Friday, March 3, 2017

The Song of the Cid, trans. Burton Raffel

Regular readers of this blog will know that I generally take the few weeks after Christmas to work my way through an epic poem of some description (because for thousands of years before the invention of the novel, the epic poem was where you went for great fiction). This year, I really wanted to read The Song of the Cid, a chanson de geste from roughly the same time period that I've been researching for the last couple of years. Last year I'd read another chanson, the great Song of Roland, and was surprised to discover how much bearing it had on the Crusader history I was reading - from clues dropped in the poem that it was written during or shortly after the First Crusade by someone familiar with its discoveries, to its overriding concern about the antithesis of history between Christian and pagan.

My interest in The Song of the Cid was whetted by the fact that it had recently been published in a new translation by the legendary Burton Raffel. As a result, I was happy to postpone reading the poem until after I'd got my hands on the new translation (thanks Mum!). I devoured it over the last couple of weeks, and as usual where medieval literature is concerned, I loved it.

The Song of the Cid, like The Song of Roland, is a story from the Spanish frontier, set amidst the wars between Christians and Moors. The opening of the poem has been lost, but by this chance we are dropped straight into the action. The Cid, already a legendary warrior in the service of King Alfonso of Castile, has been given nine days to leave the kingdom. We find him in tears, leaving his home at Vivar. Then it's into the saddle and away into exile in the Moorish borderlands between Toledo and Valencia. Forced to part from his beloved wife and daughters, no money to take with him, a following of only a small band of faithful friends, and no chance of finding safety and rest except in whatever towns he can conquer, the Cid faces annihilation.

Still, the legend is not for nothing, and bit by bit the Cid fights his way into wealth and a kingdom, even regaining Alfonso's good graces through his loyalty and generosity. But it's when a pair of unscrupulous fortune-hunters set their eyes on an alliance with his family that the Cid proves his true worth.

Mio Cid

Like Roland, the Cid, Rodrigo Diaz of Vivar, was a real historical personage. And similarly, his story has undergone a great deal of embellishment in the transposition from historical figure to folk hero to knightly paragon of a chanson de geste. The historical Rodrigo Diaz, for instance, was exiled multiple times and may not have been as unswervingly loyal to his king as the poem depicts him. But, by the time the poem reached its final form (no later than 1204, and potentially decades previously) the purpose of the anonymous storyteller (or storytellers) was to hold him up as an example for other knights to follow. Chanson de geste literally means "song of heroic deeds"; the literary form calls for a certain kind of aspirational paragon as its hero.

The Cid of the poem, himself, is a less flawed character than the war-fain Roland. But despite, or perhaps because of this, he's a warmer character, and the poem seems to depict a warmer, gentler story world. One of the first things you'll notice reading the poem is that throughout, the Cid is referred to not as "the" but rather "my Cid". Partly, this is grammatical correctness. Rodrigo Diaz's nickname originated as the Arabic "Sayyid", lord, rendered into Castilian as "Cid". One speaks of one's overlord as my lord. And yet, from the very beginning of the poem, there is a wonderful literary effect as the poet follows the adventures of "my Cid": the audience is warmly included among the few loyal warriors following the Cid into exile. And that's just the beginning. Maybe it's just me and my particular affinity for this time period, but I found this poem an unusually submersive experience. By the end of it, I realised that to some degree I must have been reacting to the plot in much the same way that its original hearers might have.


As Maria Rosa Menacal points out in her introduction to the text, you might expect that the substance of this poem would be the clash between Christian and Moor (as it was in The Song of Roland). To be sure, the Reconquista forms the historical backdrop, but it forms very little of the story and the conflict at the poem's heart. The Cid's most significant enemies are his Christian rivals at the court of Alfonso and the arrogant Carrion heirs who seek his daughters' hands in marriage. In the first Moorish town he captures, the Cid leaves only after enriching the Moorish citizens there with some of the plunder he gains raiding neighbouring towns; understandably they bid him farewell with reluctance. The Christian count of Barcelona attacks the Cid at the head of a combined Moorish and Christian army in Canto 1, and in Cantos 2 and 3, the Cid's most trusted ally is the Moorish ruler Albenalgon. The unknown poet takes some time impressing us with Albenalgon's courtesy and nobility, and it's hard not to conclude that we're meant to compare this behaviour with the savage and arrogant conduct of the Cid's enemies.

