El Cid Essay - Extended Historical Criticism

Anonymous, Unknown

Extended Historical Criticism


Cantar de mio Cid (Song of the Cid) Anonymous

(Also known as Poema de mio Cid, Poema del Cid, and Poem of the Cid) Spanish epic poem.

The following entry contains recent criticism on Cantar de mio Cid. For additional information on the work, see CMLC, Vol. 4.

The anonymous Cantar de mio Cid is the great epic of medieval Spain. It is one of the oldest Spanish historical documents in existence, and the only Spanish cantar de geste (song of heroic deeds) to have survived almost completely intact. The 3,730-line poem chronicles the exploits of the Cid (from the Arabic sayyid, which means “master”), or Rodrigo (Ruy) Díaz de Vivar, a commander under King Alfonso VI of Castile, who wins back his King's favor by taking back southern Spain from its Islamic occupiers. Like many literary works of the Middle Ages, the Cid is based on an historical figure, but much of this story is fictionalized in order to offer an idealized portrait of the main character and emphasize his valor and loyalty. The poem interweaves irony, heroic drama, and realism to present colorful portraits of Moors, Jews, and Christians, providing modern readers with a unique glimpse into medieval Spain. Over the centuries, numerous editions and translations of the Cid have appeared, attesting to the work's popularity. The landmark 1908 version, published by Spanish medievalist Ramon Menendez-Pidal, renewed international critical interest in the epic. There is extensive scholarly commentary on the poem in both Spanish and English. Some of the most prominent issues discussed are the poem's uncertain authorship; the use of folk traditions in its composition; its themes of national and religious identity, family honor, and personal prowess; its treatment of the vassal-lord relationship; its use of concrete imagery and dramatic narrative techniques; its stress on economics and social life; its modern use of language; and its similarities to medieval romances. Critics have debated especially vigorously the question of whether the epic was written by an educated nobleman or is an orally composed work rooted in the folk traditions of Castilian Spain. There seems to be no easy resolution to this question, but critics concur that no matter who the author of the work is, the Cantar de mio Cid is one of Spain's national treasures, an historically important and artistically complex work of literature.

Textual History

Only one copy of the Cid manuscript exists—a parchment quarto from the mid-fourteenth century, signed by a Per Abbat (or Abad) and bearing the date 1207. Historians believe that this manuscript is a copy of the 1207 version, which may have been either the original or a copy of an even earlier manuscript, but most take 1207 as the poem's date of composition. The manuscript, long kept in the Convent of Santa Clara in Vivar, was copied many times. In 1779 Tomas Antonio Sanchez borrowed the original manuscript from the convent of Santa Clara to print the poem in his Coleccion de poesias castellanas anteriores al siglo XV, marking the first publication of the poem. Sanchez never returned the manuscript to the convent. It freely circulated among collectors and scholars until 1960, when it was purchased by the Spanish state and placed permanently in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. Many versions of the Cid have been published since the eighteenth century, the most influential one being Menendez-Pidal's 1908 edition. Robert Southey's Chronicle of the Cid, published in 1808—a somewhat hybrid work made up of the Cid, the Chronica del Famoso cavallero Cid Ruydiez Campeador, the Cronica de Espana, and various romances—introduced the work to the English-speaking world. Among the numerous modern English translations of the poem, those by W. S. Merwin and Colin Smith are especially esteemed.

Biographical Information

Critics are divided regarding the authorship of the epic. Menendez-Pidal assigned 1140 as the probable date of composition for the poem and suggested that the work was orally composed by a juglar, or minstrel, from the region of Medinaceli, soon after the death of the historical Cid and transcribed only later. Menendez-Pidal and other adherents of this “oralist” or “traditionalist” theory hold that there is no single author of the work, but that it is the result of an oral, folk tradition that weaves together stories developed over generations. “Individualist” or “positivist” scholars, on the other hand, point to the sophisticated language in the poem as well as to its references to legal codes and borrowings from the literatures of other cultures in order to argue that the Cid must have been the work of an educated man, perhaps a monk or a lawyer from around the town of Burgos. Some critics point to Per Abbat as the author, although most scholars believe he was only the copier and not the author of the original work.

