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Title page of the first French edition by Vathek , Isaac Hignou & Compe, Lausanne 1787
German first edition, Zeitler, Leipzig 1907

Vathek (also Vathek, an Arabic short story or The Story of the Caliph Vathek ) is a horror novel by William Beckford . It was initially written in French in 1782 and then translated into English by a Beckford collaborator, the clergyman Samuel Henley , and finally in 1786 without Beckford's name as An Arab History, From an unpublished manuscript , claiming it was straight from Arabic translated, published. The first French version, just titled as Vathek , was published in December 1786 (post-dated 1787). In the 20th century, some versions included The Episodes of the Vathek (Vathek et ses épisodes) , three related stories that Beckford wanted to incorporate, but which were not included in the original version and were published long after his death.


Vathek benefited from the obsession with all things of the Orient (see also Orientalism in Art ), which was influenced by Antoine Galland's translation of the Arabian Nights . Beckford was also influenced by similar works by the French writer Voltaire . Its originality was based on the combination of oriental elements with the Gothic style of Horace Walpoles The Castle of Otranto (1764). The result is, alongside Walpole's novel and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), in the first ranks of the early horror novel.


William Beckford wrote Vathek in French in 1782 at the age of 21. He often said that Vathek was written as an emotional response to "the events that took place at Fonthill on Christmas 1781" when he was preparing a lavish oriental-inspired meal at his posh country estate with the assistance of the respected theater painter Philip James de Loutherbourg . Beckford later stated that it only took him two to three days and their nights to write the book.

Vathek was written at a time when part of European culture was influenced by orientalism. It is dubbed an Arabic story because of the oriental characters, the setting and the representation of oriental societies, myths and cultures. Vathek is also to be viewed as a horror novel based on its emphasis on the supernatural, spirits and souls and the horror it tries to evoke in readers.

The title character is inspired by Al-Wāthiq bi-'llāh ( Arabic الواثق), an Abbasid caliph who ruled from 842 to 847 (227–232 in the Islamic calendar ), had a great desire for knowledge and was a patron of scholars and artists has been. A number of revolts broke out during his reign. He took an active role in ending those revolts.

The Vathek narrative uses a semi-invasive, omniscient narrator in the third person . While the narrator is not omniscient in the sense of “he knows what the characters feel” (he hardly talks about feelings), he is aware of all events in all places. The narrator is not intervening in telling readers what to feel, but intervening by guiding readers from scene to scene, such as when the narrative focuses on Guchenrouz and the narrator says, “But let us return to the caliphate and you who rule his heart. ”The narrative often consists of lists that record one incident at a time, with no emphasis on character development. These and other incidents are often introduced abruptly, such as Vathek's brother and successor Motavakel, who was based on Al-Mutawakkil (821-861) and ruled Samarra from 847 to 861.


Vathek, the ninth Abbasid caliph, ascends the throne at a young age. He is a majestic figure with a tendency towards outbursts of anger. Numerous buildings are dedicated to his entertainment. He has an immense need for knowledge and often invites scholars to exchange ideas.

A presumptuous stranger arrives in the city claiming he is from India to sell valuable goods. The stranger sells Vathek sabers with luminous letters. Vathek tries in vain to have a conversation with the stranger, whereupon he throws him into a prison.

In order to find out the meaning of the letters, Vathek calls in a number of scholars, but all of them fail to translate. However, an old man is able to translate the message, which suggests that where the sabers came from, there may be more treasure. The next day the meaning changes and says that calamity will befall mortals who seek knowledge which is not due to them and who do what is beyond their abilities. The old man flees before Vathek can punish him.

Vathek is overcome by an insatiable thirst that often leads him to a high mountain with four wells. One day he hears the voice of the trader who sold him the sabers and he gives Vathek a drink that quenches his thirst.

Vathek and his mother Carathis consult the planets , etching by AH Torriere

During a meal in the palace , Vathek's vizier Morkanabad sends a message from Vathek's mother Carathis: Vathek is supposed to ask the trader about the effects of the drink, possibly because it was poisoned. When Vathek questions the dealer, he just laughs and turns into a ball. Vathek sends the ball across town and lets everyone kick it until it is kicked into an alley. There he explains to Vathek that he can get to the Palace of the Underground Fire, where Soliman Ben Daoud controls the talismans that rule the world. To do this, he must turn away from Islam and worship the trader and the jinns .

Vathek agrees, and at the merchant's request, he sacrifices 50 of the town's children in a ritual by promising them endless favors in order to obtain a powerful key. The children disappear into a portal that the dealer closes after the last child. Vathek survived the street mob that followed and performed another ritual. In another ritual, Carathis learns that Vathek has to go to Istahkar (Istachr) to receive his reward.

On his journey he meets Nouronihar and together with her he travels to Istahkar to meet his fate.


Carathis : Vathek's mother. She is a Greek woman who is well versed in science, astrology, and occult magic . She teaches Vathek all her skills and convinces him to seek power.

Vathek : Ninth Abbasid Caliph. A majestic figure whose eyes turn vicious when angry. He is addicted to women and physical pleasure, which is why he has five palaces for the senses built for himself. He is an eccentric man and educated in science, physics, and astrology.

Giaour : His name means blasphemous or unbeliever. He claims to be an Indian trader but is really a jinn. He runs Vathek and gives him instructions on how to find the Fire Palace.

Emir Fakreddin : Vathek's innkeeper during his travels, a deeply religious person. He is Nouronihar's father.

Nouronihar : Emir's daughter, a beautiful girl who was promised to Gulchenrouz, but who is seduced by Vathek.

Gulchenrouz : a handsome young man with a feminine face. He is Emir's nephew.

Bababalouk : Head of Vathek's eunuchs . He is cunning and serves Vathek on his travels.

Morakanabad : Vathek's loyal vizier.

Sutlememe : Head of the Emir's eunuchs who takes care of Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz.


Web links

Commons : Vathek  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Donald H. Tuck : The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 1974, ISBN 0-911682-20-1 , pp. 35 .
  2. George Watson: The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature . Ed .: Cambridge University Press. tape 2 , 1971, ISBN 0-521-07934-9 , pp. 1969 .
  3. ^ Richard Daniel Altick: The Shows of London . Harvard University Press, 1978, ISBN 0-674-80731-6 ( ).