The message of The Song of Roland was that there is ultimately no peace between Christ and Mahomet, which, in a way, is correct. But I'd be slow to conclude that The Song of the Cid had discovered a more humanist interpretation of this conflict. Rather, it is concerned with pointing out the ways in which professing Christians may be more heartless and wicked than heathens. After all, the antithesis does not just run between armies; it runs through the centre of each individual heart.

The Song of the Cid certainly sees it as the Christian's duty to fight the heathen. The fighting Bishop Don Jeronimo is, as the Introduction points out, the only character in the poem who fits the stereotype of bloodthirsty Christian warriors inexorably rolling through Moors (he's nowhere near as lovable as Roland's Archbishop Turpin), but the poem commends him for his attitude. At the same time, however, the poem also commends the Cid's attitude to war. He has an endearing habit of saying a loud and grateful prayer of thanksgiving every time he sees Moorish armies roll up to his doorstep wanting to annihilate him, but he usually waits for them to come to him: as he declares after one victory:
"My victories, Lord, come
At your pleasure: Moors and Christians fear me.
In far-off Morocco, inside their mosques, they hear me
Coming in the darkness, and they tremble,
Though conquering them is not my plan.
I'm not on the hunt: right here is where I am,
In Valencia."
And although the Cid's methods often seem piratical, as I read the poem, I thought this attitude made all the difference. The same attitude is evidenced earlier, when the Cid forbids his men to take their booty and return to Castile:
"So if a man leaves us, or something is missing,
He'll give it back to me, and it will be given
To those who stay, guarding the city and patrolling around it."
The Cid travels far before he finds a city which he feels capable of holding in the long term; the other cities he takes, like Alcocer, he ransoms back to the Moors before moving on. Finally, it's Valencia that he deems defensible enough to provide him with a long-term home, and at that point he settles down there. "Campeador", "Master of the Battlefield", he may be, but the Cid does not live for war. A warrior who fights for the sake of fighting will simply destroy everything, but the Cid's concern is to stay, defend, and build. This is wisdom. If you are going to fight, you must expect to win. If you win, you must expect the responsibility of nurturing and protecting what you have won. It was what the prophet Jonah had to face. It was what Godfrey of Bouillon had to face. It's no laughing matter, and shirking this responsibility makes either pirates or cowards.

Note epic beard.

Women and Children

As he goes into exile, the Cid stops along the way to bid a tearful farewell to his beloved wife, Dona Jimena, and his two small daughters, Elvira and Sol. The passage is extremely endearing:
He stretched out his hands, his heart as soft as his beard;
He picked up the little girls, and held them
Close to his breast, held them and loved them,
Weeping. He sighed from deep in his heart:
"O Dona Jimena, my wonderful wife,
I love you so much, and I always have.
You see I have to leave you, O soul of my life -
I go, and you must stay behind.
May it please God, and his mother Mary,
That some day these hands will give them in marriage -
And let fortune favour me, adding some days to my life,
To serve you, O you, my much-honoured wife!"
I quote this because it seems to me to mark a definite progression. The Cid's wife and daughters play a highly important role in his life, and in the plot of this poem; a role that stands out in comparison to the literature that comes before it, but not in comparison to the literature that comes after. The medieval chanson de geste eventually morphed into the late medieval romance, tales, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Le Morte D'Arthur or The Canterbury Tales that included some very vivid, unique female characters. Before this, however, knightly epics, whether we're talking about The Song of Roland or earlier Anglo-Saxon tales like Beowulf or The Wanderer, depicted something that was much more a man's world, in which women were much more marginal.

Something was happening at this stage in history. Owen Barfield speaks of it in History in English Words, where he says,
A new element had entered into human relationships, for which perhaps the best name that can be found is 'tenderness'. And so - at any rate in the world of the imagination - children as well as women gradually became the objects of a new solicitude. ... [L]yrical devotion to the Virgin Mary and to the infant Jesus had helped to evolve a vocabulary which could express, and thus partly create, a sentiment of tenderness towards all women and young children.
This tenderness took a long time to mature, though it was a little quicker as it regarded women. What you see in The Song of the Cid is a pivotal stage in the gradual maturing of the knightly ideal from the Germanic tribal loyalty to ring-giver of its youth (still strongly in evidence here, with the Cid's loyalty to his king and generosity to his men) to the romantic courtly-love conventions of its decadence. With regards to children, the sentiment likely encountered a setback during the pandemics and famines of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, not to mature until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But that is here in The Song of the Cid too.

