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Oriental Tales

The changing dynamic of British imperial culture in the late Romantic period is succinctly expressed in Lord Byron's Oriental Tales. A world traveler, Byron met his end fighting for Greek independence from Turkey. While Byron was a connoisseur of cultures, his audience, in large part, was comprised of the citizens of European metropolitan centers where his work was available in print. Byron challenged this audience's preconceptions with his writing, referring often to foreign cultures in what he called "some samples of the finest Orientalism".

The most appreciated of Byron's "samples" is his poem "The Giaour." Composed of fragments written from different perspectives, the poem tells of the Giaour (a Christian called by the local pejorative for "infidel" or "foreigner") fights against Hassan, an example of traditional Islamic culture. The subject of contention between the two is the affection of a young woman, who is unfortunately drowned by Hassan upon his discovery of her infidelity with the Giaour. Despite its obviously patriarchal and Eurocentric slant, "The Giaour" is notable in that it exposes British audiences to the values of a wildly different culture, and presents those values in a way in which the Giaour himself is a sort of interloper into an established system.

Byron's other "Oriental Tales" include "The Bride of Abydos," and "The Corsair." Certain Cantos of Don Juan also specifically include the protagonist's embroilment in the politics of a Turkish harem. Most important to these "Oriental" tales, though, is that Byron's encounter with radical alterity was grounded in a desire to experience and faithfully represent the other, rather than judge its validity or worth.

Jody Dunville






Select Bibliography

Kelsall, Malcolm. "'Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee': Byron's Venice and Oriental Empire." in
     Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire 1780-1830.
Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson, eds.
     New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.