The Arabian Nights' Entertainments Essay - Critical Context


Critical Context

The popularity of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments has only increased since it was first translated into English between 1706 and 1708. That is an ambitious statement, since the collection set off a wave of enthusiasm for things Middle Eastern during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas (1759), the story of an Ethiopian prince, was heavily influenced by The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. The novel replicates the style of the collection, particularly in the names of characters and in their manner of speaking to one another, but the resemblance between the two works is only skin deep. The eighteenth century novel was a vehicle for moral instruction above all, and Johnson’s purpose was to mimic the grandeur and mystery of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments without making use of supernatural elements, which were thought improbable at best and superstitious at worst.

Another late eighteenth century novel indebted to this collection was William Beckford’s Vathek (1786), which purports to be the story of Haroun al’Raschid’s grandson, another caliph of Baghdad. Unlike Johnson, however, Beckford charged his work with the occasional supernatural atmosphere of the Arabian collection; where Aladdin or Sindbad the sailor might persuade a genie to rescue them from desperate danger, however, Beckford steeps his character in unholy magic. To win the secret of eternal life,...

(The entire section is 403 words.)