Amadis of Gaul. Summary.

“I want you to know, Sancho, that the famous Amadís de Gaula was one of the greatest knights-errant. No, I’m wrong in saying ‘one of,’ he was the only one, the best, he was unique, and in his time the lord of all those in the world… He was the guiding light, the star of all brave and enamoured knights, and all of us who fight under the banner of love and chivalry should imitate him… I want to imitate Amadís … “(Don Quixote I, chptr 25).

So Don Quixote addressed his squire, Sancho Panza, when they were alone in the Sierra Morena.  But who was Amadís, this extraordinary knight that Don Quixote was so anxious to imitate? 

Although we may have no idea nowadays who he was, if we know he was knight-errant we will understand that he was a kind of Medieval James Bond or Luke Skywalker. Like his modern counterparts, Amadís was always on the move (except when he believed that his lady, Oriana, no longer loved him), fighting against evil, defending people/damsels in distress, upholding justice and remaining loyal to his cause (or king or country).

But these figures are supermen who inhabit an unreal world, and any attempt by us to try and imitate even James Bond (the closest to us in time) would bring us back to reality very quickly: we would be badly injured or killed on our first “adventure”!
Amadís de Gaula is both hero and title of a long romance of chivalry in four books published by Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo in 1508 in Zaragoza, Spain. The work has a complicated history. Briefly, Montalvo says in the Prologue that he had “corrected” the first three books (he doesn’t say where or how they came into his possession) because they were defective, and then “translated” and “emended” the fourth, together with a sequel, Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Deeds of Esplandián).
So was Montalvo the author? If so, how much did he write or emend? Leaving aside questions of possible earlier French or Portuguese versions, we are now reasonably sure that Montalvo did “correct” or rework the first three books because there are several references in Spanish works going back to the 14th and 15th centuries to Amadís, including one to a version of three books. (The three-book version has never been found.  All we have preceding Montalvo’s Amadís are four manuscript pages dating probably from the early 1400s.) The fourth book and the Esplandián are acknowledged to be Montalvo’s own work, based on language, style and content (the reference to a translation from another language was a common feature of romances of chivalry.)

Amadís de Gaula, 1533 edition Image from Wikipedia

Like any romance of chivalry, Amadís de Gaula is a nightmare to summarise owing to its length, numerous characters and complicated subplots.

Book I. The story of Amadís opens soon after the Passion of Christ, when King Perión of Gaul visits the court of Garinter, king of Little Britain. There, Perión falls in love with Garinter’s younger daughter, Elisena. Only Elisena’s maid knows of their relationship, and she extracts a promise of marriage from Perión before the two lovers consummate their love.

Perión and Elisena’s love remains a secret as does the birth of their son, Amadís, who is placed in a chest and cast adrift on a river by Elisena. She also places in the chest a ring given to her by Perión, his sword and a letter identifying Amadís as the son of a king.  The chest floats out to sea where Amadís is rescued by Gandales, a Scottish knight. Gandales is informed by a great enchantress, Urganda la Desconocida (the Unknown or Unrecognisable), that the mysterious child he rescued –known as El Doncel del Mar (Youth of the Sea)— will become the greatest knight and most faithful lover ever.

One day, Gandales receives a visit from Languines, king of Scotland.  Languines is so impressed by Amadís –who is then 7 years old— that he takes him to be raised in his court.  A few years later, Lisuarte, the king of Great Britain visits Languines, accompanied by his daughter, Oriana, whose beauty is unequalled (sin par). She and Amadís immediately fall in love, although Amadís is too timid to declare himself. 

Shortly after, King Perión arrives at the court of Languines, seeking help to fight against Abiés, the king of Ireland.  By this time, Amadís is ready to be made knight-errant and requests that he be dubbed by Perión whose fame he has heard about. Amadís is duly knighted by his father (although, of course, given all the secrecy, neither knows of their relationship!).

In the meantime, we learn that Perión and Elisena also have two other children, a son and a daughter.  At the tender age of two, the son, Galaor (i.e. Amadís’s younger brother) is kidnapped by a giant, and taken to a distant island to be brought up by a hermit.

This summary covers only the first four chapters (or 55 pages) of Book I, which has a total of 43 chapters (and there are four books!).  Still, it’s enough to give a flavour of the text and to allow us to recognize some recurring motifs from romances of chivalry: secret marriage, secret birth, abandoned child, objects that help identify the child’s origin, enchantress, prophecy, love etc.

