cover of a later edition
|Translator||Reverend Samuel Henley|
|Publisher||J. Johnson (English)|
|1786 (English), 1787 (French)|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
Vathek (alternatively titled Vathek, an Arabian Tale or The History of the Caliph Vathek) is a Gothic novel written by William Beckford. It was composed in French beginning in 1782, and then translated into English by Reverend Samuel Henley in which form it was first published in 1786 without Beckford's name as An Arabian Tale, From an Unpublished Manuscript, claiming to be translated directly from Arabic. The first French edition, titled simply as Vathek, was published in December 1786 (postdated 1787). In the twentieth century some editions include The Episodes of Vathek (Vathek et ses épisodes), three related tales intended by Beckford to be so incorporated, but omitted from the original edition and published separately long after his death.
Vathek capitalised on the 18th (and early 19th) century obsession with all things Oriental (see Orientalism), which was inspired by Antoine Galland's translation of The Arabian Nights (itself re-translated, into English, in 1708). Beckford was also influenced by similar works from the French writer Voltaire. His originality lay in combining the popular Oriental elements with the Gothic stylings of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). The result stands alongside Walpole's novel and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) in the first rank of early Gothic fiction.
William Beckford wrote Vathek in French in 1782, when he was 21. He often stated that Vathek was written as an emotional response to “the events that happened at Fonthill at Christmas 1781,” and that it took him two days and a night, or three days and two nights (as he gives two accounts of how long it took him).
Vathek was written during a time when part of European culture was influenced by Orientalism. It is an Arabian tale because of the oriental setting and characters and the depiction of oriental cultures, societies, and myth. Vathek is also a Gothic novel with its emphasis on the supernatural, ghosts, and spirits, as well as the terror it tries to induce in the reader.
The title character is inspired by Al-Wathiq ibn Mutasim (Arabic الواثق), an Abbasid caliph who reigned in 842–847 (227–232 AH in the Islamic calendar) who had a great thirst for knowledge and became a great patron to scholars and artists. During his reign, a number of revolts broke out. He took an active role in quelling them. He died of fever on 10 August 847.
The narrative of Vathek uses a third person, omniscient, semi-intrusive narrator. While the narrator is not omniscient in the sense of knowing what the characters feel (he hardly talks about the feelings of the characters), he is omniscient in the sense that he knows what is happening everywhere; and while it may not be intrusive to the point of telling the reader how to feel, it is certainly intrusive in the way it takes the reader from place to place, the most obvious instance being on page 87 when, after a narrative focusing around Gulchenrouz, the narrator tells us, "But let us return to the Caliph, and her who ruled over his heart". The narrative is often made up of lists that chronicle the events one after the other, without emphasis on character development. Characters and events are introduced forcefully at times. One such example is the introduction of Vathek's brother and successor Motavakel, based on Al-Mutawakkil ʻAlā Allāh Jaʻfar ibn al-Muʻtasim (Arabic المتوكل على الله جعفر بن المعتصم') (March 821 – December 861), who reigned in Samarra from 847 until 861. Up to the point when he is introduced in the novel as the leader of a rebel army, the reader is not even aware of Vathek's having a brother. The reader is also never exposed to Motavakel's character, except as Carathis mentions him. The novel, while it may lend itself to be divided into chapters, is one complete manuscript without pause.
The novel chronicles the fall from power of the Caliph Vathek (a fictionalised version of the historical Al-Wathiq), who renounces Islam and engages with his mother, Carathis, in a series of licentious and deplorable activities designed to gain him supernatural powers. At the end of the novel, instead of attaining these powers, Vathek descends into a hell ruled by the demon Eblis where he is doomed to wander endlessly and speechlessly.
