Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

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.

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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, for example, Vathek goes to excessively evil lengths, such as murdering children and making a pact with an infernal spirit. Vathek’s callous disregard for any human life but his own essentially turns the reader’s sense of wonder into a sense of disgust.

To a certain extent, the collection was given to an English-speaking audience at the right time, since Great Britain was beginning to extend its empire. In this sense, geographical imperialism was mirrored by literary imperialism. For example, Sir Richard Burton, a nineteenth century explorer who traveled through Africa and the Middle East, also translated The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Since the nineteenth century many Western writers have been influenced by the collection: a partial list includes Henry Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Barthes. Further, such figures as Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad have featured in several films directed for young audiences, none of which are close in either content or atmosphere to the stories in this collection. Be that as it may, these various folktales anthologized by Arab writers during the Middle Ages have certainly become a part of Western culture.

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