issuing from the Castle at night, but later are described as numbering only 11, including Krang, their captain (described the strongest of them all, and the finest fencer in the world - bar for one mysterious prince in armour who bested him a year before, ‘somewhere on an island’). Perhaps these 11 are merely the inner retinue and Duke’s personal bodyguard.
They are described as bearing spears and armour and move like ‘engines’. An illustration shows them in full ‘lobster’ plate armour redolent of circa 1500, and bearing weird halberd type weaponry. Since Krang is described as a fencer, sword armament is implied. Slingshots are also mentioned in a song, so the Islanders are obviously aware of slingers..

Xingu/Zorn of Zornax

A new arrival on the Island, Xingu the minstrel, ‘a thing of shreds and patches', aspires to marry Saralinda. He is soon revealed as a Prince in disguise, and none other than the ‘mighty Zorn of Zorna’, the youngest son of a powerful and wealthy (but indecisive) King. He is also a mighty warrior who has previously (and anonymously) defeated the otherwise invisible Krang, captain of the Duke’s Iron Guard. Xingu/Zorn is wildly handsome, chivalrous and hugely strong, being able to juggle with an eighteen stone tavern troublemaker, and or carry companions when pressed for time. He also ties a world-renowned warrior into a ‘Turk’s Head’ knot’ which he learned from his sister.

An illustration shows him as a splendidly clad and sword-armed Ruritanian or Renaissance prince.

The Golux

The unfortunately named Golux, who allies himself with Xingu/Zorn, is a unique supernatural trickster and the son of apparently rather ineffectual witch and wizard. Not everyone believes in his existence - for instance a captain of the Duke’s guard, despite 'having been to school'.

He is described as looking like a little ( five feet tall ) old man with wide eyes, a dark beard and indescribable hat. He is 'on the side of good by accident and happenstance’ despite childhood high hopes of being evil.

He has ‘no magic to depend on' but always seems to save the day nevertheless - sufficient to save ‘a score of princes in my time’. He can also do a score of things that cannot be done and ‘has a lot of friends’ and ‘knows a lot of places’.

The Spies

The Duke has a corps of spies. Named members include Whisper, Hark and Listen. They are dressed in black hoods and cloaks and wear velvet masks. Listen is invisible to all. Their loyalty appears to be either fanatical or questionable - which is understandable given that, for instance, ‘spy-in-chief’ Whisper is fed to the carnivorous geese merely for being obliged to mention the hated word ‘mittens’ in a report. Yet he returns willingly to certain death. Conversely, Hark appears increasingly insubordinate, although it is he who uncovers ‘Xingu’s’ true name by searching his quarters in the Town. Hark has black eye-brows.

The Ghosts

The Castle is haunted by an unseen group of ghostly children killed by the Duke in some horrible but unspecified way for sleeping amongst his prized camellias. They now throw ‘insolent’ or 'impudent' purple or black balls decorated with gold stars or stamped with scarlet owls. When trodden on, the balls unpleasantly ‘squutch’ beneath the foot and ‘flobb’ against the wall. They seem linked to the Golux in that these are said to be similar to the toys both parties used to play with. Certainly, the Duke concludes the ghost children on the Golux’s side.

Also, at one point, a unique ‘something very much like nothing anyone had seen before’ trots down the stairs in the castle. Likewise, at another point ‘something that would have been purple, if there had been light to see it,’ scuttles across the Castle floor. Their nature and allegiance are uncertain but the Duke seems unfazed. I’ve presumed their presence is tolerated because of a willingness to serve him and so have collectively termed them ‘Castle Nasties’.


Hagga is a magically blessed (or cursed) woman, variously described as in her eighties or thirties. The question remains unresolved even when we meet her. She lives in a valley hut (paradoxically ‘high on Hagga’s Hill’) which naked eye cannot see, ‘over mountain, over stream’, forty-five hours journey from Coffin castle through lightless forest, briar, thorn and bramble via a narrow path uphill all the way.

When she weeps or laughs she can - on rare occasions - produce jewels from her eyes. A previous jewel producing glut before she was sixteen led to the local economy being flooded and economic chaos. Consequently there is or was the death penalty (plus a fine) for making Hagga cry. Subsequently, she has turned a thousand visitors gemless from her door.

The Todal

The Todal is fearsome 'blob of glup', which either ‘gleeps’ or makes a sound like rabbits screaming, and smells of old, unopened rooms or a musty sofa. Later we are informed it is made of lip, feels like it has been dead at least a dozen days and moves like monkeys and shadows. Apparently it cannot be killed. Mere mention of it is enough to turn a soldier’s hair white or a velvet mask grey. It haunts the Duke as an agent of the Devil sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should.

