Granada: Tales of The Alhambra
Famous North-American writer, historian and foreign ambassador, Washington Irving was born of an English mother and a Scottish father, immigrants into the United States. Irving was born in Manhattan, New York, on 3rd April, 1783, his mother naming him Washington in honour of President George Washington.
Washington Irving is probably better known for ‘The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman’ (1819-1820), a collection of ‘sketches’ or short stories including the celebrated ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’.
He is also well-known for his historical work, namely ‘The History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty’ (1809) and also for ‘The Life of Washington’ (1859) a study of the life of the American president, George Washington, (Irving’s namesake but also for whom he had felt the greatest admiration.
Although a prolific writer of differing styles, Irving was a master ‘raconteur’ and it is those skills which he so well employs in his famous ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ published in 1832.
He writes as if he were leading us blindfold by the hand around the palace and paying great attention to detail, realising that we thirst for every small crumb he throws us, however insignificant it may seem. He literally paints the picture of the Alhambra for us with his pen. Yet also paints the atmosphere, his own feelings and emotions, the fragrance of the gardens and the play of light upon the tiles.
Irving's literary style is exquisite. His use of grammar is beautifully precise and he takes the utmost of care to describe and express his impressions in impeccable language, in the literary style in use in the 19th Century. It has been largely due to 18th and 19th Century writers such as Irving that the impression of Spain as exotic, and the Spanish as passionate, impulsive and emotional had become extended throughout Europe and the Americas and is still largely maintained to this day.
Writer, historian and diplomat.
The magnificent Alhambra Palace
The Catholic Kings
If you were there, you would be captivated by its magnificent grandeur and yet also by its subtle beauty!
If you have already been there, then words cannot re-create, in true measure, what you already know!
The Alhambra (From the Arabic ‘Al- Hamra’, meaning ‘The Red One’) was built between 1333 and 1391 by the Nasserite rulers: Yusuf I and Mohammed V. It is located in the city of Granada, in the Andalusian region of southern Spain.
Andalusia takes it name from the Moorish term Al-Andalusi.
The Alhambra is a medieval fortress and palace; constructed towards the end of the Moorish occupancy which lasted from 711-1492
It is considered one of the jewels of Andalusian architecture, a legacy from the Moorish occupation of Al-Andalusi, the southern-most region of Spain.
The Alhambra was constructed to protect the people of Granada from the attacking armies of the Catholic Kings, Isabel of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragón.
A room with a view
Tales of the Alhambra
What we find in this book is an account of his journey, in 1829.
It is a detailed description of the city of Granada, with its warm, friendly people, a precise description of the different chambers and halls of the palace and all this lavishly peppered with elaborated legends told to him by the inhabitants of the area during balmy evenings on the palace grounds.
For Washington Irving had the great honour of being invited to actually occupy some chambers in the palace itself, thanks to his already important reputation in literary and diplomatic circles.
In evidence of this, a commemorative plaque is visible above the door stating the writer wrote ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ in those rooms in 1829.
The wonderful mêlée of fact and fiction makes the line between reality and fantasy become so blurred that you feel as if the fantasy were true or that the factual content of his work may be simply part of the beautiful legends he creates so well.
See for yourself
A delightful experience
Ricardo Villa-Real in the edition: The World’s Classics (Miguel Sánchez, Ed) 1976 said as way of introduction:
“In it [the book] we find a highly romantic outlook, all coloured atmosphere, together with acutely observed, first-hand impressions, full of subtlety, humour and feeling”.
As we read ‘The Tales of the Alhambra’ we find Irving wandering from chamber to chamber around the palace, pausing to describe the architecture and decoration in exquisite detail, and then relaying the legend associated with that particular room or area as told to him by his trusty guide, Mateo.
For example, as he is walking into the Lions’ courtyard, he is surprised to meet a "turbaned Moor, quietly seated near the fountain". He then goes on to tell the Moor’s version of the fall of Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada, to fall at the mercy of the Catholic Kings, Isabella and Ferdinand. Yet this is not just a passing comment. Irving shows here his complete understanding and historian’s appreciation of the fall of Granada into the hands of the Christians, as he slips easily from the myths, legends, beauty of the palace to exacting historical fact and in my opinion, this is where his great skill lies. This is what makes the book a truly delightful experience for the reader.
But then I have seen it and I know what he means!
Irving underlines, throughout the book, his attraction to the Spanish culture and his ‘disposition’ to love it.
“We set our journey with a genuine disposition to be pleased. With such a disposition, what a country is Spain for a traveller, where the most miserable inn is as full of adventure as an enchanted castle, and every meal is in itself an achievement” from ‘The Journey’ at the beginning of the book.
Irving shows his predisposition for the love of the country on describing a simple stream they encounter on their journey “a stream famous for yielding gold and its sands are still sifted in search of the precious ore.” introducing the theme of treasure, beauty, and even intrigue, expressing his desire for adventure and the unexpected
books and calendars
Biographies about Washington Irving
The famous KNICKERBOCKER, Life of Washington Irving, (the writer)by Andrew Burstein
Humour in his writings
In the chapter of ‘The Legend of the Arabian Astrologer’, he describes in few words the Sultan’s first sighting of a Christian princess, daughter of a Gothic prince in most eloquent language; “Pearls of dazzling whiteness were entwined within her raven tresses and jewels sparkled on her forehead, rivalling the lustre of her eyes”.
As an example of the humour which pervades Irving’s writing is the anecdote recounted in ‘The Truant’: A male pigeon had escaped the hands of Dolores, one of the real servant girls in the Alhambra, and after describing humorously how the pigeon stays away all day and only returns when in need of food, not out of pity for his mistress who has spent the whole day pining for him, he writes “I had observed, however, that she had taken care to clip his wings, to prevent all further soarings, a precaution which I mention for the benefit of all those who have truant husbands or wandering husbands. More than one valuable moral might be drawn from the story of Dolores and her pigeon.
In concluding I will once more take recourse in Irving’s introductory preface to ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ as how can I compete with such turn of phrase or eloquence? He invites you to read on with “The following papers are the result of my reveries and researches during that delicious thraldom. If they have the power of imparting any of the witching charms of the place to the imagination of the reader, he will not repine at the lingering with me for a season in the legendary halls of the Alhambra.”
if you enjoyed this little taste of 'Tales of The Alhambra,' please let me know by leaving a comment below. If you have read 'Tales of the Alhambra' please give me your opinion of this most wonderful piece of literature.
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