Plot and Major Characters

The Cantar de mio Cid comprises 3,730 lines divided into seventy-four folios, each with approximately fifty lines of verse. Three folios are known to be missing: the poem's beginning and two later sections. The poem has traditionally been split into three narrative sections, or cantars: the Cantar del destierro (1. 1–1085), the Cantar de las bodas (1. 1086–2275), and the Cantar de Corpes (1. 2276 to the end). These divisions are based on an estimate of the amount of material that could be recited in one sitting.

When the epic opens, the Cid has been unjustly banished by King Alfonso, but the details of his crime and punishment remain sketchy because of the missing first folio. (Scholars have conjectured about the possible opening of the poem, and in some editions lines from the Cronica de Castilla have been used to begin the poem.) Returning after his exile to the town of Burgos, whose citizens are under the King's strict orders not to receive or aid him, the Cid nevertheless manages to gather a group of fighting men and to obtain, albeit by resorting to a trick, a sum of money from the Jewish moneylenders Rachel and Vidas. After leaving his wife, Dona Jimena, and his daughters, Elvira and Sol, at the monastery at Cardena, the Cid departs with his army for Moorish territory and soon recaptures the town of Castejon Alcocer, also imprisoning the Count of Barcelona on his way back. He sends a tribute of thirty horses to King Alfonso who, though he doesn't restore his favor to the Cid, lifts the prohibition against abetting him. With an even larger army, the Cid again goes to battle, capturing the Moslem Levant, the city of Valencia, and a valuable store of booty; as a token of his loyalty, he sends the King a gift of one hundred horses. His wife and daughters join him in Valencia and witness the defeat of the Moroccan King. Again, the Cid sends the King a present—two hundred horses—and this time succeeds in winning a royal pardon.

Once the Cid's honor, power, and wealth have been restored, the King suggests that Elvira and Sol marry the infantes (princes) of Carrion. Though the Cid appears reluctant because of the difference in their age and social rank, the weddings take place. Later, in an episode involving the escape of the Cid's pet lion, the infantes prove themselves cowards and are publicly disgraced. Secretly seeking revenge, they decide to return with their wives to Carrion. They spend the first night of their journey at the home of Avegalvon, the Cid's close friend; the infantes plot to murder their host that evening as part of their revenge, but are overheard and thwarted. After another day's travel, the princes and their wives stay overnight in the wood of Corpes, sending their retainers ahead. Finally exacting their revenge upon the Cid, they brutally beat their wives and leave them for dead the next morning. However, one of the Cid's knights finds and revives them, informing his lord of what has happened. Enraged by this turn of events, the Cid demands justice from the King, and a formal court proceeding is held at Toledo. Eventually the infantes are found guilty, forced to return their wives' dowries and gifts, and challenged to a duel. His honor cleared, the Cid receives a marriage offer for his daughters from the princes of Navarre and Aragon. The poem ends with his peaceful death in Valencia.

Major Themes

The dramatic narrative pace of the Cid is maintained by vivid, realistic descriptions, numerous climaxes, an unusually high proportion of direct speech, touches of humor, and considerable irony. Although it embodies mythical and folk patterns typical of many epics, the Cid is also remarkably free of stylistic excesses of similar medieval European epics, focusing instead on realistic characterization and plot development. Its realistic style is most striking in the poem's characterizations—especially that of the Cid himself. On the one hand a hero of mythic proportions, glorified in the many epithets applied to him throughout the poem, the Cid also remains an eminently human and fallible character. If his ultimate goals are the restoration of his honor, the recognition of his loyalty to the King, and the reconquest of Moor-occupied territory, his more immediate goals seem to be ensuring his financial security, elevating his family's social standing, providing for his two daughters, and keeping his army employed. There is a constant interplay in the work between idealistic and bourgeois and heroic and domestic elements.

