Tirant Lo Blanc

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

An extraordinarily rich, complex, lively, and refreshing masterpiece has come to light. In Don Quixote, Cervantes rightly characterized Tirant lo Blanc as the best book of its kind in the world, a wealth of pleasure and a gold mine of enjoyment. The contemporary Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa places its author, Joanot Martorell, at the head of the lineage of God supplanters such as Henry Fielding, Honoré de Balzac, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, who create in their fiction an all-encompassing reality. Joanot Martorell’s novel, however, has never before been accessible to the English-speaking world and has had few other translations (into Italian in 1538, French in 1737?, and Castillian in 1511 and 1969). When it was published in Catalan in Valencia in 1490, the Catalan language and its literature began a decline from which they have, outside the Catalan lands, barely recovered. Tirant lo Blanc is, then, a true “lost” masterpiece which has only recently been rediscovered, a masterpiece that ranks with the greatest medieval and Renaissance classics, such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote itself.

Joanot Martorell, the work’s principal author, was above all a knight of Valencia who also wrote, not a writer who happened to be a knight, as David Rosenthal persuasively argues in his scholarly “Translator’s Foreword.” Martorell’s firsthand experiences with duels and cartels of defiance, with the Moorish kingdom of Grenada, with a family history of crusades against the Saracens, and with the chivalrous code inform and suffuse the novel and ring truer than the obligatory citation of authorities (such as Aristotle, Scipio, Vergil) in some of the formulaic speeches of the characters. Martí Joan de Galba, another knight, who edited the novel sometime between Martorell’s death (1468) and its publication (1490), may have composed as much as a quarter of the work and is responsible for many of the obvious bridges of some of the later episodes (“Here the book leaves the kingand returns to the six vessels”). De Galba’s contributions extend beyond simple editing to include, in the opinion of most scholars, Tirant’s pacification of North Africa and his final succor of the Byzantine Empire, though it does appear that de Galba followed a plan set forth by Martorell. De Galba’s wide-ranging passion for geography and his cartographerlike penchant for exact physical locations in the North Africa section of the novel turn up a remarkable mention of the kingdom of Bornu, a place generally believed to have been discovered by eighteenth century Europeans.

The novel itself is everything that late-medieval, early-Renaissance novel of chivalry should be: Tirant, the hero, is as wonderfully superhuman in war and gloriously human—if a bit obtuse—in love as one could wish, while Carmesina, daughter of the emperor of Greece, is as perfect as any high-minded, well-spoken, well-read, and hot-blooded damsel of fourteen years could be. Together, they act as perfect foils to each other, as their protracted, furtive, and somewhat ill-starred romance forms the center of much of the novel’s action. That the course of true love never did run smooth is, in their case, an understatement. Thwarted by the disparity of their respective positions in society until near the end of the novel, when Tirant is designated to succeed the emperor and to wed the princess he has already won, foxed by the cunning of the Easygoing Widow, from whom the Wyf of Bath could have learned a trick or two, separated by conventional morality and then by shipwreck, they finally unite in a joyously sportive celebration of sexuality, and then reunite, once their future earthly union is duly assured, in death.

As the love story of Tirant and Carmesina is central to much of the novel’s forward movement, so the true education of a knight, his induction into the code of chivalry, his Herculean performance time and again against all odds, and his...

(The entire section is 1665 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Booklist. LXXX, May 1, 1984, p. 1226.

Choice. XXII, November, 1984, p. 431.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, August 3, 1984, p. B1.

Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1348.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 8, 1984, p. 1.

The Nation. CCXXXIX, August 4, 1984, p. 85.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, July 15, 1984, p. 10.

The New Yorker. LX, July 30, 1984, p. 87.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 4, 1984, p. 50.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIV, August 7, 1984, p. 30.