Thursday, June 18, 2009

Amadis of Gaul's literary competitors

Other Spanish novels from the time of Amadis of Gaul that have survived the test of time.

[Poster for the movie Tirant lo Blanc.]


As soon as the printing press became a common technology, reading for pleasure caught on as a general pastime, and although Amadis of Gaul sat at the top of the best-seller lists, many other works found their way to bookshelves. Here are three noteworthy novels from pre- and early Renaissance Spain.

Tirante el Blanco (Tirant the White), by Joanot Martorell, 1490. Originally published in Valencian under the title Tirant lo Blanch, this is another novel of chivalry, but critics have preferred it to Amadis because it more realistic, ironic, and even mundane — but not totally realistic. Even though it was inspired by real knights like János Hundyai "the White" of Hungary, it rewrites the fall of Constantinople. It also has more sex than Amadis.

In 2006, it was made into an English-language movie starring Casper Zafer, Esther Nubiola, and Leonor Watling. The Spanish-language version of the movie poster proclaimed: "En un mundo en guerra, el arma más poderosa es la virginidad de una princesa." ("In a world at war, the most powerful weapon is the virginity of a princess.") The plot somewhat follows the latter part of the novel, and the movie is overall uneven, but it's pretty to watch, and as ye have already guessed, there is sex.

La Celestina, by Fernando de Rojas, 1499. Though written as a theatrical play under the title Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea, it would have been hard to stage in those days, and it really functions as a novel.

It tells how a deplorable young nobleman, Calisto, falls in love with a conflicted young noblewoman named Melibea. Celistina, an elderly sorceress who runs a brothel, acts as a go-between to bring them together, but she betrays them, as do their servants, to get all the money they can. It ends in heartrending tragedy, as medieval stories tended to do (including the oldest version of Amadis). La Celestina stands out for the psychological depth of its characterizations.

Lazarillo de Tormes, anonymous, 1554. Little Lazaro (Lazarus) is born at the banks of the Tormes River to a miserably poor family and is apprenticed to a series of bad masters. This sounds grim, but the novella remains consistently funny as it exposes the cruelty of poverty and rampant abuses of power. It was initially banned for heresy, which is probably why the author remained anonymous.

Lazarillo also founded a genre, the picaresque novel, whose hero is a low-class rogue living by his wits in an unjust world. If you liked Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, you'll love The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and His Fortunes and Adversities.

Read it online here:

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