In Chapter 5, Amadís’s adventures begin when he sets out, accompanied by his faithful squire, Gandalín, following whatever path fortune takes him along (donde la ventura lo guiava).  But to create suspense and interest, Montalvo (or the author of the original three-book version) intersperses Amadís’s adventures with those of his brother Galaor. They sometimes meet, but whether together or separate their adversaries are invariably evil knights, kings, giants, magicians. In everything, Amadís distinguishes himself as a superior knight-errant.

Towards the end of Book I, the love interest becomes more complicated when Oriana becomes jealous because Amadís is helping Queen Briolanja of Sobradisa to recover her kingdom. Further interest is added with the revelation that Amadís and Galaor have an older half brother, Florestán.

The circumstance of Florestán’s birth is an example of the sexual encounters that were attacked by moralists in the 16th century:  Perión was a guest at the castle of the Count of Selandia.  One night, the Count’s beautiful daughter entered Perión’s bedroom and offered herself to him.  Perión rejected her advances upon which the damsel took his sword and threatened to kill herself if he did not make love to her, whereupon Perión embraced her and carried out her wishes! Book I, chptr 42.

Book I is full of episodes that confirm Amadís’s superiority over others as a knight.  Book II continues the fast, adventurous pace, but variety is introduced with new kinds of challenges that confirm Amadís’s status as the best and most loyal lover. 

This new perspective begins immediately with the wonders of the Insola Firme, where Amadís and his brothers attempt to enter a protected room (la cámara defendida) reserved only for the most faithful lover. On their way to the room, they see numerous shields belonging to those who have failed the test. Galaor and Florestán fail too, but Amadís succeeds.

Ironically, immediately following this proof of his devotion to Oriana, Amadís receives a letter from her accusing him of falling in love with Briolanja. Without Oriana’s love, he is unable to continue as knight-errant, and so adopting a new name (Beltenebros), he withdraws to the island of La Peña Pobre to do penance in the name of love.

Only when he receives another letter from Oriana admitting her error and asking his pardon can he resume his chivalric life. But another test of his love awaits Amadís, which Oriana too must pass. Both succeed.

The action then takes a couple of new twists.  King Lisuarte (Oriana’s father) is persuaded by treacherous friends that Amadís wants to usurp his throne and exiles him, and at the very end Oriana finds out that she is pregnant by Amadís.

In Book III, Oriana gives birth to Esplandián, but he is stolen by a lioness and brought up by a hermit, Nasciano. Amadís’s main adventure in this book is his defeat of the Endriago, a hideous monster who rules the Isla del Diablo (Island of the Devil).

The fruit of an incestuous relationship between father and daughter, the Endriago seized control of the island after killing his parents. (His mother had actually planned to murder her father and marry the Endriago!) Not only does the Endriago symbolize the devil incarnate, he may also allude to the Moors since he specialized in killing Christians.

After this adventure, Amadís travels widely through Europe, even reaching Constantinople (now Istanbul).  In the meantime, Lisuarte –still unaware of the relationship between Oriana and Amadís —plans to marry her to the Emperor of Rome.

In the Sergas de Esplandián, there are allusions that Amadís was killed by Esplandián (unrecognized by Amadís) and that Oriana committed suicide at the end of the three-book version. The death of the father at the hands of his unknown or unrecognized son is frequent in both folklore and classical tradition, e.g. Odysseus and Telegonus.

In Book IV, Amadís defeats the Roman fleet, rescues Oriana and tries to placate Lisuarte, but the king –angry that Amadís has kidnapped Oriana– insists on revenge. In the ensuing battle, Amadís’s forces are victorious, but harmony between Lisuarte and Amadís is restored when Nasciano –the hermit who had raised Esplandián— intervenes.  He tells Lisuarte that he has a grandson and persuades him to recognize the marriage of Amadís and Oriana.

The story ends inconclusively with the kidnapping and enchantment of Lisuarte, and the prophecy of the enchantress, Urganda la Desconocida, regarding the greatness of Esplandián, whose deeds will eclipse even those of his father. But this is Montalvo  preparing us for his sequel, Las sergas de Esplandián.

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 1985
Eisenberg, D    Romances of Chivalry in the Spanish Golden Age  Newark, Delaware 1982 A very good blog by Sue Burke. She is undertaking a translation of Amadísand as of January, 14,  2015 has completed chapter 76 (Part 1 of 3).   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.

There is also a modern translation of Books I and II:   Amadis of Gaul, Books I and II: A Novel of Chivalry of the 14th Century. Translated by Edwin Place and Herbert C. Behm. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974. 685 pages.