Hints of current affairs and new attitudes seep into the text.
Queen Isabel I at prayer, as portrayed in the altarpiece at the church of the Miraflores Charterhouse in Burgos. She commissioned it in honor of her parents, who are buried in the church. Photo from ArteHistoria.
In the late 1400s and early 1500s, Europe developed an interest – a fandom, in fact – for knighthood and chivalry. Tournaments, festivals, and new literary works dedicated to knights in armor and their feats entertained everyone. It was fueled both by a revitalized interest in historical traditions and by the newly invented printing press, which brought the price of books down to levels so low that the merely modestly wealthy could afford them. The reach of the printing press even extended to illiterate people, who could attend public readings of rented books, which became a popular form of entertainment.
In Britain, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory was published in 1485, along with other chivalrous works; in France, Tristan was republished in 1489 and Lancelot in 1494; and in Austria, Emperor Maximilian I called himself the last knight and patronized chivalry in literature and art.
During those heady times, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo decided to set his hand to renewing an old, prestigious Spanish chivalric classic, Amadis of Gaul.
As you may know, the novel originally consisted of three books. Book I is the oldest and dates back to around the 1330s. It tells how Amadis is born and raised, how he falls in love with Oriana, and how he saves her father, King Lisuarte, from a rebellion sparked by the evil sorcerer Arcalaus. Before the turn of the century, Books II and III were added. Book II tells how Oriana mistakenly spurns Amadis, who retreats to a distant hermitage, and after that misunderstanding is settled, treachery drives him from the court of King Lisuarte. Book III follows Amadis’s pursuit of fame as an anonymous knight-errant, eventually returning to rescue Oriana from a forced marriage to the Emperor of Rome.
Actually, the original Book III had a much different ending – more about that soon. No spoilers, but think in terms of George R.R. Martin: lots of death. Montalvo, writing at the end of the 1400s, changed the ending so that a fourth book could be added, as well as changing or adding occasional details in the earlier books. Then he wrote another novel, Las serjas de Esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandian), about the adventures of Amadis’s son, Esplandian.
One reason for these changes may have been the waning of the Middle Ages and the new sensibilities of the coming Renaissance: more triumphalism and apparently more aggressive piety as well. In the earlier books, Amadis is inspired by the frivolities of love, but Montalvo inserts, as best he can, inspiration in the glory of God and in the protection of Christendom, especially in the novel about Esplandian. Those moralizing little sermons that appear here and there even in the earlier books of Amadis come from Montalvo’s hand. It is also possible that Oriana’s conflicts to achieve the throne in Book IV mirror those of Queen Isabel I of Spain, whom Montalvo admired. Fighting styles change, too, with fewer one-on-one fights and more grand battles, reflecting new real-world warfare techniques, which had been used in the reconquest of Granada by Queen Isabel and King Fernando in 1492.
Montalvo also focuses more on Amadis, while earlier books featured an ensemble of characters in interlacing stories. The prose style in Book IV differs, too: Montalvo’s is more complex and less elegant, with a more Latinized syntax, than the earlier medieval prose. This does not always come through in the translation, which might not be a loss for you.
These changes in focus and attitude gave the novel new life and made it Europe’s first bestseller. Its popularity remained high throughout the 1500s. It also served as the inspiration for more than two dozen sequels and a hundred new chivalry novels with different characters in various languages all across Europe.
And now, the fourth and final book of the story of the greatest knight who ever lived is underway. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy bringing it to you.