QUAINT #16 Vathek: An Arabian Tale by William Beckford

Vathek was created by William Beckford and appeared in Vathek: An Arabian Tale from an Unpublished Manuscript, with Notes Critical and Explanatory (1786). Beckford (1760-1844) was one of English literature’s real oddities. He lived a life of scandal and extravagance, both financial and sexual, and even in the 21st century his name retains the faint air of scandal. But more important than Beckford’s personal life is the fact that he wrote Vathek, one of the greatest of all Gothic novels.

Vathek, the grandson of Haroun al-Raschid, is the Caliph of Samarah. He is dedicated to sensual pleasure and has built five palaces, one for the enjoyment of each sense. Vathek has a “pleasing and majestic” figure, and a keen intellect. When angered his glance can kill. He has an enormous amount of determination and is willing to sacrifice much for his goals. But he is magnificently dissolute and addicted to pleasure, sensuality, and new sensations. He is enormously self-centered and considers the lives of others small prices to pay for his own happiness and the achievement of his goals. He is unable to resist temptation, and his own “unquiet and impetuous disposition” will not allow him to be content with the wealth and comfort he already has.

Vathek builds a mighty tower to better pursue his interest in astrology and to penetrate the secrets of Heaven, and Mahomet Himself sends genii to help Vathek, but the tower only shows Vathek how much he enjoys looking down on humanity from the its summit. But one day an intensely ugly creature arrives at Vathek’s court bearing wondrous objects, knives that cut without the hand being moved and sabers which harm those who the wielder wished harmed. The stranger does not speak to Vathek, so the hot-tempered Vathek has him imprisoned, only to find him vanished the next morning and his guards slain.

Vathek then discovers that the sabers have words engraved on them in a language that cannot be deciphered. When Vathek does find someone who can translate the words for him, the words themselves change by the following day. Vathek is plunged into despair by this and is unable to enjoy anything, and he vacations in the mountains to reawaken his passion for life. In the mountains the stranger, the Giaour, speaks to Vathek again and then feeds him a potion, which makes Vathek happy. But following a feast in Samarah Vathek demands the ingredients to the potion, which Giaour won’t give, so Vathek begins kicking Giaour. Giaour folds himself into a great ball and bounces out of the city and into the mountains and then into a great valley. From the depths of the valley, next to a great door of ebony, Giaour speaks to Vathek and tells him that he will only be able to open the door if he sacrifices fifty souls to Giaour.

After much maneuvering Vathek manages to do this, sending fifty of the best young children of Samarah over the edge of the cliff to Giaour. Carathis, Vathek’s formidable mother, carries out a series of magical rites, and Vathek receives a parchment which tells him to make a pilgrimage to Istakhar, where he will receive many wonders. Vathek and his entourage begin the pilgrimage.

"Vathek and The Giaour" a painting by 19th-century artist Richard Westall.

On the way they meet the Emir Fakreddin, and Vathek falls in love with Fakreddin’s daughter, Nouronihar. Fakreddin places difficulties in Vathek’s way, but he overcomes them, and Nouronihar eventually yields to Vathek’s woo-pitching and becomes his favorite. She accompanies him on the pilgrimage and begins to share Vathek’s ambitions and becomes as unscrupulous as he. The pair eventually reach Istakhar and, despite one last attempt by the genies of heaven to save their souls, Vathek and Nouronihar enter the palace of Eblis, the lord of the underworld. He gives Vathek and Nouronihar free access to everything, including the conscious bodies of the pre-Adamite kings, but the joy of Vathek and Nouronihar is destroyed when Giaour tells them that they only have a few days before their hearts will be permanently set on fire. And after feeling the pangs of imminent, eternal torment, they begin to suffer them.

Vathek is of great importance to the development of the Gothic genre and is of lesser importance to 19th century horror fiction. Along with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto Vathek was the most influential of the Gothics written before Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk. Although few post-Beckford Gothics were overtly influenced by the Arabian Nights atmosphere of Vathek, many Gothic novels took from Vathek (as they did from The Castle of Otranto) the demonic quest, the Hero-Villain, Vathek’s killing glance, and the imagery of underground confinement and enclosure.

Vathek provided an additional element which Otranto lacked: the depiction of a universe in which the Devil and the lure of temptation and evil are stronger than God in the lives of men. If Vathek has elements of the 18th century’s Neo-Classicism, especially in its moralistic ending and satire, the novel is nonetheless far more of a Gothic, in themes and motifs if not in content, and should be considered a 19th century novel. Vathek was originally written in French, but it is usually described as English literature because of Beckford’s nationality. But the novel’s Arabian Nights setting is derived from French literature rather than English literature. The Arabian Nights was more important in French letters than in English letters. French authors created original works, albeit ones heavily influenced by The Arabian Nights, while English authors generally used the The Arabian Nights setting as the backdrop for didactic and philosophical essays.

