[Photo: Statue of King Arthur, designed by Albrecht Dürer and cast by Peter Vischer the Elder, early 1500s.]
In medieval times, troubadours and poets recounted Greco-Roman literature, early French epics, and the deeds of King Arthur of Britain and the Knights of the Round Table. The tales of Arthur had come to France via the court of King Henry II (1133-1189) and Queen Eleanore of Aquitaine (1122?-1204). From there, they spread throughout Europe.
In Spain and Portugal, Arthurian tales of knights-errant took their own trajectory, though their noble protagonists continued to roam fictional worlds fighting evildoers, monsters, magical beings, distressors of damsels, and pagan armies. Each knight served his lady in accordance with the rules of chivalric love.
Amadis of Gaul is the most famous of those tales.
Fragments of early versions of Amadis of Gaul exist from the Middle Ages. Amadis as we know it, and the text that I am translating, was printed in Zaragoza, Spain, in 1508. This text was composed by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, and he says he based it on earlier text, which is generally attributed to Vasco de Lobeira, a 14th-century Portuguese knight, or to another 14th-century Portuguese writer, João de Lobiera. That text in turn was likely based on earlier versions. Scholars debate this point and many others about Amadis.
In any case, Rodríguez de Montalvo "polished" the first three books of the series and added a fourth book, along with a sequel about Amadis's son, Esplandian — though his sequel, too, may be based on earlier works.
Amadis became the Renaissance's best-selling literary phenomena. It went through 19 reprintings, was translated into 7 languages, and spawned 44 direct sequels, as well as fueling an entire genre, complete with fan fiction. Jousts were revived, and "knights" came in the guise of their favorite characters.
But as time went on, the genre lost literary approval. In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote of La Mancha, a brilliant satire of chivalric novels. Amadis never recovered its former popularity.
Yet, it's one of the pillars of European fiction. It opens a window not only to a wondrous fictional world but to the real medieval world that produced it. And it's great fun. Amadis is a hero for all time!