Amadis of Gaul: What is it about?

Amadís de Gaula: the Art of Storytelling

In chapter 6 of Part I of Don Quixote (1605), the priest and barber of Don Quixote’s village examine the books in his library with the aim of burning those responsible for his madness. The first book mentioned is Amadís de Gaula, and both priest and barber agree that it should not be destroyed, because as the barber concludes, "I’ve heard it said that it is the best of all the books of this kind ever written, and so … it should be pardoned."  We don’t know why they think that, but general consensus bears out their opinion that Amadís is indeed the best romance of chivalry written in Spanish.
 There are many who argue that another romance
 Tirant lo Blanch –written in Catalan-- is equal or even
 superior to it. Tirant was published in 1490 and translated
 into Spanish anonymously in 1511.  In the same chapter
 6 of Don Quixote, the priest waxes eloquent over Tirant,
 calling it a treasure and “for its style, the best book in the

What is Amadís about? It’s a fast moving action story with a strong love interest. Its cast of characters is large: kings and queens, knights, squires, damsels, giants, dwarves, wise men --but no common people! It has mystery, magic and fantasy: sorcerers, enchantresses, wild animals, monsters… There are individual combats, pitch battles, tournaments, sex, and exotic locales ranging across Europe from England to Constantinople. But Spain is not on the itinerary! Amadís reflects the ethos of Medieval court society, depicting an aristocratic, youthful world of adventure with no concerns for the realities of every day life.

Amadís’s adventures and his courtly relationship with Oriana form the main thread of the book. As a knight Amadís embodies the chivalric virtues of loyalty, magnanimity, humility, justice. As a lover he is the epitome of steadfastness. But only so much can be written about his heroic exploits and amorous feelings before they become repetitive and boring, so various ways are sought to sustain our interest.

For instance, each of the four books focuses generally on different facets of Amadís’s life. Quickly passing through his birth, childhood, and first meeting with Oriana (Chapter 4), Book I demonstrates how Amadís is the greatest knight. Without omitting his knightly activities, Book II shows Amadís as superior as steadfast lover. Together Books I and II confirm that Amadís has fulfilled the two most important requirements of a knight-errant: warrior and lover.  What more can be said about him? The emphasis has to shift, and it does at the end of Book II.    First, Amadís is exiled from the court of King Lisuarte (Oriana’s father) because of the treachery of some courtiers, and secondly Oriana (whom he left behind) finds that she is pregnant. In Book III Amadís finds out in a letter from Oriana that he has a son, Esplandián, but she fails to mention that Esplandián has been lost! Any potential confrontation between Amadís and Lisuarte is avoided with Amadís’s adventures in other parts of Europe.  His major triumph is the defeat of the monstrous Endriago on the Isla del Diablo (Island of the Devil). Towards the end of Book III, Amadís receives news that Oriana is be married to the Emperor of Rome.  In the final book, Amadís kidnaps Oriana, thereby infuriating Lisuarte.  Tension now reaches a climax with the battle between Amadís’s and Lisuarte’s forces. Peace is restored only after Lisuarte is informed that he has a grandson by Amadís and Oriana. Amadís and Oriana are confirmed as heirs to Lisuarte`s kingdom and rulers in their own right of La Insola Firme.  At the end of Book IV, Lisuarte is enchanted and kidnapped… but this open-ended finish is to prepare us for a sequel, Las Sergas de Esplandián.

Amadís is a work where action governs reflection and verbs dominate adjectives (the preterite tense is particularly effective in advancing the action). Abundant dialogue adds drama and is used effectively in creating tension especially in confrontational situations, but it lends little psychological depth here, and the characters tend to be unidimensional. They are good or evil, beautiful or ugly etc, and like most figures in Medieval painting they have a sameness about them.

What gives Amadís its impact is the creation of suspense through the interplay of contrast and changes of focus, together with strong doses of secrecy, prophecy and mystery.  Contrast is in fact the general principle behind the basic structure of the book. The many subplots, numerous characters, magic and enchantment, moralizing asides, may suggest a lack of coherence, but the story is really built on easily recognizable, opposing or contrasting dualities: good/evil, virtue/vice, justice/injustice, peace/war, order/disorder, beauty/ugliness, large/small, power/weakness, separation/ unification. These are universal archetypes, and are the same structural principles that underlie much of imaginative literature, from Homer through Shakespeare, to cowboy novels, James Bond, Star Wars, and a host of Hollywood action movies (think Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis etc.).

Each of the endless confrontations is a case of restoring order and justice, a defence of the weak against the abuse of the strong, an instance of good triumphing over evil. Amadís’s first significant combat (Book I, 6) is typical of what will follow: A weeping damsel is seen by Amadís coming out of a castle.  She has been raped and Amadís offers to avenge her dishonour.  Before confronting her rapist, Galpano, Amadís kills several of his soldiers.  Galpano, full of arrogance, vows to cut off Amadís’s head.  However, he turns out not only to be a rapist but also a coward, who having lost his weapons and shield ends up hopping around trying to avoid Amadís’s sword. Amadís finally delivers a blow that chops off Galpano’s head. Justice done, the weak defended, evil conquered.

Opposing dualities gain even greater impact, however, if the outcome to the conflict is suspended, so that the reader or listener wants to know when –and how--, for example, will order be restored, justice replace injustice, or separated lovers be reunited.  Amadís’s exile from the court of Lisuarte and news of Oriana’s pregnancy at the end of Book II, for example, open up new possibilities: What will happen now that  Amadís has been treated so unjustly?  Where will he go? Will he remain loyal to Lisuarte? Will there be reconciliation? If so, how and when? How will Oriana explain her pregnancy? How will she and Amadís be reunited? What will become of their child?

