The Glass Walking Stick



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THE TRADITION OF TOLEDO


1926

ONE of the first impressions created by a visit to Spain, in, any person with any historical imagination, is the sense of a world that runs round the Mediterranean rather than of three separate worlds which the sea divides. It is, I suppose, what the old world meant by talking of the round or circle of the lands. The point is that a man might sail from port to port round the whole of that inland sea and find something at least linking all those places together. If he pierced further into the various continents he would doubtless find things very different: very different if he plunged into what we call the African forests; very different if he set out on what we call the Asiatic plains. But a great deal that we imagine to be Asiatic in Lebanon, or African in Algiers, is really of the mixed central civilization, and at least as much European as the more Moorish parts of Spain. I think it is because people see this when they are not expecting it that they can make nothing of it and their descriptions are so unconvincing and conventional. For when people see what they do not understand they do not even believe what they see.

Thus Toledo looked to me much more like Jerusalem than Jerusalem ever looked like most of the pictures of it. It has a wall crowning a hill whose steep sides have an indefinable look of a ruin and even a rubbish-heap. It is in the sort of country that is spotted with hardy olives or striped with hardy vines. It has that look that we never know in the rich rain and deep grasses of our northern islands — the look of vegetation being an exception. It is a green object and not merely a green background. For we owe our green fields to our grey clouds; and perhaps do not thank them often enough for it. In those splendid Spanish ruins a man feels immediately that he is within a circle or radius of something that lay to the south, and that the same radius also touched Jerusalem at the ends of the earth.

It is not easy to define what that circle is. Those unduly discontented with the grey clouds may be inclined to say that it is simply the circle of the sun. But I am inclined to think it is also the circle of a culture and a historical tradition, which touches all these places though it varies from place to place. There is something in common between those opposite ends of the earth, or at least of the sea. The Crusaders have been in Jerusalem; the Moors have been in Toledo. But the conventional conception that cut up the world into four quarters in the old style does not look for such a similarity. It does not expect it; it cannot be expected to expect it. It expects Jerusalem to be only an Asiatic bazaar like Baghdad or even Bombay. It expects Toledo to be concentrated on Toledo swords like Sheffield on Sheffield cutlery. In many ways Toledo is very like a sword, steely and of a stern sort of chivalry; but it is warmed from the south; it is in the circle of the sun.

I know it is customary to talk about the Moorish influence, as if what is really the Mediterranean influence was always a Moslem influence. This I believe to be a complete mistake. The indefinable connexion that links a town like Toledo to a town like Jerusalem existed long before Mahomet was born. It remained essentially a Christian connexion long after Mahomet’s religion had first swept over these places and at last retreated from them. We may call it, if we like, the Roman influence, though even that is insufficient. We may connect it with our own view of the Christian unity, though that will naturally be a matter of dispute. But whatever it is, it did not come out of the desert with the dry negations of a desert creed. It did not plant all those vineyards with the veto of Islam upon wine. It did not carve all those images with the veto of Islam upon statues. It did not find the chivalric devotion to the lady by looking for it in the harem, or all the legends of the Mother and the Holy Child from the arid Arabian dogma of the isolation of God.

The tradition for which Toledo still lifts its riven crown of roofs and battlements may have been stirred to life by movements out in the East, or mingled to advantage with strange and remote things; it may have gained as well as given something in its contact with the Arab conquerors of Africa; but it is certain, if anything is certain, that when that spirit of Spain and of Western Christianity was touched to new life, it was in the form of its own life that it unfolded and to the height of its own destiny that it rose again; and Islam did not make a new world in such places, but only awakened a world that was asleep. That world is now very wide awake; and if the cathedral of Toledo was not merely modelled on a mosque even when the world was swept by the Moslem, it is now even less likely that featureless mosques will be the only churches of the future.







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