Critical Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056

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 “victor,” Siegfried, is the name of the hero in the Nibelungenlied, c.1200.)

The poem’s author has also adopted an ancient literary style that may be traced to the early European epics Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). This style uses formulaic phrases, stylized battle scenes, and frequently repeated epithets. Because such a style is commonly associated with oral poetry, it is believed that Poem of the Cid either existed as an oral poem before it was written down or was intentionally written in an archaic style so that it would appear to have been an oral poem.

Most scholars believe that the origins of Poem of the Cid may be found among the juglares, wandering storytellers who preserved and embellished traditional tales. It has been argued, however, that Poem of the Cid was a specific literary creation, the work of an individual unknown author. Complete agreement on this issue is unlikely to occur. Nevertheless, whether the product of a single author or a long-standing oral tradition, Poem of the Cid contains themes and elements of plot that may be observed elsewhere in European folklore.

One central motif that appears throughout Poem of the Cid is the importance of loyalty. The ill treatment that the Cid receives from King Alfonso might have caused the Cid to resent the king, but the hero continues to remain loyal, and he is ultimately rewarded for his allegiance. In turn, the Cid demonstrates that he is the sort of figure who is owed loyalty by others. He is generous and forgiving, ready to honor the deeds of his followers. He is also ready to demand loyalty from vacillating vassals. Through these qualities, the Cid is contrasted sharply to the worthless characters of the poem, Diego and Fernando, who take advantage of the Cid’s generosity. Genuine nobility, the poem suggests, is not found in aristocratic birth as much as it is in persons who have learned compassion and refinement. While a true gentleman may be proud, he is never haughty; while he may take pride in his possessions, he is never greedy. Many of the same values later described by Baldassare Castiglione in Il libro del cortegiano (1528; The Book of the Courtier, 1561) trace their origin to medieval epics such as Poem of the Cid.

Somewhat incongruous with the Cid’s character as straightforward, guileless, and trusting is that he occasionally takes on the aspect of a folkloric trickster. The Cid is capable of outright deceit if it proves necessary to remove himself from difficulty; for example, he originates the plan that cheats Raquel and Vidas, the two moneylenders, out of six hundred marks in return for two coffers of sand. The Cid makes it clear, however, that he does this only “because I must and have no other choice.”

Side by side with all that is mythic in Poem of the Cid is a keen attention to the details of Spanish history and the Spanish countryside. The poem is filled with the names of towns, rivers, and historical figures. Far more realistic than other medieval Spanish epics, Poem of the Cid includes recognizable settings rather than idealized and magical kingdoms. In its description of actual places and realistic events, Poem of the Cid stands at the beginning of a tradition that would lead to gritty novels such as Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), Guzmán de Alfarache (1599), The Life of the Swindler (1626), and even Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615). Poem of the Cid should be viewed, therefore, as a combination of a folkloric plot, courtly values, and realistic geographic and historical details. Its influence extended to the later Spanish novel.

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Critical Evaluation