Illustration from a 19th-century French edition of Vathek

By the time Beckford wrote Vathek, the Arabian Fantasy had become a cliché for the English-reading audience, in much the same way that the Gothic had become a cliché by the time Charles Maturin wrote Melmoth the Wanderer. But just as Maturin wrote the greatest of the Gothics only after the form had ossified, so did Beckford write the greatest of the Arabian Fantasies only after his audience viewed the genre as trite and jejune. After Vathek Arabian Fantasy-inflected stories appeared in verse form rather than in prose, as in Water Savage Landor’s Gebir (1798) and Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Vathek is the best of the English-language Arabian Fantasies. But unlike most of the other imitations of Galland’s translation, Vathek is more than just a pallid copy of The Thousand and One Nights. Consciously or not Beckford included autobiographical material in the novel, as his contemporaries recognized. Carathis, Vathek’s ruthless, powerful, and formidable mother, is an analogue for Beckford’s mother; Nouronihar, who goes from sweetness and innocence to sharing Vathek’s lust and merciless drive for power, is based on Louisa Beckford, William’s cousin and mistress; Gulchenrouz, Nouronihar’s childlike cousin, her betrothed, and the only character to go to Heaven in Vathek, is based on Beckford’s lover William “Kitty” Courtenay; and Vathek is based on Beckford himself.

Vathek is Beckford’s attempt to tell a Faustian story in the spirit and tone of the Arabian Fantasies. It is a strange story, Vathek, not really a novel so much as an Arabian Nightsstyle fable, with a tone veering between horror, wonder, and an often cruel, sardonic comedy. (In H.P. Lovecraft’s words, “the laughter is that of skeletons feasting under arabesque domes”). Vathek is certainly Faustian in its message of a descent into evil due to the dangers of unwise curiosity and a lack of resistance to temptation, but Vathek also indulges in the decadence of the Arabian Fantasies. Moreover, Beckford works hard to evoke what can only be called the “sense of wonder” so beloved of readers of Golden Age science fiction. By piling fantastic (in the literal sense) marvels on top of each other and following vivid images of magic with horrifying images of evil, Beckford invests Vathek with a feel of both the outré and the fabulous. Unlike previous Gothics, which relied on atmosphere and suggestion for the creation of horror and terror, Beckford is specific in his descriptions. Early Gothic writers frighten by implication; Beckford frightens by what he says and describes.

Vathek himself is a prototypical version of the aforementioned Hero-Villain. But Vathek is also a transitional character between the Doctor Faustus character type and the Hero-Villain character. The character of Faustus/Faust did not disappear after Vathek, of course; while the first great version of Faust was Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (from the 1604 play Doctor Faustus), and the character was familiar to European audiences when Beckford wrote Vathek, the second great version of Faust, in Goethe’s Faust, Eine Tragoedie (Faust: A Tragedy, 1808-1832) had not yet appeared when Vathek was written. By the end of the 19th century Faust had finished his final evolution, into the figure of the Mad Scientist/Seeker After Forbidden Knowledge so familiar from Frankenstein and the many works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Vathek’s significance as a transitional character between Faustus and the Hero-Villain was his suggestion of a new, Faustian direction for the Hero-Villain. The Hero-Villain figure properly began in the Gothics with Walpole’s Manfred, but Vathek adds the Faustian aspect of negotiation with dark figures which will appear again in Ambrosio and Melmoth, among others.

He is far too proud for his own good and is unwilling to take advice even from the genii who warn him that he is about to damn himself:

Whoever thou art, withhold thy useless admonitions: thou wouldst either delude me, or art thyself deceived. If what I have done be so criminal as thou pretendest, there remains not for me a moment of grace. I have traversed a sea of blood to acquire a power which will make thy equals tremble; deem not that I shall retire when in view of the port, or that I will relinquish her who is dearer to me than either my life or thy mercy. Let the sun appear! let him illume my career! it matters not where it may end.

These are the Gothic version of famous last words.

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2 responses to “QUAINT #16 Vathek: An Arabian Tale by William Beckford

  1. Great post.Thanks.

  2. Pingback: QUAINT #18 Roots of the Yellow Peril, Part I | Beyond Victoriana