Barfield explains how new, and different, and peculiar to Christianity, this new sentiment was; and The Song of the Cid depicts a moment in history when it had finally begun to change the way warriors thought of their honour.

A Different Kind of Honour

So, (spoiler warning, in case you've never heard the story before!) in the second canto of the poem, a pair of young bluebloods, Fernando and Diego Carrion, seek the Cid's daughters in marriage. Despite the Cid's own misgivings, his king presses the match, and so the marriages are made. The Carrions believe they're marrying beneath themselves (as the Cid is not of their own rank, but simply "someone from Vivar"), but are attracted to the Cid's fortune. This attraction doesn't last long, particularly as they find themselves expected to fight in defence of Valencia. Despite the Cid's gracious attempts to overlook their cowardice, the sons-in-law feel insulted and hatch a heartless scheme. They bid the Cid farewell, pack up their wives, their retinues, and the Cid's princely gifts, and travel back to their own lands in Carrion. Partway there, they stop in a forest, beat their wives, leave them for dead, and hasten on to Carrion, planning to remarry more advantageously.

Dona Elivra and Dona Sol are rescued by their cousin and returned to their parents. What happens to them then is eye-opening, especially by contrast to pagan cultures. There is no question in anyone's mind that they are to blame, that they have been shamed, or that their marriages have survived these events. There is no sense of personal diminishment to them: they are expected to (and in fact, by the end of the poem, do) marry men of even higher status. The shame of the crime does not fall on the girls; it falls on Alfonso, the overlord who made the match and therefore is responsible for what they have suffered.

This is a totally different concept of shame and honour to that of pagan cultures. In pagan cultures (Ancient Rome, for just one example), honour was all about dominance. You won honour if you were a man, if you were strong, and if you could get away with...well, with acting like the Carrions. Christ was a severe problem for the pagan world because he voluntarily died a shameful, criminal death. It was insulting to men of honour to suggest that they should voluntarily submit themselves to a god whose supreme moment of triumph looked like that. In fact to this day, Islam has a real problem with this: according to Islamic theology, Jesus (whom they recognise as a prophet, if not God) only passed out on the cross, but did not actually die, because that would just be too degrading: it is unthinkable that a messenger of the all-powerful Allah should actually die like this. In such a concept of honour, shame falls upon those who have been proven most weak and helpless: Elivra and Sol. The women.

The Song of the Cid recognises this, and the confrontation that comes as its climax is self-consciously about the conflict between these two different kinds of honour. Alfonso calls the Carrions to his court to face the Cid and answer for their crimes. The Carrions argue that they had the right to beat and abandon Elvira and Sol because their wives were of much lesser birth. In fact, they argue, doing so has increased their own honour, since it was beneath them to marry the girls in the first place. Their concept of honour is based entirely upon birth, status, and power.

This concept of honour is rejected by the Cid and his supporters. What the Carrions have done has dishonoured only themselves. Honour is defined by loyalty, by generosity, by obedience to the rule of law (it is very notable that the Warrior wins his vengeance at court, without personally taking up weapons) and above anything else by tenderness toward, and service of, the weak. This argument is proven true in two ways: first, by the victory in combat of the Cid's champions against the Carrions; and second, by the sudden arrival of envoys from two kings who have apparently heard what has happened and are eager to marry the Cid's daughters.


The Song of the Cid is a fascinating moment in the development of the chivalrous ideal. It might be easy for a modernist to sniff patronisingly at the depiction of women in the poem as weak and in need of protection (though I note that Dona Sol is a smart enough girl to warn her husband and brother-in-law that they are about to get themselves in some serious hot water). Not only would such an attitude fail to take into account certain inconvenient physical realities, it would also fail to recognise just what a turning-point this poem marks in the way western culture has historically treated women.

All this, and the poem is a fast-moving, vivid, martial epic, by turns exciting, suspenseful, comic, heart-rending, and stirring. Of course, I loved it.

Find The Song of the Cid in the Burton-Raffel translation on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Has anyone seen the 1961 film, with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren? I reviewed it on Vintage Novels several years ago and would recommend it (though screen swordfighting has come a long way since!).


Mac n' Janet said...

