Irving's dreamlike description of the Alhambra, the beautiful Moorish castle that defined the height of Moorish civilization, and the surrounding territory of Granada remains one of the best guidebooks to the region and one of the most entertaining travelogues ever written. A heady mix of historical fact, medieval myth and mystery, sensual descriptions, and an appreciation for a civilization which valued beauty, philosophy, literature, science and the arts on an equal level with warrior skills. Secret chambers, desperate battles, imprisoned princesses, palace ghosts and fragrant gardens, described in a wistful and dreamlike eloquence will transport the listener to a paradise of his own.
Before enchanting the reader with tales of love, treasure, knights and princesses, Irving presents a nuanced picture of the country, the city, its people and the palace (in its then sorry state). The tales are a wonderful amalgam of Christian morality, Arab lore and local mysteries. Sometimes. a tale's resolution is too prolonged for modern readers, partially compensated by its charming vignettes.
This edition, printed in Spain, includes a complementing set of gorgeous photographs of the Alhambra. Future editions might benefit from a map of the Alhambra for convenience.
Although he was still recovering from the death of his fiancee and his brother's failures, at age 35 Irving was traveling, with delicate health, and no doubt reflecting on a fairly colorless life so far. I cannot help but imagine this trip is what awakened his literary imagination.
His interest in the gentle spaces of Arabic architecture was timely: Orientalism was sweeping Europe -- Hugo was publishing his ORIENTALES. Coleridge wrote The CONQUEST OF GRANADA. __ wrote his classic INTO TUNISIA. Maupassant loved the people and place of Turkey [qv Short Stories 460], and broadcast his affections in many short and long stories. (I mention these other writers because it is such a craven myth to claim that "the West" is ignorant of "the East", when, for 200 years the greatest writers and travelers of the West have been publishing detailed observations which reflect a continuing and meaningful interest in all that Arab culture offers the world.) This work, the ALHAMBRA, is Irving's contribution to the great interest of Europe and America in the Moor, the Middle East, and Arab culture.
The author describes the halls and chambers, and the views. He relates the lore and legends, and takes us on a walk in the adjacent and storied hills. The bulk of the book is devoted to the fabled inhabitants -- highlighting their characters for whom he has obvious affection. For example, the Arabian astrologer, the three princesses, the legendary Arabian prince of love, and the legacies of the Moors. By the time of his visit, the seamless grace of life in Spain was well-met with his need to rediscover his own humanity and connection to history; as do we all.
The second layer was a wistfulness for the past, a wishing for a simpler time, a fairytale othertime when things were simpler and less fraught by modern issues. The illustrations, by Theaker and nameless others, were sweet but didn't always mesh all that well with the text.
The third layer is as a historian, the occasional judgements on people and in particular women, show the attitudes of Irving himself up, and his time, which was also interesting, if occasionally jarring.
Overall it's an interesting collection of stories, worth reading, evocative of both a time that never was and Irving's own desires.
Tales of the Alhambra is a loose collection of legends about the palace and essays by Irving on his experience of living in it. I found two main themes in the legends narrated by Irving, hidden Moorish treasure and forbidden love between the Muslim Moors and the Christian Spaniards. Some of the author's reflections are revealing and his description of the beautiful Palacios Nazaries is precise but the overall perspective is excessively romantic. A worthy read if you are planning to travel to Granada and the Alhambra, not otherwise.
contemplate this once favourite abode of Oriental manners without feeling the early associations of Arabian romance, and almost expecting to see the white arm of some mysterious princess beckoning from the balcony or some dark eye sparkling through the lattice. The abode of beauty is here, as if it had been inhabited but yesterday…
Crucial to this ‘Moslem elysium’ is the fact that it's in ruins (otherwise, presumably, he'd have been writing about contemporary Islamic cities). The crumbling stonework and chipped stucco allow Irving to view the Alhambra as a potent symbol of ‘that mutability which is the irrevocable lot of man and all his works’.
Such is the Alhambra—a Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land, an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West, an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people who conquered, ruled and passed away.
The stories Irving tells are a mixture of traveller's anecdotes about the Spaniards he encountered during his stay at the Alhambra, and legends about the palace's original Moorish inhabitants. Robert Irwin, in The Alhambra, suspects that many of the former were fabricated in the service of Irving's grandstanding, but the latter are quite interesting if you like fairy-stories and folklore as a genre. Most of them involve djinns, spectral warriors, sequestered princesses and that sort of thing, and in these crypto-mythical tales Irving's rather over-egged prose style is shown to its best effect.
If an imagined and mostly fictional Moorish past is one subject of the book, ‘present-day’ Spain, as the site of this glorious history, is a close second. Thanks to its lost Muslim overlords, Spanish culture and people, Irving suggests, ‘have something of the Arabian character’ to them. Consequently, as one of his fantastic characters relates,
all Spain is a country under the power of enchantment. There is not a mountain cave, not a lonely watch-tower in the plains nor ruined castle on the hills, but has some spellbound warriors sleeping from age to age within its vaults, until the sins are expiated for which Allah permitted the dominion to pass for a time out of the hands of the faithful.
This is quite good fun if you like this sort of thing (I do), but it is probably of minor interest to those who are not planning a visit to the actual place themselves. This particular edition is one of at least three that are sold in gift-shops within the Alhambra grounds; it's clearly been converted from a Spanish edition, as there are several odd typos and all the speech is given in guillemets. The editorial notes do not inspire confidence (on the first page, Scottish artist David Wilkie is glossed as an ‘English painter’), but then again, I found in a weird way that it added to the pleasingly alien effect of the whole ensemble.