As it takes place in Spain during the middle ages, the epic is concerned with questions of national and religious identity; the Cid fights as a Spaniard against the Moorish invaders and as a Christian against the Moors. Some have suggested that the Cid is a Christ-figure, and there are also echoes in the work from the Koran as well as from Jewish tradition. The other main themes of heroism, fidelity, honor, nobility, love, and support are interrelated in the text. The Cid is an exemplary hero whose loyalty, valor, and prowess in battle are eventually rewarded by the King. Even though he is exiled by Alfonso, the Cid continues to act as a vassal, sending the King spoils from the lands he has conquered. This theme of the vassal-lord relationship is also developed in the depiction of the Cid as a lord who treats his own vassals with respect and generosity. A related theme is that of largesse, and there are a number of important instances of gift-giving in the poem. The Cid's love for and loyalty to his daughters are also highlighted in the poem, but his loyalty to them takes second place to his loyalty to the King. Even when the King's wishes conflict with his own, the Cid defers, putting his family in danger in the process. While the Cid is the picture of loyalty and honor throughout the poem, the King himself is blind to those concepts, and there are suggestions that the Cid does not fully trust the King for this reason. The themes of nobility and honor are also explored in the characters of the infantes, noble-born princes who are shameful, dishonorable, cruel, and cowardly.

Many other themes in the Cid center around economic and social issues. The acquisition of wealth is a central theme, as the Cid continues to offer tributes to his lord even after his exile; the poem also treats related themes of gift-giving, avarice, and debt. Much attention is drawn to the domestic life of the Cid, and there are several emotional scenes where he shows his love for his wife and daughters. The scene following the Cid's exile is particularly moving, and it portrays how in the feudal hierarchical structure, life outside society has no meaning. Throughout the poem, the narrator also reinforces common knowledge, and in the court scenes in particular, offers instruction on legal questions. Several scholars have suggested that because of its emphasis on economics and its presentation of information about social and legal codes, one of the aims of the Cid was to instruct its unlearned audience in practical life lessons.

Critical Reception

Critical response to the Cid has varied over the centuries. Even before the poem was widely known, the legend of the Cid exerted a powerful influence on Spanish and European literature. The earliest scholarly commentary on the poem seems to have been by Padre Sarmiento, a Benedictine monk who studied a copy of the manuscript in Madrid and in 1750 wrote notes assessing its meter and language. Sanchez's 1779 edition followed soon afterward. Eighteenth-century Spanish critics viewed the poem an important part of Spanish history and folk culture, but viewed it as deficient in form and construction, and it was not considered a great work of literature. The poem's status grew in the nineteenth century, with the enthusiastic praise of Romantic writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johann Gottfried von Herder, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and Southey, who called the poem's composer “the Homer of Spain.” The American author Washington Irving, too, worked on a book about the Cid, and the English critic Henry Hallam regarded it superior to any poem written before Dante.

Despite these positive assessments of the Cid, the poem was still viewed as a rather primitive literary production until 1908, when Menendez-Pidal methodically researched and wrote about its history, archaeology, geography, epic origins, and folk influences. However, Menendez-Pidal's stress on the background of the poem contributed to its being viewed more as an archaeological relic than a vital piece of literature. Also as a result of Menendez-Pidal's research, twentieth-century scholars grouped themselves into camps of traditionalists/oralists and individualists/positivists. Smith is the best known proponent of the individualist position, while Joseph Duggan, in a 1989 study of the poem, redefined the oralist position by asserting that in 1200, a juglar from around Medinaceli performed the poem in order to please Alfonso VIII and his partisans. This position has been rejected by neo-individualists such as Milija N. Pavlović, who argue that the presence of French culture in the epic suggests an author of far greater learning than the oralist theory would allow. The debate between the two schools regarding the poem's authorship continues, with some critics, such as Edward H. Friedman, advocating taking a middle ground by applying the concept of intertextuality to the poem to shed light on its composition without dwelling on questions of single or multiple authorship.

