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HISTORICAL, CRITICAL, AND EXPLANATORY,
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ALMANZOR AND ALMAHIDE:
CONQUEST OF GRANADA
—Major rerum mihi nascitur ordo;
Majus opus moveo.
THE CONQUEST OF GRANADA.
This play,—for the two parts only constitute an entire drama betwixt them,—seems to have been a favourite with Dryden, as well as with the public. In the Essay upon Heroic Plays, as well as in the dedication, the character of Almanzor is dwelt upon with that degree of complacency which an author experiences in analyzing a successful effort of his genius. Unquestionably the gross improbability of a hero, by his single arm, turning the tide of battle as he lists, did not appear so shocking in the age of Dryden, as in ours. There is no doubt, that, while personal strength and prowess were of more consequence than military skill and conduct, the feats of a single man were sometimes sufficient to determine the fate of an engagement, more especially when exerted by a knight, sheathed in complete mail, against the heartless and half-armed mass, which constituted the feudal infantry. Those, who have perused Barbour's History of Robert Bruce, Geoffrey de Vinsauf's account of the wars of Richard Cœur de Lion, or even the battles detailed by Froissart and Joinville, are familiar with instances of breaches defended, and battles decided, by the prowess of a single arm. The leader of a feudal army was expected by his followers not only to point out the path to victory but to lead the way in person. It is true, that the military art had been changed in this particular long before the days of Dryden. Complete armour was generally laid aside; fire-arms had superseded the use of the lance and battle-axe; and, above all, the universal institution of standing armies had given discipline and military skill their natural and decisive superiority over untaught strength, and enthusiastic valour. But the memory of what had been, was still familiar to the popular mind, and preserved not only by numerous legends and traditions, but also by the cast of the fashionable works of fiction. It is, indeed, curious to remark, how many minute remnants of a system of ancient manners can be traced long after it has become totally obsolete. Even down to the eighteenth century, the portrait of every soldier of rank was attired in complete armour, though, perhaps, he never saw a suit of mail excepting in the Tower of London; and on the same principle of prescriptive custom, Addison was the first poet who ventured to celebrate a victorious general for skill and conduct, instead of such feats as are appropriated to Guy of Warwick, or Bevis of Hampton. The fashion of attributing mighty effects to individual valour being thus prevalent, even in circumstances when every one knew the supposition to be entirely gratuitous, the same principle, with much greater propriety, continued to be applied in works of fiction, where the scene was usually carried back to times in which the personal strength of a champion really had some efficacy. It must be owned, however, that the authors of the French romances carried the influence of individual strength and courage beyond all bounds of modesty and reason. In the Grand Cyrus, Artamenes, upon a moderate computation, exterminates with his own hand, in the course of the work, at least a hundred thousand fighting men. These monstrous fictions, however, constituted the amusement of the young and the gay, in the age of Charles II., and from one of these very books Dryden admits his having drawn, at least in part, the character of his Moorish warrior. The public was, therefore, every way familiarised with such chivalrous exploits as those of Almanzor; and if they did not altogether command the belief, at least they did not revolt the imagination, of an audience: And this must certainly be admitted as a fair apology for the extravagance of his heroic achievements.
But, it is not only the actual effects of Almanzor's valour, which appear to us unnatural, but also the