The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

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Rasselas Prince of Abissinia
Rasselas Cover.jpg
Cover of corrected Second Edition of 1759
Author Samuel Johnson
Original title The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Apologue, Theodicy, Fable
Publisher R. and J. Dodsley, W. Johnston
Publication date
April 1759
Media type Print

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, originally titled The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale, though often abbreviated to Rasselas, is an apologue about happiness by Samuel Johnson. The book's original working title was "The Choice of Life".[1] He wrote the piece in only one week to help pay the costs of his mother's funeral, intending to complete it on 22 January 1759 (the eve of his mother's death).[1] The book was first published in April 1759 in England. Johnson is believed to have received a total of £75 for the copyright. The first American edition followed in 1768. The title page of this edition carried a quotation, inserted by the publisher Robert Bell, from La Rochefoucauld: "The labour or Exercise of the Body, freeth Man from the Pains of the Mind; and this constitutes the Happiness of the Poor".[1]

Johnson was influenced by the vogue for exotic locations. He had translated A Voyage to Abyssinia by Jerónimo Lobo in 1735 and used it as the basis for a "philosophical romance".[2] Ten years prior to writing Rasselas he published "The Vanity of Human Wishes" in which he describes the inevitable defeat of worldly ambition. Early readers considered Rasselas to be a work of philosophical and practical importance and critics often remark on the difficulty of classifying it as a novel.[1] Johnson was a staunch opponent of slavery, revered by abolitionists, and Rasselas became a name adopted by emancipated slaves.[1]


While the story is thematically similar to Candide by Voltaire, also published early in 1759 – both concern young men travelling in the company of honoured teachers, encountering and examining human suffering in an attempt to determine the root of happiness – their root concerns are distinctly different. Voltaire was very directly satirising the widely read philosophical work by Gottfried Leibniz, particularly the Theodicee, in which Leibniz asserts that the world, no matter how we may perceive it, is necessarily the "best of all possible worlds". In contrast the question Rasselas confronts most directly is whether or not humanity is essentially capable of attaining happiness. Writing as a devout Christian, Johnson makes through his characters no blanket attacks on the viability of a religious response to this question, as Voltaire does, and while the story is in places light and humorous, it is not a piece of satire, as is Candide.


The plot is simple in the extreme. Rasselas, son of the King of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), is shut up in a beautiful valley, "till the order of succession should call him to the throne".[3] He grows weary of the factitious entertainments of the place, and after much brooding escapes with his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah and his poet-friend Imlac. They are to see the world and search for happiness, but after some sojourn in Egypt, where they encounter various classes of society and undergo a few mild adventures, they perceive the futility of their search and abruptly return to Abyssinia.[4]

Local color is almost nonexistent and episodic elements, e.g. the story of Imlac and that of the mad astronomer, abound. There is little of incident, no love-making, with few endeavours to charm the fancy, and with but slight recognition of the claims of sentiment.[4]


Irvin Ehrenpreis sees an aged Johnson reflecting on lost youth in the character of Rasselas who is exiled from Happy Valley. Rasselas' has also been viewed as a reflection of Johnson's melancholia projected on to the wider world, particularly at the time of his mother's death. Hester Piozzi saw in part Johnson in the character of Imlac who is rejected in his courtship by a class-conscious social superior.[1] Thomas Keymer sees beyond the conventional roman à clef interpretations to call it a work that reflects the wider geo-political world in the year of publication (1759): the year in which "Britain became master of the world".[1] Rasselas is seen to express hostility to the rising imperialism of his day and to reject stereotypical "orientalist" viewpoints that justified colonialism. Johnson himself was regarded as a prophet who opposed imperialism, who described the Anglo-French war for America as a dispute between two thieves over the proceeds of a robbery.[1] Although many have argued that the book Rasselas had nothing to do with Abyssinia, and that Samuel Johnson chose Abyssinia as a locale for no other reason than wanting to write an anti-orientalist fantasy, some have begun to argue that the book has a deep tie to Ethiopian thought due to Johnson's translation of A Voyage to Abyssinia and his lifelong interest in its Christianity.[5] Other scholars have argued that Johnson was influenced, at least in part, by other texts, including works by Herodotus [6] and Paradise Lost.[7][8]

Radio adaptation[edit]

A radio adaptation of Rasselas by Jonathan Holloway was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 24 May 2015,[9][10] with Ashley Zhangazha as Rasselas, Jeff Rawle as Samuel Johnson and Lucian Msamati as the poet Imlac. Cynthia Erivo made her BBC radio drama debut as Princess Nekayah.

The drama was recorded at Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square, in the City of London,[11] where Johnson compiled his famous dictionary, A Dictionary of the English Language, and then in January 1759, wrote his instant bestseller Rasselas. Sound design was by David Chilton, and the drama was introduced by Celine Luppo McDaid, Curator, Dr Johnson’s House.[12] It was produced and directed by Amber Barnfather.




