Thursday, June 11, 2009

An approach to novels of chivalry, by José Miguel Pallarés

A Spanish author sets a few myths straight about the history of Spanish literature.

You can find quite a few talented fantasy and science fiction authors in Spain besides José Miguel Pallarés, author of El tejido de la espada (The Weaving of the Sword), but they all face the same roadblock to success. The literary establishment considers speculative fiction inferior, foreign, or at least juvenile, nothing that serious readers might want to consider: it just isn't Spanish, and never has been. José Miguel knows better, as ye shall now see.


The imaginary in Spanish literature

The claim that realism has absolutely dominated Spanish literature is true only starting with the Siglo de Oro, the "Golden Age" in the 16th to 17th centuries. Until the Renaissance, the real and the imaginary coexisted in both literary and popular works, and, contrary to what some people think, many fantastic elements appeared in our literature.

We also shouldn't accept the claim that chivalric novels suffered "death by satire" at the hands of Don Quixote. There were religious, historic, and cultural causes — many causes — for the genre's decline, but they lie outside the central thesis of this article: Amadis of Gaul and chivalric novels. We'll take it as a given that a drastic change in our literature resulted in the dictatorship of rationality and the absolute domination of realism.

It would be imprecise to apply the term "fantasy" to many of the chivalric books that existed before Cervantes. The characters in these works lived objectively within their own reality, that is, with their passions, desires, thoughts, and deeds; and subjectively with the rest, the "otherness," that miscellaneous category that includes the ineffable, nightmares, faith, and imagination.

Mario Vargas Llosa made this basic point: "Chivalric novels are not unreal. They are realistic, but their concept of realty is wider and more complex than the strict notion of reality that Renaissance rationalism established. (...) Its reality generously reunites objective reality and imaginary reality in an indivisible totality in which flesh-and-bone men, beings from fantasy and dreams, right and wrong, and the possible and the impossible all coexist without discrimination and division."

Another direction

In the 15th century, two great literary tendencies were refined. One was the sentimental romance, which dealt with ideal love, such as Grisel y Maravella or Cárcel de Amor (Prison of Love) by Diego de San Pedro. This was the fashionable literature in palaces, castles, and towns, and it is also the most meritorious and least known genre in Castilian literature. As Usoz put it in a famous quote, they became "the Werther of the 15th century."

The second literary tendency of that century was the chivalric adventure novel.

Spain was one of the least feudal countries during the Middle Ages because its eight centuries of repopulation and reconquest considerably altered feudal power. The nobility was militarized and accustomed to wield the sword, and the milicias concejiles or "militia councils," the plebeian cavalries, were always on horseback, making war against the Moors for God and king, and lining their pockets. War generated immediate benefits, and so ours was a society at war.

With the end of the Reconquest came the explosion of the concept of the "state" in which the will of a monarch reigned ever more powerfully, and which turned the noble warrior into a courtesan and altered the taste of the bourgeois.

Novels of chivalry enjoyed their heyday while that dual societal change was taking place: on one hand, the wealthy bourgeois were eager for any wonder to free them from their day-to-day boredom; on the other hand, the nobility were losing their crude, tough, warlike character.

The chivalric novel inherited some formal elements from old-fashioned heroic poetry, but the genre itself grew as it began to be denatured.

It replaced its elemental, rough style with a greater relish for ostentation. Physical orientation waned; scene-setting mattered only to tell the adventure, but its jumbled locations got the same treatment whether they were a fictitious island or London, a city that the author had never seen. The love element was considerably increased; we can't forget the boom in gallant and courtly love. Above all, the protagonist changed his goal.

Earlier European epic narratives profiled a hero tough as flint and yet at the service of a superior noble cause: a family alliance, a country, religion. The new knight errant was a hymn to the hero, defending justice and the oppressed and courtly love, but the crux of the question was rooted in his search for adventure as a mere personal satisfaction or as the height of service to his beloved.

The hero of olde served his country, his family, and God. The newer-style paladin fought for glory, for his beloved, or for money, expressed in terms of income from land.

This more modern concept found acceptance in different social classes, and if it was united with a certain sense of wonder and was an easy read, with a less high-brow, smug style — that is, more accessible — we can understand why readers found it so delightful.

About its origins

No other country cultivated novels of chivalry like Spain, where Amadis was written, the only novel worth the qualification of "perfect." However, the genre was a French creation.

What has come to be called the "courtly novel" was popularized in the French court, a work in verse that successfully recreated all the landmarks of the Arthurian cycle and some elements of the Greek epics, especially those involving Troy and Alexander the Great, all that seasoned with some loans from Nordic literature.

The concept changed radically when it arrived at Iberian Peninsula kingdoms, which, for its part, already possessed two superb precedents. One was La gran conquista del Ultramar (The Great Conquest of Overseas Lands), written around 1293, an epic story about the Crusades. The other was El libro del caballero Zifar (The Book of the Knight Zifar), an anonymous work (the putative authorship of the Archdeacon of Madrid, Ferrán Martinez, has not been proven) published around the beginning of the 14th century and which, as Juan Luis Alborg put it well, is "halfway between the traditional moralizing exemplary tale and the pure chivalric novel."

The century of the knight errant, 1490 to 1602

Without a doubt, any dates are arbitrary, but this approach offers an interesting orientation: the genre enjoyed slightly more than a century of original production despite the fact that the most noteworthy chivalric novels were still being re-edited throughout the entire 16th century with relative frequency.

Nonetheless, the dates have not been chosen at random. Juan Martorell wrote Tirante el Blanco in 1490 in Valencian, a novel praised by Cervantes himself; a translation in Castilian was published in Valladolid in 1511. Don Juan de Silva y Toledo, lord of Cañadahermosa, published Policisne de Boecia in 1602, a work whose only merits were being the last novel of a genre in its fading glory, and generously plagiarizing Amadis.

A census of the titles would yield a list of more than one hundred books and would be as useless as the recital of the names of the Gothic kings that we were obliged to memorize in the Franco-era schools.

It's enough to say that great cycles arise as a function of a genre's popularity. Books mushroom during the height of a cycle, but at its low point we get only occasional works and translations — and I mean real translations, of course, since it had been common for an author to present himself to the readers as a mere translator of a work originally written in another language.

There was one masterpiece, Amadís de Gaula, three or four superb novels, and a few others that weren't bad, like the Palmerín cycle by Miguel Ferrer — and the rest, speaking plainly, were a pile of crap, as happens in any fertile genre.

Still, readers who want to enjoy themselves will find guaranteed quality in those novels of chivalry, and all the worthy people who consider themselves above the genre, who want to blow out a fart over their butt, as they say in Aragón, my native land, ought to abandon their resistance for one reason: their beloved Don Quixote cannot be understood or even read unless the reader is acquainted with these other novels.
Translated by Sue Burke.

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