Other trends in Cid scholarship include analyzing the work's themes and narrative patterns, its characterization, its use of dramatic narrative techniques, the novelistic features of the work, and studies of its stylistic elements. The irregularity of line lengths and meter in the Cid has also been discussed extensively. While some have interpreted the irregularities as attesting to the author's lack of technical expertise, others see them as possibly based on music used in the poem's performance. Other scholars have argued that the epic employs assonance within and between lines, testifying to an even higher degree of craftsmanship. Late twentieth- and early twenty-first century critics have explored the work's social and didactic function, its stress on economics, its imparting of legal and practical information, its realism, its parallels with French epics, its treatment of the vassal-lord relationship, its military and domestic themes, and its blending of literature and history. While for centuries it was regarded as historically important but wanting artistically, the Cid is now accepted as a richly complex work of literature and one of the most accomplished epics of medieval Europe.

Principal Works

Chronicle of the Cid (translated by Robert Southey) 1808

Poem of the Cid. 3 vols. (translated by Archer M. Huntington) 1907-08

The Lay of the Cid (translated by R. S. Rose and L. Bacon) 1919

Tale of the Warrior Lord (translated by Merriam Sherwood) 1930

Poems of the Cid (translated by Lesley B. Simpson) 1957

The Poem of the Cid (translated by W. S. Merwin) 1959

Poema de mio Cid (translated by Colin Smith) 1972

The Poem of the Cid (translated by Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry) 1975

Poem of My Cid (translated and...

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Porter Conerly (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Conerly, Porter. “Largesse of the Epic Hero as a Thematic Pattern in the Cantar de mio Cid.Kentucky Romance Quarterly 31, no. 3 (1984): 281-89.

[In the following essay, Conerly examines the motif of largesse in Cantar de mio Cid, which, he argues, is a principal thematic pattern in the lord-vassal relationship and the related question of honor in the poem.]

Recent criticism on the Cantar de Mio Cid has repeatedly demonstrated the complexity of the poem in its use of structural and stylistic patterns.1 These clearly defined patterns, which are unlikely to be the result of chance, are found in the use of epic epithets,...

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Ruth H. Webber (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Webber, Ruth H. “The Cantar de mio Cid: Problems of Interpretation.” In Oral Tradition in Literature: Interpretation in Context, edited by John Miles Foley, pp. 65-88. Columbia, Ms.: University of Missouri Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Webber considers whether the Cantar de mio Cid is part of the oral tradition or whether it was composed as a written text, surveying the main trends in scholarship on this and other related questions of composition and interpretation.]

What follows is an attempt to demonstrate what can happen to the interpretation of a work when there is a division of opinion among critics as to whether it is of oral...

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John S. Miletich (essay date spring 1987)

SOURCE: Miletich, John S. “Folk Literature, Related Forms, and the Making of the Poema de mio Cid.La Corónica 15, no. 2 (spring 1987): 186-96.

[In the following excerpt, Miletich critiques Colin Smith's seminal study of the Cantar de mio Cid, pointing out that more attention needs to be paid to the folk traditions that may have influenced the poem.]

There is a great deal to applaud in Colin Smith's The Making of the Poema de Mio Cid1 (not the least of which is his vast erudition), particularly if one has argued for the written composition of the Poema de Mio Cid. However, that it was, as Smith states, “the first...

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Beverly West-Burdette (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: West-Burdette, Beverly. “Gesture, Concrete Imagery, and Spatial Configuration in the Cantar de mio Cid.La Corónica 16, no. 1 (fall 1987): 55-66.

[In the following essay, West-Burdette argues that the poet of the Cantar de mio Cid relies on sensual imagery, concrete references, and dramatic narrative techniques to impart abstract concepts and symbolic meanings to his uneducated medieval audience.]

Throughout the history of Cidian scholarship, a great deal of attention has been given to the debated issue of the Cantar/Poema as a work of oral art versus a work of literary art. Within this larger issue are the polemic problems of...

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Joseph J. Duggan (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Duggan, Joseph J. “Conclusion.” In The Cantar de mio Cid: Poetic Creation in Its Economic and Social Contexts, pp. 143-48. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Duggan asserts that the Cantar de mio Cid was orally composed by a juglar of little formal education, pointing to the poem's emphasis on economic exchange and focus on the marriages of the hero's daughters as indications that the scribe adapted his work to the social interests of his audience.]

The “best hypothesis” to which this analysis of the Cantar de mio Cid leads is as follows. In the year 1199 or, more likely, 1200, a...