Vathek, the ninth Caliph of the Abassides, ascended to the throne at an early age. He is a majestic figure, terrible in anger (one glance of his flashing eye can make “the wretch on whom it was fixed instantly [fall] backwards and sometimes [expire]”), and addicted to the pleasures of the flesh. He is intensely thirsty for knowledge and often invites scholars to converse with him. If he fails to convince the scholar of his points of view, he attempts a bribe; if this does not work, he sends the scholar to prison. To better study astronomy, he builds an observation tower with 11,000 steps.
A hideous stranger arrives in town, claiming to be a merchant from India selling precious goods. Vathek buys glowing swords with letters on them from the merchant, and invites the merchant to dinner. When the merchant does not respond to Vathek's questions, Vathek looks at him with his "evil eye," but this has no effect, so Vathek imprisons him. The next day, he discovers that the merchant has escaped and his prison guards are dead. The people begin to call Vathek crazy. His mother, Carathis, tells him that the merchant was "the one talked about in the prophecy", and Vathek admits that he should have treated the stranger kindly.
Vathek wants to decipher the messages on his new sabres, offers a reward to anyone who can help him, and punishes those who fail. After several scholars fail, one elderly man succeeds: the swords say "We were made where everything is well made; we are the least of the wonders of a place where all is wonderful and deserving, the sight of the first potentate on earth." But the next morning, the message has changed: the sword now says “Woe to the rash mortal who seeks to know that of which he should remain ignorant, and to undertake that which surpasses his power”. The old man flees before Vathek can punish him. However, Vathek realises that the writing on the swords really did change.
Vathek then develops an insatiable thirst and often goes to a place near a high mountain to drink from one of four fountains there, kneeling at the edge of the fountain to drink. One day he hears a voice telling him to “not assimilate thyself to a dog”. It was the voice of the merchant who had sold him the swords, Giaour. Giaour cures his thirst with a potion and the two men return to Samarah. Vathek returns to immersing himself in the pleasures of the flesh, and begins to fear that Giaour, who is now popular at Court, will seduce one of his wives. Vathek makes a fool of himself trying to out-drink Giaour, and to out-eat him, when he sits upon the throne to administer justice, he does so haphazardly. His prime vizier rescues him from disgrace by whispering that Carathis had read a message in the stars foretelling a great evil to befall Vathek and his vizir Morakanabad; the vizier informs Vathek that Carathis advises him to ask Giaour about the drugs he used in the potion, lest that be a poison. When Vathek confronts him, Giaour only laughs, so Vathek gets angry and kicks him. Giaour is transformed into a ball and Vathek compels everyone in the palace to kick it, even the resistant Carathis and Morakanabad. Then Vathek has the whole town kick the ball-shaped merchant into a remote valley. Vathek stays in the area and eventually hears Giaour's voice telling him that if he will worship Giaour and the jinns of the earth, and renounce the teachings of Islam, he will bring Vathek to “the palace of the subterrain fire” (22) where Soliman Ben Daoud controls the talismans that rule over the world.
Vathek agrees, and proceeds with the ritual that Giaour demands: to sacrifice fifty of the city's children. In return, Vathek will receive a key of great power. Vathek holds a "competition" among the children of the nobles of Samarah, declaring that the winners will receive "endless favors." As the children approach Vathek for the competition, he throws them inside an ebony portal to be sacrificed. Once this is finished, Giaour makes the portal disappear. The Samaran citizens see Vathek alone and accuse him of having sacrificed their children to Giaour, and form a mob to kill Vathek. Carathis pleads with Morakanabad to help save Vathek's life; the vizier complies, and calms the crowd down.
Vathek wonders when his reward will come, and Carathis says that he must fulfill his end of the pact and sacrifice to the Jinn of the earth. Carathis helps him prepare the sacrifice: she and her son climb to the top of the tower and mix oils to create an explosion of light. The people, presuming that the tower is on fire, rush up the stairs to save Vathek from being burnt to death. Instead, Carathis sacrifices them to the Jinn. Carathis performs another ritual and learns that for Vathek to claim his reward, he must go to Istakhar.
