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Mary Shelley and Castle Frankenstein

"I busied myself to think of a story - a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror-one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart."


This is from the introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's first and greatest work, which began when she was only eighteen years old.

Mary Shelley or Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was a British novelist born on the 30th of August in 1797. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother, who died when Mary was eleven days old, was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.


In 1814, Mary Godwin began a romantic affair with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was one of her father’s political followers at that period. Together, they left for France and travelled through Europe where they faced many difficulties, such as the death of their prematurely born daughter and the suicide of Shelley's first wife, Harriet. Finally, they married in late 1816, the year when Mary Shelley, at the age of eighteen, conceived the idea of Frankenstein.

 

It seems that all began in May of 1816 when the couple and their son spent a summer in Geneva with the fine company of Lord Byron- a figure that later inspired Mary, not only with his knowledge but also, with his personality- and his physician, John William Polidori. "It proved a wet, ungenial summer and incessant rain often confined [them] for days to the house", Mary wrote in the Introduction of her book. Sitting around the fire until late at night, the company amused themselves by reading German ghost stories or by discussing the new experiments of Erasmus Darwin, and his galvanism. One of those nights, Lord Byron suggested they each write their own ghost story, as a friendly competition among them. Young Mary “busied” herself to think of a story equal to those which had excited them; a story “which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror- [a story] to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart” [Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Introduction (1831)]

After several days without inspiration, one night Mary had a nightmare. 

 

'I saw - with eyes shut, but acute mental vision - the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the World'

[Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Introduction (1831)]


So she began to write her novel which was published in 1818 and today it is considered one of the greatest gothic horror stories ever written. 

 

Frankenstein is the story of the young scientist, Victor Frankenstein who discovers the secret to imbuing the inanimate with life and aspires to create his own race of man. After many efforts, he gives life to a monster but repulsed by his work, he flees, hoping to forget what he has created, and attempts to live a normal life. Victor's abandonment of the monster will cost the lives of his beloved people and finally his own since he has committed the ultimate hubris to ‘steal’ God’s power in order to ‘breathe’ life.



The story is an allusion to the “Hellenic myth of Prometheus who, having usurped the powers of the higher gods, is alienated forever from both men and gods, and chained to the frozen top of the Caucasus” [M.A. Goldberg, Moral, and myth in Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein, page 32]. Truly, in the eighteenth century, the physical dangers of researching electricity were linked to Prometheus’ fire stolen from the Gods. But why did Mary Shelley choose the name Frankenstein for her protagonist? In Wikipedia, we find that:


"Frankenstein is a German name consisting of two words: The Franks are a Germanic tribe and "stein" is the German word for "stone". Accordingly, the meaning of Frankenstein is "Stone of the Franks". The word "stein" is common in names of landscapes, places, and castles in Germany. Consequently, the term "Frankenstein" is a rather ordinary name for a castle in this region".


It is believed that Mary Shelley was inspired by the real Castle Frankenstein which lies in the Odenwald Forest in Hesse, Germany. Mary Shelley travelled to this region when she was a little girl. The Castle was built in 1252. The descendants of the family who built Frankenstein Castle called themselves von Frankenstein. There are many legends connected to the castle and that dynasty, and most of them refer to monsters and vampires. 

One of the most famous legends is about Lord George and a dragon. It is said that long ago, around the 1200s, a dangerous dragon lived in the garden near the well at the castle of Burg Frankenstein. It is said the dragon would creep in at night and eat the villagers and their children in their sleep. One day a knight by the name of Lord George rode into town. The townsfolk were desperate but seeing a brave knight gave them hope, as he promised to help them.



After a long and difficult battle, Lord George and the dragon both fell. The villagers, although relieved, wanted to give the knight a proper, honorable burial. They brought him to the Church of Nieder Beerbach, in the valley on the east side of the castle, and gave him a marvelous tomb. To this day, visitors can pay respects to Lord George.


It is also believed that there, hidden behind the herb garden of the castle, lies the fountain of youth. Legend has it that on the first full moon night after Walpurgis Night, old women from the nearby villages had to undergo tests of courage. The one who succeeded became rejuvenated to the age she had been on the night of her wedding. It is not known if this tradition is still being practiced these days. 


Witches seem to love this place and they perform rituals in a remote part of the forest behind Frankenstein Castle. Legend has it that Mount Ilbes is the second most important meeting place for witches in Germany after Mount Brocken in the Harz. And the reason is that compasses do not work properly due to magnetic stone formations of natural origin. The magnetic stones can be visited by everyone but...beware of the witches.

However, the reason why Mary Shelley and the Castle were connected is because of another legend. 


In 1673, Johann Konrad Dippel was born in the castle and later engaged as a professional alchemist. Dippel created an animal oil that was supposed to be equivalent to the "elixir of life". Dippel attempted to purchase Castle Frankenstein in exchange for his elixir formula, which he claimed he had recently discovered and his offer was turned down.

Legend has it that Dippel practiced not only alchemy but also anatomy and may have performed experiments on dead bodies in the Castle. There are rumours that he dug up bodies and performed medical experiments on them and that a local cleric would have warned his parish that Dippel had created a monster that was brought to life by a bolt of lightning. Sounds like Doctor Frankenstein? 


In 1814, when Shelley took a journey on the river Rhine, she spent some time in the Castle's nearby town of Gernsheim. Several nonfiction books on the life of Mary Shelley claim Dippel as a possible influence. However, none of these claims have been proven to this date, and some local researchers doubt any connection between Mary Shelley and Frankenstein Castle. It seems that this is a real mystery. Is it a mere coincidence? Maybe Mary was influenced by the novels read in Byron's Villa, or maybe that nightmare was not a dream but..a vision? No matter what, Frankenstein is the true work of a genius who could foresee the future of science and the ethical dilemmas of defying nature, a theme very relevant to this very day.    


Anastasia Diakidi

Imaginarium Magazine Issue 10

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