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Edward H. Friedman (essay date fall 1989-90)

SOURCE: Friedman, Edward H. “The Writerly Edge: A Question of Structure in the Poema de mio Cid.La Corónica 18, no. 2 (fall 1989-90): 11-20.

[In the following essay, Friedman suggests that applying the concept of intertextuality to the Cantar de mio Cid can shed light on the poem's composition and use of interwoven traditions, offering a different approach to the lingering debate regarding the work's authorship.]

The Poema de Mio Cid causes certain obvious problems for literary analysis. The more that is known about the conditions under which a work was produced, the greater the foundation for critical scrutiny. In this case, the identity of...

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Thomas Montgomery (essay date July 1991)

SOURCE: Montgomery, Thomas. “Interaction of Factors in Tense Choice in the Poema del Cid.Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 68, no. 3 (July 1991): 355-69.

[In the following essay, Montgomery examines the controlled, almost modern, manner in which the poet shifts tenses in the Cantar de mio Cid.]

Rhyme, rhythm, syllable-count, vocalic echoes, specific conventions of phraseology, and preference or distaste for certain forms, endings, and word-combinations—and besides these primarily acoustic effects, aspect, affirmation/negation, number, context, markedness, time-reference, deixis, dialogics, preference for variety, and poetic privilege—all these dimensions...

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Milija N. Pavlović (essay date October 1991)

SOURCE: Pavlović, Milija N. “Oralist Vision and Neo-Traditionalist Revision: A Review Article.” Modern Language Review 86, no. 4 (October 1991): 867-84.

[In the following essay, Pavlović debates the position taken by Joseph Duggan in his book-length study of the Cantar de mio Cid, which holds that the poem is an orally composed work dictated to a scribe around 1200.]

The generally opposed and apparently irreconcilable views of the ‘neo-traditionalist’ and ‘(neo-)individualist’ schools that permeate much of the medieval epic's literary criticism have, over the last two decades or so, been especially polarized in the case of the Cantar de mio...

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Matthew Bailey (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Bailey, Matthew. “The Encylopedic Function of the Poema del Cid.” In Estudios Alfonsinos y Otros Escritos, pp. 17-25. New York, N.Y.: National Endowment for the Humanities/National Hispanic Foundation for the Humanities, 1991.

[In the following essay, Bailey suggests that the purpose of the Cantar de mio Cid is didactic, as it constantly reinforces common knowledge, practical and legal procedures, and social attitudes.]

For the most part the study of the Poema del Cid has not treated the work as the product of an oral tradition but as just another literary text. This approach ignores the impressive findings of scholars in other...

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Colin Smith (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Smith, Colin. “The Variant Version of the Start of the Poema de mio Cid.La Corónica 20, no. 2 (spring 1992): 32-41.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses the faulty internal logic of the twelve lines that have been suggested as a variant of the opening of the Cantar de mio Cid.]

Professor Armistead drew attention in 1984 to the (in his view) fact that at one point “the Crónica de Castilla is prosifying—not even prosifying, but copying word for word—a traditional *Refundición del Cantar de Mio Cid”, supporting this with evidence about the traditionality of the material drawn from sixteenth-century ballads. Brian Powell,...

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Gene W. DuBois (essay date September 1992)

SOURCE: DuBois, Gene W. “The Return of Rachel and Vidas.” Hispanofila, no. 106 (September 1992): 1-8.

[In the following essay, DuBois discusses the narrative shortcomings of the episode involving the moneylenders Rachel and Vidas in the Cantar de mio Cid and considers its implications for the unsatisfactory handling of The Cid's debt in the poem.]

At an early point in the narrative development of the Poema de mio Cid (ll. 78-207), the poet describes in some detail how the impoverished hero, through the clever machinations of Martín Antolínez, goes about securing 600 marcos from the moneylenders Rachel and Vidas, while leaving as surety chests...

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Thomas Montgomery (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: Montgomery, Thomas. “The Presence of a Text: The Poema del Cid.MLN 108, no. 2 (March 1993): 199-213.

