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Monday, July 7, 2014

Samuel Johnson on the Transcendent Power of Friendship

Friendship & Fellowship in Lichfield, England
Samuel Johnson's hometown

In Samuel Johnson's story The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Imlac, Rasselas, and Nekayah have traveled to the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. When Pekuah pleads for them not to enter, Nekayah could have ordered her servant to accompany them. Instead, her heart softens, and allows the frightened woman to remain outside. Then she follows Imlac and Rasselas inside the pyramid. 

While the men muse on what prompted the ancient rulers to build a feat of engineering comparable only to the Great Wall of China, Nekayah studies the sarcophagi, and all the other features of the richly furnished galleries. She tries to store away all the marvels she has seen, so she can tell Pekuah all about them later.

She and the men leave the Great Pyramid, and find the tents in disarray. A servant tells them that during their exploration, a group of Arabs arrived, “seized the Lady Pekuah with her two maids, and carried them away.” The Arabs might have taken the entire party, had it not been for a party of Turks who were chasing them. The servant advises them that all they can do now is wait, and hope the Turks return with the Lady Pekuah and her maids. But the Turks do not return with Pekuah, and so after awhile the party returns to Cairo, where Rasselas makes inquiries, petitions the Bassa (an Egyptian governor), and hires people to discover Pekuah’s location.

Nekayah, meanwhile, sinks into gloom that her favorite companion is gone. She blames herself for her kindness in allowing Pekuah to remain outside the pyramid. She spends her days reliving all the good times she spent with her servant, and clutches those memories to her heart. She loses interest in Cairo, and nothing that occurs in their household seems as enjoyable as what happened when Pekuah was with her. After two months have passed, she announces that she wishes to shut herself away, and join a convent. Imlac and Rasselas convince her to wait a year before she makes such a monumental decision, but she only agrees if the two pledge to continue their inquiries, and pursue any reasonable means of finding her.

Rasselas and Imlac continue paying informants and private investigators, and after seven months they learn that Pekuah is being held by an Arab chief in an Egyptian castle. Nekayah doesn't flinch at the large ransom the Arab demands, and by this time, the men know better than to deny her this. So Imlac and Rasselas arrange for her release, and take strategic precautions to ensure that the Arab chief holding her neither swindles nor captures them during the handoff. 

In addition to his famous dictionary, Samuel Johnson wrote nonfiction books and newspaper articles. For two years, he even sold a biweekly periodical called "The Rambler" directly through newsagents, in which he addressed issues and topics that concerned the rising middle-class of the 18th Century. Some critics view The History of Rasselas, The Prince of Abyssinia, as a condensed version of the latter, cloaked in a thin fictional veil. At times, the story certainly leans toward the didactic, and some might argue that reading it is pointless, as we know that there is no perfect place or situation that can grant any person a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. But I enjoyed Johnson's story, and my favorite part of it was seeing how much Nekayah loved her servant Pekuah, as well as the lengths Imlac and Rasselas went to secure her release.

Truly, friendship knows no bounds, regardless of how often we differentiate ourselves based on race, religion, politics, behavior, or other such important factors.

Dragon Dave

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