However, since the Duke's evildoing seems to be set at a fairly high and constant level, I've allowed the possibility of the Todal acting in concert with the Duke, but only if Zorn of Zorna has declined its services.

Passing References and Presumptions

There are fleeting mentions of knights like Galahad, Tristram, Lancelot, Tyne and Tora, and of tournaments, wizards using ‘magic words’ and spells, witches, monks and priests, hangmen, dragons devouring damsels, snakes, monsters, whistling comets, owls, sheep and octopi.

There are 'no horses in the stable' in Coffin Castle, and therefore presumably no cavalry available to the Duke. However, the Golux can provide a pair of white steeds at short notice from unknown 'friends'

Given the Duke’s beast-torturing proclivities, one can reasonably assume opposition to him in the form of Outraged Animals. For instance, we are told that some years back a mother shrike bird evened the score by blinding him in one eye. Other, named, victim creatures are: nightingales, puppy dogs and kittens, bats and spiders and mice. Alternatively, as cruel children have been warned by millennia of mothers: ‘the king of the [insert species] will come looking for revenge!’. Accordingly, giant sized regal versions of the relevant species could shown opposing the Ducal forces.

Both witches and wizards are mentioned frequently, usually as journeymen mercenaries hired for specific tasks. They do not seem particularly formidable, although‘Good’ King Gwain of Yarrow is a wizard who can both curse and bless people and turn them into grasshoppers.

Therefore, Magic is evidently prevalent - though capricious - in the Thousand Island World. Even nursemaids can be powerful spell-casting witches.

Relevantly, the spy Hark also observes that ‘there are rules and rites and rituals, older than the sound of bells and snow on mountains.’ Furthermore, he knows that binding spells contain chinks and loopholes to permit right to triumph.

‘The Thorny Boar of Borythorn’ is mentioned as a formidable opponent. However, opinion varies as to whether it exists.

Though they do not ever appear in the book, the heroes’ close links with Zorn and Yarrow (I’ll say no more) raise the possibility of an allied contingent of archetypal knights and bowmen.


The Duke Of Coffin Island

Stronghold - A gothic castle on a hill OR a symbolic grandfather clock (stuck at ten to five).
1 x Hero General (The Duke) @ 4AP
1 x Blades (The Iron Guard) @ 2AP
2 x Beasts (Castle Geese) @ 2AP
2 x Sneakers (Fanatic Spies) @ 3AP
1 x Spears (Town Militia) @ 2AP
2 x Shooters (Town Militia) @ 2AP
1 x Lurker (Dungeon Beasties) @ 1AP
1 x Hordes (Varlets) @ 1AP

Behemoth (The Todal*) @4AP, Magicians (Witches/Wizards) @ 4AP, Dragon (Mercenary) @ 4AP, Hordes (Pirate Pals or Town Troublemakers, Sneakers (Castle Nasties) @ 3AP, Beasts (Thorny Boar) @ 2AP

*Only if not used by Zorn’s forces

Prince Zorn of Zorna Liberation Army

Stronghold - Harbour with ship, plus two white horses on quay.
1 x Hero General (Zorn of Zorna) @ 4AP
1 x Cleric (Saralinda) @ 3AP
1 x Magician (The Golux) @ 4AP
1 x Fliers (Then - A Vulture) @ 2AP
1 x Fliers (Outraged Birds) @ 2AP
1 x Beasts (Outraged Animals) @ 2AP
1 x Spears (Town Militia) @ 2AP
1 x Shooters (Town Militia) @ 2AP
1 x Lurker (Ghostly Children) @ 1AP
2 x Hordes (Town Troublemakers) @ 1AP

Behemoth (The Todal*) @ 4AP, Sneakers (Mutinous Spies) @ 3AP, Cleric (Hagga) @ 3AP, Magicians (King Gwain) @ 4AP Knights (Zorna or Yallow) @ 2AP, Shooters (Zorna or Yallow) @ 2AP Beasts (Thorny Boar) @ 2AP, Hordes (Town Troublemakers) @ 1AP


  1. I have never heard of these book before but now I am very intrigued!!

  2. I remember these books from primary school (what on earth was our teacher thinking of?). Great army idea, and I was glad to stumble on the Stronghold rebuilt, after the old site vanished into the ether,
    best regards

  3. This is really very good! I've read one or two of James Thurber's books, and Ronald Searles idiosuncratic style of drawing has long been a favorite with me... I must look this story up.
    I do like your army lists.

    1. Thanks. These aren't my lists, of course, but were posted to me by someone else. I've read a bit of Thurber, but not these, and am mostly familiar with Ronald Searle through St Trinians and the Molesworth books.


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