The strongest and most consistent contrast is that between  Amadís and his enemies who embody different vices. And there is no shortage of enemies, each seemingly stronger and more terrifying.  The Endriago (Book III, 10) is the most hideous that Amadís confronts, but the most dangerous is the enchanter Arcalaus (the Darth Vader of the Amadís tale). From his very first encounter with Amadís (Book I, 18), Arcalaus is identified as a diabolical force, who reappears periodically.  However, with a good sense of suspense, the author doesn’t dispose of him at the end, but leaves him escape to fight another day!
For the question of authorship,
 see  Amadis de Gaula Summary.

But enemies are not the only foils to Amadís. Friends and companions constantly highlight his superiority through their shortcomings. E.g. the inability of all –including his two brothers, Galaor and Florestán, to enter the protected room of true lovers on the Insola Firme (Book II, 44). Indeed it is his younger brother, Galaor, who is frequently contrasted with Amadis, especially as lover.  If Amadís is the perfect example of the courtly code, Galaor and the compliant damsels he meets enjoy casual lovemaking with unrestrained pleasure. The description of the sexual initiation of both captures the difference between them: In Book I, 12,  Galaor is led into a castle room where he sees a young maiden combing her hair. They are introduced to each other as royalty and with no more ado make love: "Galaor enjoyed himself with the damsel that night at his leisure, and without saying anymore about it…"

(Subsequent encounters confirm that Galaor is anything but bashful and the damsels he encounters give no thought to marriage vows. A simple example is the grateful Brandueta (Book I, 25) whose father’s murder has just been avenged by Galaor: She and Galaor are waiting to eat, but "as she was very beautiful and he was longing for this tasty dish (i.e Brandueta), before the food could be brought or the table laid, they both tumbled on a bed that was in the palace where they were, and she who was a damsel was left a duenna, with both having satisfied their desires.")
 Interestingly, in a work where there are several
 moral digressions, these encounters elicit no
condemnation in the text (although they often
 did among readers)! In Don Quixote II, 2, Don
Quixote seems to have got Galaor’s character
right when he says "It’s rumoured that Galaor,
brother of Amadís of Gaul, was more than a little randy."

Compared to Galaor’s casual encounters, Amadís and Oriana’s first make love only after an appropriate period and after Oriana’s allusion to a secret marriage in the eyes of God. Everything is favourable for the moment: Amadís has just rescued Oriana from Arcalaus, and recovered his sword at the same time. In an idyllic glade, Oriana lies down on a cloak amongst  some thick shrubs.  Amadís looks at her "and since she was so beautiful … and had indicated her willingness, he was so stirred by pleasure and bashfulness that he didn’t even dare look at her. And so you might well say that on that green grass more through the kindness and generosity of Oriana than through the forwardness and boldness of Amadís did the most beautiful damsel in the world become a duenna,"  i.e. was no longer a virgin (Book I, 35).


Like all good storytellers, the author

constantly changes the focus of the tale, and action moves rapidly back and fore between the characters.  These sudden changes often occur in mid chapter and are signaled by formulaic expressions. For instance, Book I, 15, begins in the court of King Lisuarte where Amadís identifies himself to the King and Queen as the son of King Perión. Then suddenly we read: "Here the author leaves off talking about this and returns to Galaor…" and we are whisked back to the adventures of Galaor, interrupted at the end of Chapter 12 (which ended with "Here the author stops telling about this matter (i.e. regarding Galaor) and turns back to Amadís, and Galaor’s story will be told in its place.")

Such formulaic expressions abound in the book, and are typically used by minstrels or storytellers in oral transmission to create suspense.  They are used to remind listeners or readers of some past event or create expectation about future events.  In addition, in an age when silent reading was still a relatively rare activity and most people couldn’t read, storytellers brought their audiences “closer” to the text by addressing them directly. They personalize the text making the story an experience shared exclusively between storyteller and audience: “Como ya se vos dixo” (“As you were told”),  “ya oístes” ("you’ve already heard”), “como se os ha en el comienço deste libro contado” ("as you were told at the beginning of this book”), “quiero que sepáis” (“I want you to know), “Lo que del (i.e. Galaor) avino adelante se contará” (“what happened to him (Galaor) will be told later on”), “sabed que” (“know that”), “pero dexemos agora esto y tornemos al Rey” ("but let’s leave this now and return to the King).  

In the end Amadís and Oriana are reunited, and Amadís and Lisuarte are reconciled. But we should be cautious about saying that all’s well that ends well.  As each battle shows, injustice, evil etc are constants, and simply do not disappear. So the evil Arcalaus escapes and, as we see in the sequel to Amadís, Las Sergas de Esplandián, battles fought by one generation pass on to the next in a never ending cycle.

Blecua, Juan Manuel Cacho        Amadís de Gaula 2 vols.  Madrid 1987
Brownlee, K and Brownlee M S       Romance: Generic Transformation from Chretien de Troyes   to  Cervantes.  Hanover and London England,  1985
Eisenberg, D           Romances of Chivalry in the Spanish Golden Age  Newark,  Delaware 1982
Gies, David             The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, Cambridge:  2007    (First                          published 2004) A very good blog by Sue Burke. She is undertaking a translation of Amadís, and as of  July 31, 2012 has completed chapter 58.   She has also published Book I of Amadis (i.e. chapters 1-43) in book form. The blog and book have a lot of informative comments on the Medieval world, chivalry and Don Quixote. Well worth looking at.