Vathek goes away with his wives and servants, leaving the city in the care of Morakanabad and Carathis. A week after he leaves, his caravan is attacked by carnivorous animals. The soldiers panic and accidentally set the area on fire; Vathek and his wives must flee. Still, they continue on their way. They reach steep mountains where the Islamic dwarves dwell. They invite Vathek to rest with them, possibly in the hopes of converting him back to Islam. Vathek sees a message his mother left for him: “Beware of old doctors and their puny messengers of but one cubit high: distrust their pious frauds; and, instead of eating their melons, impale on a spit the bearers of them. Should thou be so fool as to visit them, the portal to the subterranean place will shut in thy face” (53). Vathek becomes angry and claims that he has followed Giaour’s instructions long enough. He stays with the dwarves, meets their Emir, named Fakreddin, and Emir's beautiful daughter Nouronihar.
Vathek wants to marry her, but she is already promised to her effeminate cousin Gulchenrouz, whom she loves and who loves her back. Vathek thinks she should be with a "real" man and arranges for Bababalouk to kidnap Gulchenrouz. The Emir, finding of the attempted seduction, asks Vathek to kill him, as he has seen “the prophet’s vice-regent violate the laws of hospitality." But Nouronihar prevents Vathek from killing her father and Gulchenrouz escapes. The Emir and his servants then meet and they develop a plan to safeguard Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz, by drugging them and place them in a hidden valley by a lake where Vathek cannot find them. The plan succeeds temporarily – the two are drugged, brought to the valley, and convinced on their awakening that they have died and are in purgatory. Nouronihar, however, grows curious about her surroundings and ascends to find out what lies beyond the valley. There she meets Vathek, who is mourning for her supposed death. Both realise that her 'death' has been a sham. Vathek then orders Nouronihar to marry him, she abandons Gulchenrouz, and the Emir abandons hope.
Meanwhile, in Samarah, Carathis can discover no news of her son from reading the stars. She conjures the spirits of a graveyard to perform a spell that makes her appear in front of Vathek, who is bathing with Nouronihar. She tells him he is wasting his time with Nouronihar and has broken one of the rules of Giaour's contract. She asks him to drown Nouronihar, but Vathek refuses, because he intends to make her his Queen. Carathis then decides to sacrifice Gulchenrouz, but before she can catch him, Gulchenrouz jumps into the arms of a Genie who protects him. That night, Carathis hears that Motavakel, Vathek's brother, is planning to lead a revolt against Morakanabad. Carathis tells Vathek that he has distinguished himself by breaking the laws of hospitality by ‘seducing’ the Emir’s daughter after sharing his bread, and that if he can commit one more crime along the way he shall enter Soliman’s gates triumphant.
Vathek continues on his journey, reaches Rocnabad, and degrades and humiliates its citizens for his own pleasure.
A Genie asks Mohammed for permission to try to save Vathek from his eternal damnation. He takes the form of a saintly shepherd who plays the flute to make men realise their sins. The shepherd asks Vathek if he is done sinning, warns Vathek about Eblis, ruler of Hell, and asks Vathek to return home, destroy his tower, disown Carathis, and preach Islam. He has until a set moment to decide yes or no. Vathek's pride wins out, and he tells the shepherd that he will continue on his quest for power, and values his mother more than life itself or God's mercy. The moment is past, and the shepherd screams and vanishes. Vathek's servants desert him; Nouronihar becomes immensely prideful.
