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Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson

“The Full History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia”, which is usually abbreviated to “Rasselas”, was the only novel written by Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84). He claimed that he wrote it in order to raise funds to meet the costs of his mother’s funeral in 1759.

Johnson had achieved fame by publishing his “Dictionary of the English Language” in 1755, but Rasselas is a very different kind of work.

It tells the story of a pampered prince who lives in the “happy valley” where all his physical needs are catered for but leaves him secluded from the outside world. However, he is dissatisfied with his lack of knowledge and escapes from the valley together with his sister, with a view to finding true happiness.

As a novel, Rasselas hardly counts as great literature, but Johnson was not a great storyteller, and the story is not the most important element of the book. It should instead be seen a parable – in the sense that John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” is a parable – and a peg on which Johnson could hang his thoughts and moral reflections about a wide range of topics.

 

Prince Rasselas engages in a number of lengthy conversations in which he discourses on matters including learning, reason, getting old, power, desire, madness and solitude. The views he expresses can be taken as some of those with which Samuel Johnson agrees or takes issue.

Apart from the famous dictionary, Dr Johnson is best known to us through the work of his friend and companion James Boswell, whom he first met in 1763. In his biography of Johnson (1791), and his well-known “Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides” (1785), Boswell recounted many conversations with Johnson in which the latter produced a large number of observations – including barbed and caustic remarks – that are often quoted even today. These have enabled us to form a view of this fascinating character.

However, the Johnson that emerged via the pen of Boswell had already been partly revealed many years earlier through Johnson’s own work, namely his “pot boiler” novel Rasselas.

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