Tales of the AlhambraTales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To the traveler imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, so inseparably intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, the Alhambra is as much an object of devotion as is the Caaba to all true Moslems.

The name “Washington Irving” has haunted me since I was a boy. I went to a school named after him. We visited his beautiful house, Sunnyside, on a field trip. The house where I grew up is just 500 feet from Irving’s grave in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—quite a modest grave. My high school football team were the Headless Horsemen.

So imagine how it felt, after moving across an ocean, to see the name “Washington Irving” hanging above a door in the Alhambra: “Washington Irving wrote in this room his Tales of the Alhambra.” It was as if some circuit had been closed, some cycle had been completed. I’d spent the previous week racing through the book in preparation for my visit. And now, here I was, face to face with the same literary giant who hung over my childhood, who had also managed to cast his spell over this magnificent palace.

That’s my tale; what of the book?

The Tales of the Alhambra is something of a hodgepodge. It begins as a travelogue and ends as a collection of fables. In 1829, Irving travelled from Seville to Granada, apparently out of simple curiosity. Once he arrived, he fell under the enchanting influence of the Alhambra, and ended up residing there for several months. At the time, the Alhambra was in a sorry state. Several centuries of vandalism and neglect had reduced it to a ruin, and dozens of poor squatters were its only residents.
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Probably its derelict condition added to the romantic wonder with which Irving beheld it. The book is written in a high-flown, almost mystical tone, with fact and fantasy blended into a vibrant fabric. His own observations and experiences are interspersed with historical sketches and old legends, which he purports to have learned from the residents. The final impression is of supernatural beauty. If you’ve seen the Alhambra, this is forgivable; it’s hard to exaggerate its splendor.

As Warwick points out, Irving is most fascinated with the Moors of Spain. The fact that a people with enough culture and power to create the Alhambra could totally vanish beguiles him. Who were they? How did they live? His vigorous imagination fills in the continent-sized gaps in his knowledge, allowing his fancy to run rampant. It’s obvious that he considers the lost civilization of the Moors to be a kind of forgotten paradise; he has nothing but praise for the nobility and sophistication of Spain’s erstwhile inhabitants.

While he stayed there, he grasped at whatever trace of this civilization remained, in architecture, history, and in the people. Irving does his best to convince himself and the reader that the monumental dignity of the Moors of Spain can be seen still in the Spanish peasants of Andalusia. He praises these people almost as highly as their predecessors, saying “with all their faults, and they are many, the Spaniards, even at the present day, are, on many point, the most high-minded and proud-spirited people of Europe.”

The book is enjoyable in short doses but gets tiresome in big chunks. Irving’s tone, though compelling, is monotonous. You can only tolerate breathless wonder for so long without craving something else. His stories, too, are quite repetitive. Hidden treasures, enchanted warriors, princesses in castles, forbidden love between Christians and Muslims—these make an appearance in nearly every tale.

Still, this book is well worth reading, not only because Irving is a skillful and charming writer, but also because it’s a window into the cultural history of the Alhambra, how it has been interpreted and understood by Western writers. For me, of course, this book has a personal significance that extends beyond the boundaries of its pages. Irving’s stories may not have been real, but his name is real enough, which for me has taken on the semblance of a ghost.

As for you, I hope you too get a chance to read this book, and to visit 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, flourished, and passed away.”

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