Faraway Places

by James Como (April 2020)

Hall of the Ambassadors, Alhambra, Granada, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, 1909




Some went off to sea in ships, plied their trade on the deep waters. They saw the works of the Lord, the wonders of God in the deep.                                              —Ps 107.23-24


Many readers know the rest of the story, that even though it ends well— “the waves of the sea were stilled” —it was rough-going until then. And these were no tourists. One of my oldest and dearest friends is also among the most intelligent people I’ve ever known, and widely read. Yet, though he has taught me much, he also baffles me. “I have no interest in travel—don’t see the point of it,” he once declared. I’m certain he knows Psalm 107, but risk would not faze this man. And he is not complaining about not getting bang for the buck. It’s simply that, for him, there is no bang ‘there’.


On the other hand, I have always felt the allure of strange places. Even before discovering Narnia (dispositive) I was at home in Burroughs’ Pellucidar and Pal-ul-Don. I couldn’t wait to dive into Alice’s rabbit hole, cross the mountain pass into Shangri-la, meet Jansson’s Moomins, and eventually travel (many times) with Odysseus. No, I did not want to visit Kafka’s castle or Abbott’s Flatland or even Oz (though that remains borderline), but I wouldn’t mind touring the great heap that is Gormenghast, or pricking upon the plain with the Red Cross Knight, or spending a century or so in Helprin’s Kingdom Far and Clear.


Read more in New English Review:
Weaponized Words
An Esoteric Take on The Big Lebowski
COVID-19, Iran, and the Middle East
The Coronavirus Calamity: Shutdown. Reboot!


And we have our books, for example The Book of the Marvels of the World, better known as The Travels of Marco Polo (1298-1299), actually a collaboration between the explorer and the writer, and cellmate in Genoa, Rustichello da Pisa. The book soon existed in six versions, corresponding to different languages and dialects (e.g. Franco-Venetian, Old French, Latin). But what matters, I think, is that it was at first mocked as “the book of a million lies,” a play on Marco’s nickname ‘Emilione’, but subsequently substantiated—largely, that is. Marco was relentlessly attentive and curious. “The [great ladies of Badashan] all wear drawers made of cotton cloth,, and into the making of these some will put . . . even 100 ells of stuff . . . to make themselves look large in the hips, for the men . . . think that to be a great beauty in a woman.” He would live and serve as a foreign emissary for nearly two decades in the court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis.


These days the great Jan Morris (now in her nineties) has taken us around—and into—the world all by herself. (See her exemplary The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country, 1985, as close to an actual visit as any book I know). And our enormous travel bibliography is the more expansive for its letters, more often than not engaging—sometimes portentous.


Somewhere near Fiji

November 15 (?), 1913


Dear Eddie . . . you think of me in a loin cloth, brown and wild in the fair chocolate arms of a Tahitian beauty . . . reclining beneath a breadfruit tree, on white sand . . . and strange beautiful fish darting . . . Oh, Eddie, it’s all true about the South Seas . . . heaven on earth, he ideal life, little work, dancing and singing and eating, naked people of incredible    loveliness, perfect manners, and immense kindliness . . . and intoxicating beauty of scenery. . . . The Samoan girls have incredibly beautiful bodies and walk like goddesses. . .

Thy, Rupert

(Brooke, d.1915, Gallipoli)



Very different is this, which I find almost useless. Phillips Brooks, “Late Bishop of Massachusetts,” wrote Letters of Travel. Reporting on two year-long trips (1865-66, 1882-83), they were published in 1893. Included are letters from dozens of places, (e.g. Nazareth, Berlin, Florence), and this, from the Alhambra:


Well, I know the Alhambra, the Alhambra is my friend, and, believe me, Delhi, you are no Alhambra, which I confidently assert even though I have never been to India.


Granada. “I’ve fallen under your spell. If you could speak, what a fascinating tale you could tell.” No. no, not that. This:


                   Granada, tierra soñada por mí,

                   Mi cantar se vuelve gitano

                   Cuando es para ti.

                   Mi cantar hecho de fantasía,

                   Mi cantar flor de melancolía

                   Que yo te vengo a dar.


Such a spell was unknown to most of the Muslim empires (the plural matters) stretching from Kabul to the Pyrenees. Aesthetic allure did not seem to matter to the greatest conqueror, utterly indiscriminate in his slaughter of Muslim and infidel alike: the late-fourteenth century Tumir, who loved Samarkand “as an old man loves a young mistress.” His prowess was unmatched. With his lameness he would become Tamburlaine the Great. But he cast no spell. That special allure is from Al Andaluz. There the glorious caliphate of Cordoba ended in 1031, but the regional aesthetic would flourish in Granada and Sevilla, where that caliphate gave us the Alhambra, the magnificent palace that gave us Washington Irving’s enchanting Tales of the Alhambra 1832).


a royal palace and warrior castle, capable of containing . . . forty thousand men, but possessing also its harem, the voluptuous abode of the Moorish monarch, laid out with courts and gardens, fountains and baths, and stately halls decorated in the most costly style of Oriental luxury . . . Such was its splendor that even at the present day the stranger, wandering through its silent courts and deserted halls, gazes with astonishment at gilded ceilings and fretted domes, the brilliancy and beauty of which have survived the vicissitudes of war and the silent dilapidation of ages.


My own memories are of coolness and the purity of the long shallow pool stretching the length of the patio of the arrayanes (myrtle), the delicate complexity of the arches and architraves, and the vista below—a quite beautiful, but lower, domain.


While there, nearly fifty years ago, I read many of the Tales. The first six chapters—all chapters are leisurely—are historical and descriptive. The seventh introduces us to “The Inhabitants of the Alhambra,” which begins,


I have often observed that the more proudly a mansion has been tenanted in the day of its prosperity, the humbler are its inhabitants in the day of its decline, and that the palace of a king commonly ends in it being the nestling-place of the beggar.


Read more in New English Review:
The Story of the De Le Warr Pavilion
For Tomorrow We Die
The Archaeology of Living Rooms


. . . if you’re an adult. In graduate school I accompanied Sir John Mandeville on his Travels (c.1356 and a sensation). I read the prologue, in which the author listed the places he had visited (from Chaldea to Amazonia), adding “where dwell many divers folks of divers manners and laws and of divers shapes of men.” That was enough for me: I dove in directly, in medias res. I had not read the scholarly introduction or any of the notes, so did not know—though I very soon learned—that the whole of it is a hoax, from “Hippocrates’ Daughter,” to “Polombe” (the well of which restores both health and youth), on to the “Anthropophagi and Men Whose Heads Do Grow Beneath Their Shoulders.” But close before that was “The Earth Is Round” (intended as another hoax?), telling how “a worthy man departed once from our countries . . . He had gone so long by land and by sea that he had encircled all the earth, so that . . . going around, he had come again unto his own frontiers.”


Of all the travel writers, always with the exception of Irving, I prefer the fantasist Mandeville, who first gave momentum to modern travel literature. So I will sit with Sir John, even as I continue to wander through the Tales, for, as it happens, there will be, for us, no Parador de Granada, right there inside the Alhambra, at least not for the duration.


«Previous Article Home Page Next Article»



James Como is the author of The Tongue is Also a Fire: Essays on Conversation, Rhetoric and the Transmission of Culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015). His most recent books are C. S. Lewis: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2019) and The Folk Tales of Brusco and Giovanni, in three books (KDP, 2020).

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast