Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Legend of the Enchanted Soldier

Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra

The Fortress of the Alhambra, Granada, 1836, oil on canvas by Scottish artist David Roberts (1796–1864). Wikimedia Commons.
After spending two years in Madrid, Washington Irving went on a tour of southern Spain with two Russian diplomats he had befriended. His novelistic biography A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus had just been published, and he intended to visit locations essential to the follow-up book, Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada. The dusty roads of Andalusia were notorious for its robbers, so the three travelers ended up hiring escorts who were themselves alleged to be former ladrones. In March 1818 he wrote to Antoinette Bollviller, the niece of the Russian minister in Spain, and complained, “I am now so surrounded by dirt and villainy of all kinds that I am almost ashamed to dispatch a letter to your pure hands from so scoundrel a place.”

But Irving’s attitude changed when the party came within view of the Alhambra. “Granada, bellissima Granada! think what must have been our delight, when, after passing the famous bridge of Pinos, . . . we turned a promontory of the arid mountains of Elvira, and Granada, with its towers, its Alhambra, and its snowy mountains, burst upon our sight,” he wrote. “The evening sun shone gloriously upon its red towers as we approached it, and gave a mellow tone to the rich scenery of the vega. It was like the magic glow which poetry and romance have shed over this enchanting place.” He spent a full day exploring the dilapidated towers of the fortress “in quest of the portal by which the unfortunate King Boabdil sallied forth” after surrendering Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. According to legend, the gate had been walled up ever since, and Irving found it with the help of nearby residents, who seemed to have only a vague idea of its whereabouts. The Bāb al-Ghudūr, or Gate of the Wells, later known as the Gate of the Seven Floors, was indeed impassable—because of rubble from its destruction by Napoleon’s retreating troops in 1812.

In Irving’s letter to Bollviller, one can detect the new book forming in his mind:
For several days past we have been incessantly occupied traversing the city and its environs; but the Alhambra and Generalife have most excited our enthusiasm. The more I contemplate these places the more my admiration is awakened of the elegant habits and delicate taste of the Moorish monarchs. . . .

. . . I received from my poor devil guide many most curious particulars of the superstitions which circulate among the poor people inhabiting the Alhambra respecting its old, mouldering towers. I have noted down these amusing little anecdotes, and he has promised to furnish me with others. They generally relate to the Moors and the treasures they have buried in the Alhambra, and the apparitions of their troubled spirits about the towers and ruins where their gold lies hidden. When I have more time and paper, I may recount you some of these traditions, as I know you have a great relish for the marvellous.
The “poor devil guide” was seventeen-year-old Mateo Ximenez (Jiménez), whose family had made the Alhambra their home for generations, and he would assume a starring role in the book that emerged from Irving’s travels. Not only did this young helpmate attend to Irving during his visits to the fortress, he and his social circle relayed some of the local lore, which Irving would blend with his readings from Spanish sources and transform into “legends.”

The group spent ten days in the environs of Granada before moving on to the other cities in Andalusia. The following year, Irving made a first stab at drafting material for a book; he noted in his diary on January 3 that he wrote part of the “Story of the Enchanted Soldier of the Alhambra,” although four days later he indicated that he finished it “in a lame way.” He completed a second story before putting the project aside until May, when Irving returned to the Alhambra with another of the Russian diplomats, Prince Dimitri Dolgorukov. The prince would depart after a few days, but Irving established himself on the grounds and gathered additional material until the end of July, when he received the unexpected news that Secretary of State Martin Van Buren had appointed him as secretary of legation at the American embassy in England. The book was ultimately written in fits and starts during his tenure as a diplomat in London.

When The Alhambra—part travel sketches, part local tales—finally appeared in 1832, neither he nor his publishers anticipated either its immediate success or its enduring appeal. Yet the first edition bears only a partial resemblance to the collection published in dozens of editions and translations for the last 170 years. “The Legend of the Enchanted Soldier,” for example, did not even appear in the 1832 edition; Irving was apparently unable to shape that first tale into satisfactory form. Two decades later, Irving reviewed his notes from both his visits, rearranged the contents, expanded and revised several of the existing pieces, and added new material. The expanded edition of The Alhambra appeared in 1851 as the final book of the fifteen-volume Works of Washington Irving, which would sell an astonishing 350,000 copies. What had been a random assortment of sketches and tales became a far more thematically coherent travelogue, and the new collection included a publication-worthy version of “The Enchanted Soldier,” which became a staple of secondary school textbooks by the end of the century. The historian Richard L. Kagan, in his recent book The Spanish Craze, concludes that the international success of The Alhambra in both its forms almost singlehandedly replaced “the prevalent Anglo-American view of Spain as a dark, sinister, almost gothic country ruled by tyrannical monarchs and fanatical priests” with an image of a sunny land that was “charming, hospitable, and, most important, relentlessly romantic and picturesque.”

Notes: Carvajal is an old town on the main road from Malaga to Cadiz. According to legend, the architect Trophonius was swallowed into the earth after asking the gods to reward him for building Apollo's temple at Delphi, and thereafter he gave oracles in a cave at Lebadea. The seventeenth-century German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher published works on hieroglyphics, archaeology, biology, physics, math, and Asian languages.

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Every body has heard of the Cave of St. Cyprian at Salamanca, where in old times judicial astronomy, necromancy, chiromancy, and other dark and damnable arts were secretly taught by an ancient sacristan; or, as some will have it, by the devil himself, in that disguise. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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