Given the slightly Gothic flavour of The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, my account of the inspiration behind this historical fiction book should really begin in a castle of thick walls, suits of armour and cobwebs on a snowy night in winter. But it doesn’t – quite the opposite in fact, which is only right, since the real story of Vlad Dracula’s life contains a mix of the exotic and the gothic, the Ottoman summer and the Carpathian winter: heat and frozen chill.
The historical Dracula, Prince of Wallachia (present-day Romania), and also known as Vlad the Impaler because he was said to have impaled his enemies on stakes, spent many years in the palace of the Ottoman Turks. Between 1442 and 1448 he was present at the Ottoman court, where he met the man who would later become his great adversary: Mehmet II, later known as the Conqueror.
Vlad Dracula, who was born sometime between 1428 and 1431 and is believed to have died in 1477 (his body was never found), acquired a reputation as a bit of a ‘badass’; he was also closely connected to the most infamous figure of popular legend, the vampire. As far as reputations go, it was one to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies, which considering the quarrelsome state of Eastern Europe in the fifteenth century (not to mention the rest) was perhaps not such a bad thing. The man who would confront such an adversary as Vlad Dracula would have to be made of stern stuff, and he was.
Murad II, the ruling Sultan of the Ottoman Empire between 1421 and 1451, foresaw that his son and heir, Mehmet, would one day conquer Constantinople, the Greek metropolis, but he may not have been quite so delighted if he had glimpsed the rest of Mehmet’s future, which was more the stuff of nightmares than a dream of conquest. Because besides being a born leader, Mehmet was also responsible for the introduction of the law permitting fratricide, the murder of a sibling.
Mehmet called his new law the Law of Governance, and claimed that it would strengthen the empire because it would prevent rivalry for the throne. He introduced it because he had already murdered his own brothers in order to become the heir, and once you do that, the safest thing to do is to make it all legal, which he did, shortly after he became Sultan. The new law meant that a ruling Sultan would no longer have to smother his brother by dead of night with a pillow, or strangle him with a swatch of silk while nobody was watching. He could make it an official event.
Of course, and perhaps most astonishingly, the law meant that Mehmet was effectively giving his own sons permission to kill their brothers one day as a precautionary measure ‘for the common benefit of the people’, as he stated. In a way he was sanctioning the murder of his own children.
However, nobody is all bad. When he proposed the passing of the law, Mehmet had no children of his own. And when he did have them, his own children did not engage in fratricide themselves. They chose instead, in the first instance at least, to come to an agreement. In that sense the law could have been seen as a deterrent. It was a Machiavellian way of seeing things, but it certainly allowed the empire to prosper for a good many years without fear of rebellion.
By the time Mehmet crossed paths with Vlad Dracula at the court of his father, besides being somewhat ruthless, Mehmet was a highly ambitious young man, with the makings of a formidable leader. His father found him hard to contain, and his efforts to bring his son into line practically cost him his life. When Mehmet became Sultan, at the tender age of 19, he was ready to take on most of Eastern Europe. And he would have taken on the rest of it too, were it not for Vlad Dracula.
Dracula has had a bad press. In the Hall of Fame he is The Impaler, and by most accounts a monster. Not because of his association with the vampire myth, so much as his reputation for inflicting cruelty on his victims – the kind of cruelty you don’t want to think about, and particularly during mealtimes. But how bad was he, really?
History is always constructed from the reports of others, and like many leaders before him and after, Dracula had his enemies. Some of them were Saxon merchants from the north, others were Hungarians and still more were Turks. On that basis, you have to ask yourself to what extent these reports about the character of Dracula were true, and to what extent they were exaggerated in order to turn his friends against him.
But why did they want to get rid of him in the first place? In the fifteenth century Romania was a buffer state between two powerful empires, the Holy Roman Empire to the north and the Ottoman Empire to the south. Vlad Dracula’s family was caught in the middle – a bad place to be.
Vlad Dracula, and his father for that matter, was a nationalist who believed in the self-determination of his country, and he was prepared to go to considerable lengths to secure it. Did that make him a hero or a monster – even today such questions can be hard to answer. The subject of nationalism is a tricky one for a globalised world to deal with. Do we seek peace by closing our borders, or do we preserve it by keeping them open? Is it a sin to love our country, or should we rather have no country at all?
At the time of Vlad Dracula, nationalism did not have the ramifications it has today. It was closer in meaning to its original root, natio, which means birth. These days when we think of nationalism we often think of National Socialism, and Hilter.
Or perhaps we think of Patriotism, a word that we often associate with Winston Churchill, George Washington, and consequently, with war. In the fifteenth century the idea of nationhood was still young, but that did not mean a man (or woman) could not lose their life for it.
As a young man, Vlad Dracula had not yet gained his status as monster of the Hall of Fame. He was, like his adversary Mehmet the Conqueror, a leader in the making. The two must have been similar in many ways, and their proximity at the court of the Ottoman sultanate must have sown the seeds for the intense and painful conflict that would follow. But who would come out best? Who would be the hero or the monster, or were they both at once? The expression, fighting fire with fire comes to mind when you are dealing with the twin fiends of cruelty and ambition. But one thing is certain, they are both currently perceived as the heroes of their country – Mehmet because he took Constantinople and ushered in a golden age of glory, and Vlad Dracula because he stood up to the Ottoman advance at a time when everyone else was backing down from it.
As nations, we create so many heroes in a spirit of nationalism that it can be hard to separate the fiction from the fact, which is why we need the subtleties of historical fiction to see the stew of the past for what it might have been: a one-sided story. But that does not mean there are no pitfalls for the writer.
As John F. Kennedy once said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic”.