[In the following essay, Montgomery discusses the authority of the narrative voice in the Cantar de mio Cid, noting that as the poet creates an aura of authentic history through his fictional tale, he himself becomes a leader of men and upholder of values.]

Everybody knew exactly what I was talking about.

—Paul Simon

Nobody believes the claim made in our epigraph. Even if the speaker's assertions were trivial, and especially if they were not, each listener's...

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D. G. Pattison (essay date April 1993)

SOURCE: Pattison, D. G. “How Many Cantares Are There in the Poema de mio Cid?The Modern Language Review 88, no. 2 (April 1993): 337-42.

[In the following essay, Pattison questions the common practice of dividing the Cantar de mio Cid into three cantares, maintaining that this somewhat arbitrary division diminishes the poem's complexity.]

It is generally accepted that the Poema de mio Cid is divided into three cantares.1 This division depends on lines 1085 (‘Aquis conpieça la gesta de myo Çid el de Biuar’) and 2276 (‘Las coplas deste cantar aquis van acabando’) at the beginning and end respectively of...

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John R. Burt (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Burt, John R. “The Cid's Third Sword.” Critica Hispanica 16, no. 2 (1994): 205-10.

[In the following essay, Burt explores the theme of avarice in the Cantar de mio Cid, describing how The Cid uses his understanding of the power of human greed as a “third sword” to achieve his ends.]

Throughout the Poema de Mio Cid, the main concern of many of the characters seems to be the acquisition and retention of averes: “riqueza, dinero; bienes muebles” (PMC [Poema de Mio Cid] ed. Colin Smith, 314). While acquisitiveness remains characteristic of human behavior in all times, in the Middle Ages it was considered sinful and ran...

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E. Michael Gerli (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Gerli, E. Michael. “Liminal Junctures: Courtly Codes in the Cantar de Mio Cid.” In Oral Tradition and Hispanic Literature: Essays in Honor of Samuel G. Armistead, edited by Michael M. Caspi, pp. 257-70. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.

[In the following essay, Gerli explores what he sees as one of the non-epic voices in the Cantar de mio Cid and argues that the poem shares many common techniques, thematic concerns, and issues found in medieval romance.]

The Cantar de Mio Cid is different. It is, as Colin Smith remarks, a work which “departs greatly from epic stereotypes” (The Making, 87). In fact, if there is one...

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Ruth House Webber (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Webber, Ruth House. “Jimena's Prayer in the Cantar de mio Cid and the French Epic Prayer.” In Oral Tradition and Hispanic Literature: Essays in Honor of Samuel G. Armistead, edited by Michael M. Caspi, pp. 619-47. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.

[In the following essay, Webber assesses the origin and development of the biblical prayers used in romance epics and explores the prayer spoken by Dona Jimena in Cantar de mio Cid]

To say that the prayer is a topos of the medieval Romance epic, albeit true, is an understatement.1 The prayer is a topos of all medieval European literature in an epoch in which the Church played a...

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Stephen B. Raulston (essay date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Raulston, Stephen B. “Poetic Craft and Dramatic Tension: The Climax of the Poema de mio Cid.La Corónica 26, no. 1 (fall 1997): 203-23.

[In the following essay, Raulston argues that the climax of the Cantar de mio Cid—the court scene that has been regarded by many critics as unsatisfactory—can be better appreciated when one has some understanding of medieval Spanish juridical institutions.]

Literary criticism has consistently praised the Poema de mio Cid (PMC) as a work of art, for its unity and concision, for its creative departures from the epic tradition. Despite this acclaim, however, the poem's climax and conclusion...

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Further Reading


Bailey, Matthew. “The Present Tense in Ennius and the Cantar de mio Cid.Romance Notes 26, no. 3 (spring 1986): 279-85.

Discusses the use of tense in the poetry of Quintus Ennius, noting a similar use of the present tense for verbs of state and past tense for verbs of action in Cantar de mio Cid.

———. The Poema del Cid and the Poema de Fernán Gozález: The Transformation of an Epic Tradition. Madison, Wis.: The Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1993, 144 p.

Describes aspects of the peculiar forms of expression in the Cantar de mio Cid, focusing on the way the...

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