The Poema de Mío Cid (probably written around 1200) is known as Spain’s greatest epic poem. Whether that is the case is another matter, and whether all regions of Spain hail him as their hero is open to question.
Epic poetry in the Western tradition is a narrative in verse that generally recounts the deeds of a hero or heroes identified with the history and common destiny of a people. Since that common destiny was accomplished primarily on the field of battle, the hero usually achieves heroic stature through his military success. He faces numerous challenges and frequently undertakes perilous journeys. He suffers adversity, is fearless in the face of death, and remains resolutely loyal to his cause while overcoming a series of obstacles.
The epic reflects a male dominated world where action overrules reflection and victory is measured in terms of conquest. The hero may be divinely inspired or protected, in which case the community may perceive itself through him to be divinely favoured by God. The hero acquires larger-than-life qualities through frequently exaggerated accomplishments and chronological distance (the action takes place well in the past), characteristics of myth making. The world he inhabits is essentially aristocratic and what he does reflects the ethics and concerns of the nobility, the ruling elite; it is not the world of ordinary people. Consequently, the language is elevated and sober, and the message uplifting and morally edifying.
Although the Cid embodies many of the qualities outlined above, he is –as the following summary suggests, a very different kind of hero: one whose very human attributes are as important as his military conquests.
The Poema de mío Cid is based on the life of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (ca 1043-1099), a Castilian knight of modest birth. The poem traces the fortunes of the Cid (as he is better known, from his Arabic title, meaning “lord”) following his second exile from Castile, at the command of Alfonso VI, king of León-Castile.
The reason for the exile is not specified, but it might have been contained in the opening lines, which are missing in the text that has come down to us. As it stands, the poem opens with the Rodrigo’s tearful departure from his confiscated home in Vivar and his arrival in nearby Burgos, accompanied by a small retinue of loyal followers. There, no one dares speak to him or offer him refuge for fear of contravening the King’s edict, and it is left to a 9-year old girl to explain why.
Socially ostracised and impoverished, the Cid must start immediately to fend for himself and his followers. His first act is to fill two chests with sand, and with the help of an emissary deceive two money lenders from Burgos into advancing him funds with which to buy provisions. He then sets out, taking tearful leave of his wife, Ximena, and their two daughters, whom he leaves under the protection of the abbot of the Benedictine monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos.
From then on it is by the deeds of his sword that the Cid prospers. Successfully raiding and conquering Moorish villages and towns between Burgos and Zaragoza, he soon becomes famous and his followers increase in number.
He also defeats the Christian
Count of Barcelona, vv 957-1009)
The booty he wins ensures his survival, and although out of favour with Alfonso, he nevertheless sends the king generous portions of his spoils as proof of his loyalty.
The capture of Valencia (vv. 1170-1220) in 1094 marks the high point of the Cid’s material success. Soon after, the king pardons him, returns his confiscated property and allows Ximena and her daughters to be reunited with him in Valencia. There, the Cid delights in showing his family the city which he has won for them. Shortly after, he defends it in their presence against a powerful Muslim army, demonstrating, as he so aptly puts it, “how bread is won in these lands.”
In the meantime, the Cid’s success has not passed unnoticed amongst the higher nobility in the court of Alfonso. Two brothers, the Infantes de Carrión (first mentioned in v 1372), members of the Leonese nobility, seeing opportunities for enrichment, petition the king for the hands of the Cid’s daughters. The king agrees, but the Cid, uneasy about the arrangement, accepts only because it is the king’s wish, and refuses to give them away himself at the marriage ceremony.
The Cid’s unease proves well founded. The Infantes soon show themselves to be cowardly, as well as vain and avaricious. They hide when a lion gets loose in the Cid’s household (vv. 2281-2307), and are fearful at the news of another Moorish attack on the city (vv. 2317-2337). Although they do apparently participate in the battle, no one can remember seeing them in the thick of the action. Aggrieved by feeling themselves the butts of jokes among the Cid’s men, the Infantes seek permission to take their wives to Carrión, ostensibly to show them their property. The Cid showers them with gifts, and presents the Infantes with his two most precious swords –Colada and Tizón– both won in battle. In the middle of a forest, however, the two brothers strip their wives, beat them mercilessly with their belts and leave them for dead (vv. 2712-2752).
When the Cid hears the news, he demands justice, reminding the king that it was he who authorised the marriage. Alfonso calls a meeting of the Cortes (Parliament) at Toledo where the Infantes are shamed and discredited, and obliged to return Colada and Tizón to the Cid. A judicial duel, fought in the king’s presence between the Cid’s champions (the Cid has returned to Valencia) and the Infantes, completes the latters’ disgrace. As the culmination of the Cid’s success, his daughters are remarried to the heirs to the thrones of Aragón and Navarre, from which union, the poet concludes, “the kings of Spain are descendants today.”
Blackburn, Paul transl Poem of the Cid Norman Oklahoma 1966 (1998)
Fletcher, Richard The Quest for El Cid London 1989
Hamilton, Rita & Perry, Janet The Poem of the Cid Manchester: 1975; Penguin 1984. Prose translation, with very useful introduction.
Lowney, Chris A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain Oxford 2006
Montaner, Alberto ed Cantar de Mío Cid Barcelona 1993
Smith, Colin Poema de Mío Cid Madrid 1996
Image of manuscript from Wikipedia: Cantar de Mío Cid: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantar_de_Mio_Cid
A very useful web site –in both Spanish and English– on matters relating to the Cid can be found at: www.caminodelcid.org
Also very useful, the interactive site: http://www.laits.utexas.edu/cid