Finally, Vathek reaches Istakhar, where he finds more swords with writing on them, which says "Thou hast violated the conditions of my parchment, and deserve to be sent back, but in favour to thy companion, and as the meed for what thou hast done to obtain it, Eblis permitted that the portal of this place will receive thee” (108). Giaour opens the gates with a golden key, and Vathek and Nouronihar step through into a place of gold where Genies of both sexes dance lasciviously. Giaour leads them to Eblis, who tells them that they may enjoy whatever his empire holds. Vathek asks to be taken to the talismans that govern the world. There, Soliman tells Vathek that he had once been a great king, but was seduced by a Jinn and received the power to make everyone in the world do his bidding. But because of this, Soliman is destined to suffer in hell for a finite tho vast period – until the waterfall he is sitting beside, stops. This eventual end to his punishment is due to his piety in the earlier part of his reign. The other inmates must suffer the fire in their hearts for all eternity. Vathek asks Giaour to release him, saying he will relinquish all he was offered, but Giaour refuses. He tells Vathek to enjoy his omnipotence while it lasts, for in a few days he will be tormented.
Vathek and Nouronihar become increasingly discontented with the palace of flames. Vathek orders an Ifreet to fetch Carathis from the castle. While the Ifreet is bringing Carathis, Vathek meets some people who are,like him, awaiting the execution of their own sentences of eternal suffering. Three relate to Vathek how they got to Eblis' domain. (these narratives were, until restored to their intended place in the novel, in the 1971 Ballantine edition, lost until 1909, discovered by Lewis Melville. They were then published in a separate book in 1912 .)When Carathis arrives, he warns her of what happens to those who enter Eblis' domain, but Carathis takes the talismans of earthly power from Soliman regardless. She gathers the Jinns and tries to overthrow one of the Solimans, but Eblis decrees "It is time." Carathis, Vathek, Nouronihar, and the other denizens of hell lose "the most precious gift granted by heaven – HOPE" (119). They begin to feel eternal remorse for their crimes, their hearts burning with literal eternal fire.
“Such was, and should be, the punishment of unrestrained passion and atrocious deeds! Such shall be the chastisement of that blind curiosity, which would transgress those bounds the wisdom the Creator has prescribed to human knowledge; and such the dreadful disappointment of that restless ambition, which, aiming at discoveries reserved for beings of a supernatural order, perceives not, through its infatuated pride, that the condition of man upon earth is to be – humble and ignorant.”
- Vathek’s mother. She is a Greek woman who is well versed in science, astrology, and occult magic. She teaches all of her skills to Vathek, and convinces him to embark on his quest for power which eventually leads to his damnation. When arriving in hell, Carathis runs amok, exploring the palace, discovering its hidden secrets, and even tries to stage a rebellion. However, once her own punishment is enacted, she too loses all hope and is consumed by her guilt.
- Ninth Caliph of the Abassides, who ascended to the throne at an early age. His figure was pleasing and majestic, but when angry, his eyes became so terrible that “the wretch on whom it was fixed instantly fell backwards and sometimes expired” (1). He was addicted to women and pleasures of the flesh, so he ordered five palaces to be built: the five palaces of the senses. Although he was an eccentric man, learned in the ways of science, physics, and astrology, he loved his people. His main greed, however, was thirst for knowledge. He wanted to know everything. This is what led him on the road to damnation.
- His name means blasphemer and infidel. He claims to be an Indian merchant, but in actuality he is a Jinn who works for the arch-demon Eblis. He guides Vathek and gives him instructions on how to reach the palace of fire.
- Emir Fakreddin
- Vathek’s host during his travels. He offers Vathek a place to stay and rest. He is deeply religious. Vathek betrays his hospitality by seducing his daughter.
- The Emir’s daughter, a beautiful girl who is promised to Gulchenrouz, but is seduced by Vathek and joins him in his road to damnation.
- A beautiful young man with feminine features. He is the Emir’s nephew. Due to his innocence, he is rescued from Carathis's hands and is allowed to live in eternal youth in a palace above the clouds.
- Head of Vathek's eunuchs. He is cunning and acts as a steward on Vathek's journey.
- Vathek's loyal and unsuspecting vizier.
- The Emir's head eunuch who serves as a caretaker for Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz.
- Vathek's favourite.
In Islamic mythology, the Djinn (Jinn) are fiery spirits. The djinn are creatures who lived on earth before man; they were made up of 'smokeless fire'.