I saw the movie and thought it was awful, but I was quite young, it might be more appealing now.

Suzannah said...

Oh, well, it is a bit dated, so I can't guarantee that you'll enjoy it any better now. The poem, though, is well worth trying ;)

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

I really enjoyed reading The Poem of the Cid last year.

I am struck with how much potential there is for stories to be woven into/around this rich 'fodder'. Currently, I don't know of any books that deal with this place and era.

Suzannah said...

It actually drives me a little nuts that everyone is writing historical fiction about American history and English history and more or less ignoring the rest of the world. There is so much great history out there that would be more fun to read about!

Anonymous said...

i caught merely the very end of the movie, when Cid's body is lashed to the horse. so i can't say much about the movie.

however, suspecting that Tolkein will never be off-topic here, i thought you might like this series of lectures:

Suzannah said...

Thanks for the link, Bob!

Anonymous said...

you're welcome.

i will have to disagree with this though:
"The shame of the crime does not fall on the girls; it falls on Alfonso, the overlord who made the match and therefore is responsible for what they have suffered."

while this may well be the point of the story, it's also clearly wrong.

the shame of the crime falls on Cid.

so what if his king imposed on him to allow his daughters to be married to these cretins? IT WAS STILL CID'S CHOICE.

consider, the entire first half of the story is about Cid being exiled by his king ( for wearing the wrong colored tie, or whatever ). what is Cid's response? he conquers his way halfway across the Iberian peninsula and sets himself up independently.

having failed to impair Cid in any, the king then makes a rapprochement with Cid ... and makes as a condition of the continuation of that rapprochement, that Cid force his daughters to take as husbands men that neither they nor the Cid have any respect for.

if it was worth fighting half of Iberia because your king has a hissy fit about you, what would getting your daughters suitable husbands be worth?

so far as the Carrions ( let's lampshade the bad guys, why don't we? ) are concerned, yes they are wrong. but it's like the frog asking the scorpion why he has been stung; "because, you fool, i am a scorpion."

Suzannah said...

Bob, I completely agree that the Cid should not have allowed the king to marry his daughters off to people he didn't know and/or didn't trust. Loyalty is not worth that much. My comments about where the dishonour falls are not intended to explain my personal opinion but the opinion of the poet and his society. Within that society, the dishonour falls on Alfonso.

CVL said...

I actually have never heard of this. I will check it out.

Suzannah said...

CVL, if you do, let us know what you think :)

Anonymous said...

What an enjoyable review! It leaves me wanting very much to read this poem - and wondering just why I never have tried, as much as I liked the film in my youth, and, grown up, in commending it to others, re-watching it with them!

I would recommend in turn a book I happily encountered second-hand, Richard Fletcher's The Quest for El Cid (Hutchinson, 1989) - a very readable historical study, with a last chapter full of praise for the poem, "one of the masterpieces of European literature." (Why that didn't get me to read it, yet, I don't know, either...)

I haven't tried the Ryan Reeves lecture series recommended by bob, yet, and don't know if it comes up, but your review has me wondering if Tolkien knew this poem? The Tolkien brothers' guardian was a lover of Spanish literature and (I think) taught them Spanish. For example, your saying, "the Cid does not live for war. A warrior who fights for the sake of fighting will simply destroy everything, but the Cid's concern is to stay, defend, and build. This is wisdom" suggests an interesting comparison and contrast with Rohan.

Your saying, "The Cid's wife and daughters play a highly important role in his life, and in the plot of this poem; a role that stands out in comparison to the literature that comes before it, but not in comparison to the literature that comes after", makes me wish I could read a review of yours of Wolfram's Parzival (about which I think you have not yet written), to see what you make of it - a Grail poem - in this context. (Interestingly, in 1437, Valencia Cathedral became the repository for one of the best candidates to be The Holy Grail, the Cup of the Last Supper!)

Your saying, "There is so much great history out there that would be more fun to read about", moves me to urge you to try Robert van Gulik's historical detective novels about Judge Dee, if you haven't already!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

Hello David! I really do hope you read THE SONG OF THE CID; if you do, make sure to come back and share your thoughts!

I do have Wolfram's PARZIVAL but I didn't actually get around to reading it before publishing PENDRAGON'S HEIR, and now I am up to my eyebrows in Crusader research. But you have sparked my interest :). Perhaps I will indeed dust it off and dip in soon!


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