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Fidelis et mortem: making sense of Dracula’s family motto

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 25, 2014

I must apologise for neglecting this blog somewhat recently. Most of my effort at the moment is going into my Commemorating Augustus project website, which is busier than ever now that we have reached Augustus’ bimillennial year. In between matters Augustan, though, I’ve recently been having a lot of fun revisiting Hammer’s Dracula (1958).

Since the discovery in 2011 of some lost scenes from this film and the release of a new Blu-Ray / DVD edition complete with those scenes lovingly restored, it has been enjoying quite a renaissance. Late last year, I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen as part of Manchester’s GrimmFest 2013, and soon afterwards I bought my own restored copy and got stuck into the DVD extras.

The one I enjoyed most was a half-hour documentary with Christopher Frayling, entitled ‘The Demon Lover’, in which he explains how Hammer introduced full-blown sexuality into the Dracula story for the first time, effectively making it a metaphor for a couple (Mina and Arthur) overcoming the threat of an adulterous relationship (between Mina and Dracula). I’m a big fan of Christopher Frayling, and I think this reading is absolutely spot on. But in the course of pursuing references to the adultery theme through the story, Frayling picked up on the family crest which is visible over the fireplace in Dracula’s castle:

Dracula fidelis et mortem fireplace

Between two sea-creatures and underneath a shield surmounted by a sailing boat, the motto reads ‘Fidelis et mortem’. In case we are any doubt about what it says, the same motto is also visible on the letter which Dracula leaves out for Harker when he arrives at the castle. Here, the ‘F’ on ‘fidelis’ is just out of shot, but there is enough to see that the motto is spelt the same way:

Dracula fidelis et mortem letter

In his documentary, Frayling makes a point of saying that ‘Fidelis et mortem’ means ‘Faithful and dead’. The same translation is also repeated (presumably on the basis of Frayling’s statement) by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby on the commentary track.

However, they are all wrong.

In fact, the motto is not even good Latin in the first place. That’s no great surprise. Film and TV productions are full of mangled Latin – indeed I’ve written about a similar case in Doctor Who before. But it’s when people start offering up incorrect translations of the mangled Latin, which then in turn get treated as though they are authoritative, that the Classicist in me feels the need to step in and call a halt.

So what do we have here? First, the motto as it stands: ‘Fidelis et mortem’. ‘Fidelis’ does indeed mean ‘faithful’ (an adjective), as Frayling says. But ‘mortem’ is not an adjective – it is a noun, and thus means ‘death’ (not ‘dead’). At best, then, we have ‘Faithful and death’, which is already a bit meaningless.

But ‘mortem’ also has an accusative ending. This should normally mean it is the object of a verb, but there is no verb within this motto, or any very obvious absent verb which we can understand. The wrongness of this can’t really be conveyed very easily in English, since we use word order rather than word endings to show how the parts of a sentence relate to one another. But the best way of getting it across would be to translate the motto as something like ‘And death faithful’. That’s about how much sense the Latin makes.

So someone’s Latin was a bit shaky – probably production designer Bernard Robinson‘s. It’s likely that what he was actually aiming at was something more like ‘Fidelis ad mortem’, which is perfectly good Latin, and means ‘Faithful unto death’. This is the motto of (amongst many others) the NYC Police Department.

But to my mind, that still doesn’t suit the Dracula story, or its main character, very well. After all, Dracula is immortal and undead, so nothing needs to stop with death for him – not even fidelity. And in fact, part of the reason why Frayling mistranslates the motto in the first place is that this is the point he’s making about the Dracula character – that even in death, Dracula is attempting to pursue his own tragically-distorted form of fidelity.

The film begins after all with him in what might well be the vampire equivalent of settled domesticity – he has a(n unnamed) vampire bride, and possibly even wears a wedding ring (though it may just be a signet ring) on the little finger of his left hand. We might surmise that all is not well chez Dracula, since at the first available opportunity the vampire bride begs Jonathan Harker to help her escape, tells him how awful Dracula is, and then bites Harker, very obviously against Dracula’s wishes. But it’s reasonable to assume that at least at one time, Dracula liked having her around. Certainly once she has gone his entire motivation for the rest of the film is the attempt to replace her – first with Lucy, and then, when that is scotched by Van Helsing, with Mina.

So that’s why amending the motto to ‘Fidelis ad mortem’ doesn’t work for me. Dracula is not merely ‘faithful unto death’. In his own way he is ‘faithful and dead’, just as Frayling says. But that still isn’t what the Latin over his fireplace says.

Thinking this over, I came up with another solution. It’s obvious that there’s an error here, but what if it isn’t the substitution of an ‘et’ for an ‘ad’? What if instead we knock the final ‘m’ off ‘mortem’ to get ‘Fidelis et morte’? Once we’ve done that, it puts ‘morte’ in the ablative case, and this allows it to mean ‘in death’. Meanwhile, the Latin word ‘et’ is actually quite flexible. It doesn’t just have to mean ‘and’, but can equally cover ‘also’ or ‘even’. So we can translate ‘Fidelis et morte’ as either ‘Faithful also in death’ or ‘Faithful even in death’ (both are essentially the same).

That works for me as a Classicist, and I’m ready to guess it would work for Frayling as a film critic, too. Maybe it’s even what Bernard Robinson actually intended?

This is as far as I got with the motto under my own steam, anyway. But when I asked a few friends on Facebook about it, the brilliant Peter Olive (who is available for Latin tutoring) came up with an even better solution. Remember how I said that the ‘mortem’ in ‘Fidelis et mortem’ has no good reason for being in the accusative case, since this is normally used to mark out the object of a verb? Well, Peter pointed out that there is another rather specialist use of the accusative known as the accusative of respect (no, really!), which allows a word to be translated as meaning ‘with respect to’.

If we apply this to ‘Fidelis et mortem’, we can now translate it as ‘Faithful even with respect to death’. Suddenly, everything falls into place! It has the merit of preserving the motto as we actually see it on screen, which is something I’m definitely in favour of. Otherwise, we have to assume that Dracula isn’t very good at Latin, which is at odds with what we know about his historical counterpart. It also suits the character of the Hammer Dracula perfectly, preserving Frayling’s idea of the lonely immortal who is really just after a vampire bride to call his own – doggedly faithful to the pursuit even in death.

In the end, Frayling is still wrong to translate ‘Fidelis et mortem’ as ‘Faithful and dead’; and I also very much doubt that Bernard Robinson knew about the accusative of respect when he designed the props and sets for the film. But by applying the collective talents of a few Classicists, it’s turned out that we can smooth over the gap, and get the Latin as it appears on the screen to make sense grammatically, as well as to work in service of the story. Now that is satisfying indeed.

Posted in films, horror, latin | 9 Comments »

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