Rasselas was a popular jumping-off point for continuations in the latter 18th century:[13]


Rasselas is mentioned numerous times in later notable literature:

  • Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen – Fanny Price refers to Dr. Johnson's celebrated judgment when she is comparing Mansfield Park and Portsmouth.
  • Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë – Helen Burns reads it.
  • Cranford (1851) by Elizabeth Gaskell – Captain Brown (who is reading 'The Pickwick Papers') denigrates Rasselas, thus offending Miss Jenkyns (who is a great admirer of Johnson).
  • The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne – Rasselas is read by Hepzibah Pyncheon.
  • The Mill on the Floss (1860) by George Eliot – Maggie reads it.
  • Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott – the book is dropped on the floor by Jo March as she talks to Mr Laurence about his Grandson Laurie's prank.
  • Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot – the book is enjoyed by Lydgate as a child, along with Gulliver's Travels, the dictionary, and the Bible.
  • Rasselas was read by explorer Henry Stanley when he was a young man recently released from a Victorian workhouse, working as a school teacher in Wales. This is recorded in Tim Jeal's biography Stanley – The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer.
  • The Mountains of Rasselas by Thomas Pakenham – The title of Pakhenham's account of exploring Ethiopia to find the original royal mountaintop royal prisons alludes to Johnson's work. Pakenham explicitly mentions Johnson's work in this book.
  • Sirak Heruy, son of Ethiopian intellectual Heruy Welde Sellase, translated Rasselas into Amharic, one of the major languages of Ethiopia. (Published in 1946/47.)[15]
  • C.S. Lewis mentions Rasselas in a footnote to the second of his Riddell Memorial lectures on values and natural law, later published as The Abolition of Man: "Let us hope that Rasselas, chap. 22, gives the right picture of what [Dr. C. H. Waddington's] philosophy amounts to in action. ('The philosopher, supposing the rest vanquished, rose up and departed with the air of a man that had co-operated with the present system.')"[16]
  • Rasselas is mentioned significantly in two of Ursula Dubosarsky's novels – Zizzy Zing and Abyssinia.[17]
  • In The Book of Sequels by Henry Beard, Christopher Cerf, Sarah Durkee, and Sean Kelly, "Wrassle-Ass" appears in a section called "Adult Sequels".

The description of the Happy Valley is very similar to the poem "Kubla Kahn" written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge around a century later.


The community of Rasselas, Pennsylvania, located in Elk County, was named after Rasselas Wilcox Brown, whose father, Isaac Brown, Jr., was fond of Johnson's story.[18]

A Vale (or Valley) named after Rasselas is located in Tasmania within the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park Latitude (DMS): 42° 34' 60 S Longitude (DMS): 146° 19' 60 E.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Samuel Johnson's message to America" at the Wayback Machine (archived June 16, 2011), Thomas Keymer, edited version of intro to Oxford World's Classic edition of Rasselas pub June 2009, Times Literary Supplement 25 March 2009
  2. ^ Quote attributed to John Robert Moore in Edward Tomarken's Johnson, Rasselas, and the Critics, pg. 20.
  3. ^ Johnson 1819, p. 2.
  4. ^ a b Trent 1920.
  5. ^ Wendy Laura Belcher, Abyssinia's Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. See also Ghazi Q. Nassir, “A History and Criticism of Samuel Johnson’s Oriental Tales” (PhD diss., Florida State University, 1989).
  6. ^ James A. Arieti, “A Herodotean Source for Rasselas, Ch. 6,” Notes and Queries 28, no. 3 (June 1981): 241
  7. ^ Christine Rees, “Rasselas: A Rewriting of Paradise Lost?” in Johnson’s Milton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 58–81
  8. ^ See Earl R. Wasserman, “Johnson’s Rasselas: Implicit Contexts,” JEGP 74 (1975): 1–25; Gwin J. Kolb, “Johnson’s ‘Dissertation on Flying’ and John Wilkins’ ‘Mathematical Magick,’ ” Modern Philology 47.1 (August 1949): 24–31; Geoffrey Tillotson, “Rasselas and the Persian Tales,” in Essays in Criticism and Research (Cambridge U Press, 1942), 111–116; Arthur J. Weitzman, “More Light on Rasselas: The Background of the Egyptian Episodes,” Philological Quarterly 48 (January 1969): 44–58; Stephan Gray, “Johnson’s Use of Some Myths in Rasselas,” Standpunte 38, no. 2 (1985): 16–23.
  9. ^ Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia – BBC Radio 4 – 24 May 2015
  10. ^ When Dr Johnson went to Tahrir Square, Kate Chisholm, The Spectator, 30 May 2015
  11. ^ Dr Johnson's House
  12. ^ Big Questions and Pearls of Wisdom to be Found in Rasselas, Celine Luppo McDaid, Curator, Dr Johnson’s House
  13. ^ Richard, Jessica (2003-10-01). "'I Am Equally Weary of Confinement': Women Writers and Rasselas from Dinarbas to Jane Eyre". Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 22 (2): 336–337. doi:10.2307/20059156. JSTOR 20059156. 
  14. ^ a b Johnson, Samuel (2008). Richard, Jessica, ed. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Broadview Press. p. 176. ISBN 9781770480582. 
  15. ^ Zewde, Bahru (2002), Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia, Oxford: James Currey, p. 87 
  16. ^ Lewis, C.S. (1943), "Chapter 2:The Way", The Abolition of Man, Oxford University Press, retrieved July 2013  — Retrieved from The Columbia University Augustine Club.
  17. ^ , Ursula Dubosarsky Check |url= value (help),, retrieved July 2013 [not in citation given]
  18. ^ Brown, Issac Brownell (1922), Genealogy of Rasselas Wilcox Brown and Mary Potter Brownell Brown, their descendants and ancestral lines, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Evangelical Publishing Co., p. 13 
  19. ^ LINC Tasmania staff, Rasselas Valley (Photograph) State Library of Tasmania, LINC Tasmania, retrieved July 2009  External link in |publisher= (help)


External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]