Q: Is Count Dracula based on Vlad the Impaler?
A: In name only. Bram Stoker, writing in the 1890s, simply didn’t have access to much information about Vlad Țepeș. His character, Count Dracula, was an original creation who shares almost nothing with the historical figure aside from the name.
Until fairly late in the writing process, Stoker’s working title for the novel was The Un-Dead and his villain was “Count Wampyr.” That changed when he came across a brief mention of “Voivode Dracula” in William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia: With Various Political Observations Relating to Them (Kindle). He thought the name sounded cool, so he changed his character’s name to Count Dracula. Nearly everything about the character had already been written before he ever heard the name “Dracula.”
Their Voivode, also named Dracula,⁵ did not remain satisfied with mere prudent measures of defence: with an army he crosse the Danube and attacked the few Turkish troops that were stationed in his neighborhood; but this attempt, like those of his predecessors, was only attended by momentary success. Mahomet having turned his arms against him, drove him back to Wallachia, whither he pursued and defeated him. The Voivode escaped into Hungary, and the Sultan caused his brother Bladus to be named in his place. He made a treaty with Bladus, by which he bound the Wallachians to perpetual tribute; and laid the foundations of that slavery, from which no efforts have yet had the power of extricating them with any lasting efficacy.
5. Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil. The Wallachians were, at that time, as they are at present, used to give this as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.
(The bit about “slavery” refers to Wallachia’s status as a suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. It joined with Moldavia in 1859 to form Romania, which gained its independence from Turkey in 1877.)
In the 1890s, Vlad III Dracula just wasn’t a prominent enough figure in the English language tellings of the region’s history to have gotten more than that one paragraph and footnote. Wilkinson’s history mentions the word “Dracula” two other times in connection with Vlad II Dracula, who was the father of “our” Dracula, though he doesn’t seem to have known that. None of the other books Stoker read mention him at all. He was just another in a long line of bloody warlords.
Stoker did make use of this info, however. In chapter three, Dracula goes on a rant about the history of his people, including:
Who was it but one of my own race who as Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground? This was a Dracula indeed! Woe was it that his own unworthy brother, when he had fallen, sold his people to the Turk and brought the shame of slavery on them! Was it not this Dracula, indeed, who inspired that other of his race who in a later age again and again brought his forces over the great river into Turkey-land; who, when he was beaten back, came again, and again, and again, though he had to come alone from the bloody field where his troops were being slaughtered, since he knew that he alone could ultimately triumph!
In chapter twenty-eight, Van Helsing surmises:
He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land. If it be so, then was he no common man; for in that time, and for centuries after, he was spoken of as the cleverest and the most cunning, as well as the bravest of the sons of the ‘land beyond the forest.’
“The Land Beyond the Forest” is a nickname for Transylvania, from the Latin roots trans, “beyond,” and sylva, “forest.” It’s also the title of Emily Gerard’s book about the country (Kindle, Apple Books) which, along with her Transylvanian Superstitions (Kindle, Apple Books), were major sources for Stoker.
If we assume that Van Helsing is correct, then Count Dracula is the historical Voivode Dracula, but in name only. Stoker didn’t know his name, Vlad, and didn’t know anything about him having people impaled. It’s hard to imagine him leaving those sorts of details out if he’d known about them.
I’ll recommend a book about Dracula (and Dracula) in a moment, but first a few words about Wilkinson and Gerard’s travelogues, which were important sources for Stoker. First, they’re pretty dry; Wilkinson reprints old military treaties. Second, they’re exceptionally biased. These are books by British writers who went to Eastern Europe and thought of the people there as dirty and uncivilized. One sampling from Gerard’s book: “Were the whole world people by this race alone, our dictionaries might have been lightened of a good many unnecessary words, such as elegance, grace, fascination, etc. Of course, now and then one comes across an exception to this general rule and finds a pretty girl, like a white poppy in a field of red one; but such exceptions are few and far between, and I have remarked that on an average it takes three well-populated villages to produce two bonnie lasses.”
While interesting for research purposes, these are not books that seem very interested in widening their readers’ points of view through travel. Stoker’s book reflects this slant, and can easily be read as a horror story about a foreigner coming to London to pervert its women and infect England with his impure blood.
In a small way, Wallachia is my attempt to treat the people of this region with the dignity Stoker and his sources did not. Most of Marley’s neighbors might be illiterate, but they’re good people at heart. I also try to keep Count Dracula pretty close to Stoker’s as I write him, though I couldn’t resist including a few good impalings in Flowers of Transylvania.
If you’d like to read more, Dr. Elizabeth Miller’s A Dracula Handbook (Kindle, Apple Books) is an excellent starting point. I could have just quoted from her directly for all of this post—her book includes entire chapters on this stuff—but I’ll at least let her have the last word. One enduring myth is that Vlad the Impaler was a vampire, or was believed to have been one at the time. Miller includes a number of contemporary accounts of his life and exploits (which, again, Stoker didn’t have access to) and, on the question of whether Vlad was ever connected with vampirism, says:
The word “vampire” was never used in connection with Vlad until well after Bram Stoker’s novel appeared and it became popular to assume (incorrectly) the Vlad was Stoker’s inspiration for his vampire Count.