(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (1978), this biography is essentially the history of an era with the heroic career of an interesting and important individual thrust into the foreground to establish continuity and context. Like Tuchman, Richard Fletcher believes in the utility and propriety of popular history written with beauty and distinction. Fletcher also resembles Tuchman in that he is not afraid to take on the academic establishment—in this case, the school of Spanish patriotic history as personified by Ramon Menendez Pidal, whose 1929 book, La Espana del Cid, has formed much of the modem understanding of the culture and politics of eleventh century Spain. Unlike Tuchman, Fletcher is thoroughly familiar with his subject—the multiethnic civilization of the Iberian peninsula at the time that the Christian rulers of Castile and Le6n began their drive south to seize lands ruled by the Moors.

Fletcher could hardly have written a traditional biography for several reasons:

First, very little is known about El Cid personally; second, what is known is in the form of a medieval epic, which was not intended as a source for modem scholarly research; and, finally, Fletcher is a storyteller. “In the summer of the year 1099,” Fletcher begins, “there died in the city of Valencia, on the eastern seaboard of Spain, a man whose name was Rodrigo Diaz but who is better known to posterity as El Cid.” These words provide a marvelous beginning for his tale, and are almost as memorable as the first lines of the subsequent chapter: “Long ago, in the early years of the seventh century of the Christian era, there lived a middle-aged businessman who started to behave rather oddly.” This sentence is a powerful reminder of the continuity of the Spanish culture from the age of El Cid to that of Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote de La Mancha (1605-1615). Though Fletcher fails to sustain this quality throughout his essays on the Spanish past and reverts to the style of the professional historian, his repeated use of quotations from Moorish and Christian poets reflects his love of poetry and epics and his admiration of a well-told story.

Rodrigo Diaz (c. 1043-1099) was a knight from an aristocratic house in Vivar and a vassal of the king of Castile. He participated in his first campaign in 1063 under the king’s son, Sancho II. When his patron ascended the throne of Castile, Rodrigo became the commander of the royal forces. Sancho met a violent death in 1072, and sweeping changes in the administrative offices were carried out by his successor, Alfonso VI. Men such as Rodrigo, who only shortly before had driven the new king from Leon into exile among the Moors, were replaced en masse. Fortunately, the new king had the makings of greatness: Although Alfonso would not award Rodrigo with a high office, he did assist Rodrigo in private lawsuits and in arranging his marriage to a woman from a prominent family. This patronage proved to be less than the ambitious Rodrigo demanded, however; in 1081, after quarreling with the king, he went into exile.

For five years, Rodrigo served as a mercenary of the Muslim ruler of Zaragoza, fighting against the princes of nearby petty Moorish states. In the course of these operations he gathered together a private army, which...

(The entire section is 1349 words.)