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Johnson, Samuel

Entry updated 7 November 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1709-1784) UK poet, critic, playwright, lexicographer and author of one novel, The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale (1759; rev 1759; vt The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia: An Asiatic Tale 1768; vt The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia: A Tale 1787), written to pay for his mother's funeral (he got £100 – a large sum – for the first printing). The profusion of vts above comes from our normal practice of citing title pages, which may seem to confirm the belief that the book did not originally bear its protagonist's name, and indeed the pirated American edition of 1768 was the first to name Rasselas on its title page; but in fact the heading of the first page of text of every edition published in Johnson's lifetime reads: "The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia". For convenience and recognizability Johnson's tale is referred to elsewhere in this encyclopedia as simply Rasselas (1759).

Combining elements of the French conte, the Oriental fantasy and the Fantastic Voyage, the tale is of particular interest to the student of Proto SF for its sustained meditation on the nature of and chances of obtaining human happiness (see also Utopias; Dystopias). The initial setting of the tale is a secret "happy valley" (italics in the original), an imprisoning Polder [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], a Prison in which the offspring of Abyssinian royalty are sequestered, but from which Rasselas hopes to escape in a primitive Airship (in the event it fails – Johnson's spirit was inimical to unsustained flights of fancy); also featured is an astronomer who believes himself responsible for Weather Control. The book is an archetypal example of the important sf theme of Conceptual Breakthrough. The most attractive twentieth-century critical edition was edited in 1927 by R W Chapman; a useful recent critical edition was edited in 1971 by Geoffrey Tillotson and Brian Jenkins. For details see Checklist.

Johnson himself appears in John Buchan's Midwinter: Certain Travellers in Old England (1923), where he refuses the chthonic Amos Midwinter's offer to guide him into an indiscoverable, supernally "daedal" Old England at "nurse with Gaea" (see Gaia). [JC/PN]

see also: Astronomy.

Samuel Johnson

born Lichfield, Staffordshire: 18 September 1709 [7 September 1709 old calendar]

died London: 13 December 1784



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