Khalif (Caliph in Vathek) (from Arabic خلافة khilāfa) is the head of state in a Caliphate, and the title for the leader of the Islamic Ummah, or global Islamic nation. It is a transliterated version of the Arabic word خليفة Khalīfah which means "successor" or "representative." The early leaders of the Muslim nation following Muhammad's (570–632) death were called "Khalifat ar-rasul Allah," meaning political successor.
Iblīs (Eblis in Vathek) (Arabic إبليس) or Shayṭān (or, Shaitan) (Arabic: شيطان) (plural: شياطين Shayatin), is name given to the primary devil in Islam. He appears more often referred in the Qur'an as the Shayṭān, a general purpose term used to refer to all of the evil spirits in alliance with Iblīs, but which is often used to refer to just Iblīs. Iblīs was a Jinn, a creature made of 'smokeless fire' by God (like humans are made of 'clay'). In an outburst rooted in envy, Iblīs disobeyed Allah and was expelled from the grace of Allah. He was later sent to earth along with Adam and Eve after having lured them into eating fruit from the forbidden tree, although in this role he is always referred to as ash-shayṭān.
Bilqis (Balkis in Vathek) (Hebrew: מלכת שבא, Malkat Shva; Ge'ez: ንግሥተ ሳባ, Nigist Saba; (ማክዳ mākidā); Arabic: ملكة سبأ, Malikat Sabaʾ) was the woman who ruled the ancient kingdom of Sheba and is referred to in Habeshan history, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur'an. She is mentioned (unnamed) in the Bible in the Books of Kings and Book of Chronicles as a great queen who seeks out Solomon to learn if the tales of his wisdom are true. She is also mentioned in Jewish legends as a queen with a great love for learning, in African tales as “the queen of Egypt and Ethiopia”, and in Muslim tradition as Balkis, a great queen of a nation that worshiped the sun who later converted to Salomon's god. The Roman historian Josephus calls her Nicaule. She is thought to have been born on 5 January, sometime in the 10th century BC.
Literary significance and criticism
George Gordon, Lord Byron cited Vathek as a source for his poem, The Giaour. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Byron also calls Vathek "England's wealthiest son." Other Romantic poets wrote works with a Middle-Eastern setting inspired by Vathek, included Robert Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and Thomas Moore's Lalla-Rookh (1817). John Keats's vision of the Underworld in Endymion (1818) is indebted to the novel.
H. P. Lovecraft also cited Vathek as the inspiration for his never-finished novel Azathoth. Vathek is also believed to have been a model for Lovecraft's completed novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
American Fantasy author Clark Ashton Smith greatly admired "Vathek". Smith later wrote "The Third Episode of Vathek", the completion of a fragment by Beckford that was entitled "The Story of the Princess Zulkaïs and the Prince Kalilah". "The Third Episode of Vathek" was published in Robert H. Barlow's fanzine Leaves in 1937, and later in Smith's 1960 collection The Abominations of Yondo.
Vathek has been well received by historians of the fantasy genre; Les Daniels stated Vathek was "a unique and delightful book". Daniels argued Vathek had little in common with the other "Gothic" novels; "Beckford's luxuriant imagery and sly humour create a mood totally antithetical to that suggested by the grey castles and black deeds of medieval Europe". Franz Rottensteiner calls the novel "a marvellous story, the creation of an erratic but powerful imagination, which brilliantly evokes the mystery and wonder associated with the Orient" and Brian Stableford has praised the work as the "classic novel Vathek-a feverish and gleefully perverse decadent/Arabian fantasy". 
Allusions/references to other works
Argentinian writer Eduardo Berti's short story "El traductor apresurado" ("The Hurried Translator", published in 2002 on "La vida imposible") strongly alludes to Beckford's novel.
Vathek's insatiable thirst for knowledge also parallels the attitude seen in the character of Dr. Faustus, in Christopher Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus".
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