Critical Introduction

In this national epic of eleventh century Spain, 3,735 lines of uneven length in three cantos relate the major events in the Cid’s life. The poem is based on historical fact. Such a man lived; he died in 1099. His character and exploits have been, as one might expect, embroidered, amplified, and distorted to suit the purpose of making him a heroic figure in Spanish history and legend. Of all the epics of the Cid, Poem of the Cid is unique in its qualities of realism, verity, and poetic excellence. The Cid is drawn as a typical Spanish warrior, proud, ruthless, realistic, and calculating. At the same time, he shrewdly doles out praise and favors to his vassals and is generous to a fault. In victory, he is quick to do honor—even to overdo it—to his loyal lieutenants. Although exiled by King Alfonso VI, he continued to hold the position of the king, if not the man himself, in high regard.

Poem of the Cid, while based in part on historical characters and actual events, has its origins as literature in ancient folklore and in early European epic. The traditional plot of Poem of the Cid may first be found in The Story of Si-Nuhe, an ancient Egyptian legend that dates to the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1950 b.c.e.) and recounts events remarkably similar to those of the later Spanish poem. In the Egyptian legend, Si-Nuhe, a governmental official under Amenemhet I, is forced to flee Egypt when the pharaoh dies and his son, Sesotris I, comes to the throne. Si-Nuhe’s wanderings take him as far as Retenu (Syria and Israel), where he marries the king’s eldest daughter and rules over a pastoral paradise known as Yaa. Despite all these achievements, however, Si-Nuhe wishes only to return home. Word of Si-Nuhe’s victories repeatedly reaches Sesotris, who forgives Si-Nuhe, permitting him to reenter Egypt. Si-Nuhe leaves Yaa in the care of his son and arrives in Egypt, where he finds himself greeted as a great hero.

This story pattern, that of the nobleman who accomplishes great deeds in exile until he is restored to his lands by a monarch, is common throughout world literature. What the author of Poem of the Cid has done is to associate this traditional tale with a specific historical figure, Ruy Díaz of Bivar (or Vivar), who was also known as the Cid Campeador. “Cid” is a Spanish corruption of the Arabic title seid, which means “lord,” and campeador is a term of uncertain origin that appears to mean “victor.” (This is a common title for epic heroes; for example, the German word for...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)