The Poema de Mío Cid: A Different Hero.
Quite simply, the Poema de Mío Cid is about Rodrigo de Vivar (better known as the Cid or the Campeador) and his exploits. It does not exalt the crusading zeal of the Reconquista, and although el Cid is a hero, to call him the greatest “Spanish” hero is rather misleading.
He is, if anything, a Castilian hero, but even here the poet does not labour the point. The Poema is not about wars between kingdoms or religious conflicts; it follows the life of the Cid in exile and details how he survives and recovers his honour.
The Poema is divided into three Cantares (Songs), but the work is structured in two general stages: survival and rehabilitation. Stage one establishes the Cid’s military prowess, principally against Moors, after being exiled by Alfonso VI. It also makes clear the loyalty of the Cid to Alfonso who, the poem suggests, is misguided and perhaps undeserving of such a loyal vassal, as v 20 suggests: What a good vassal! May he find a good lord.
The first stage culminates with the conquest of Moorish Valencia and Rodrigo’s successful defence of the city against the Almoravids (vv 1712-30),
But the Cid also has enemies in the court of Alfonso, and these come to the fore in stage two. His main antagonists turn out to be his sons-in-law, the Infantes de Carrión (first referred to in v 1372), and their advisor, García Ordóñez (v 1345), a powerful Castilian noble, specifically identified as an enemy of the Cid, who always sought to do him ill (v 2997).
But García Ordóñez and the Infantes have something else in common, besides their envy of and dislike for Rodrigo. They are members of the upper or entrenched elite whereas the Cid is an infanzón, a member of the second tier of nobility. This has prompted some readers to view the poem as a clash between an older but debilitated and degenerate court aristocracy challenged by a virile and forward looking lower nobility whose military actions on the battle front speak louder than words.
Certainly, the behaviour of the Infantes is in complete contrast to that of the Cid. Rodrigo is brave, generous, loyal, just, honourable, a self-made man respected by all; the Infantes have a long, noble lineage, but they are avaricious, vindictive, cowardly, boastful (vv 2538-34) and selfish. And, unlike the Cid who loves his wife and daughters, the Infantes treat their wives with utter contempt, cruelly whipping them and abandoning them for dead in a forest (vv 2720-2748).
Rodrigo de Vivar: A Different Kind of Hero.
The idea that the poem is about a self-made man who has improved his status through his own effort has appealed to many. Certainly it is something that would resonate with the frontier public of the time.
They could associate easily with the Cid’s dilemma and also delight in his military prowess and eventual rehabilitation. They would have shivered at the opening scene when the Cid and his small band of followers enter Burgos only to find the doors closed and the people hiding from them. They would have sympathised when a frustrated Rodrigo kicks at a door only to have a young girl appear and explain that the king has prohibited any form of help.
The audience would recognise the implications of exile, disgrace and social ostracism, and the subsequent references to hunger (bread) and the obsession with booty as a means of achieving security would be perfectly understandable. Also, they would feel close to the Cid, given the familiarity of the places where so much of the action takes place.
And of course the Muslims against whom the Cid fights were easily identifiable as enemies. As a result, the poem appeals to ordinary people, but it would be hasty to jump from here to the notion of any democratic process at work. The protagonists are nobles and what the poem shows is how bread is won and justice rewarded within that sphere.
Nevertheless, there is ample reward too for all those who risk their lives, and in a frontier environment where risks were high and soldiers at a premium the opportunity to become rich would have had considerable appeal, and the obsessive itemising of the spoils in the Poema would have whetted many an appetite.
Also, with wealth comes status and the possibility of upward social mobility: e.g. following the conquest of Valencia, we read: those who were on foot became knights;/ and the gold and the silver, who could count it all? (vv 1213-14). Still, behind all the enumeration of potential wealth that soldiers could earn, there may also be a call for recruits to fight against the Moors.
Historically, the period the poem was composed –around 1200– was also a time when campaigns were being organised against the powerful Almohad forces from Morocco who had inflicted a heavy defeat on Alfonso VIII the battle of Alarcos at in 1195. But the appeal was heavily directed to material and not heavenly rewards!
Of course, the success and wealth enjoyed by the Cid`s followers is due to the remarkable skills of their leader. Rodrigo is by all measures an extraordinary individual, but at the same time he is very much a human being in a very real and realistically portrayed world.
These are innovative features that distinguish the Poema de Mío Cid from the fantastic fabrications and exaggerated exploits of the French epics which dominate the genre in the medieval period. Indeed, it has been argued that the poet of the Cid knew all about the French poems and set about writing a new form of epic in response to the preponderance of French heroes and lack of peninsular models.
Be that as it may, the poet has given us a figure whose human dimensions demystify the rarefied world of, for example, Roland and his companions in the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland). Nothing is more demystifying than a hero who starts out penniless and needs money (which he “borrows” by deceiving two money lenders) and who retains a keen interest throughout the poem in his and his followers’ material well being.
Money is alien to the traditional world of knights or epic heroes, but it is a reality of life and one that would have brought the Cid close to the frontier public of the time through shared experience. And how they would have appreciated the generosity with which the Cid always shares the spoils of battle, even with the king who has banished him!
But there is much more to Rodrigo de Vivar than this. He is characterised above all as prudent, (his mesura), just to the Moors he conquers, and loyal to Alfonso (what a good vassal is repeated like a mantra). Although only an infanzón, he moves easily and confidently into the circle of the aristocracy, assured of his own worth.
But we see him, too, enjoying a good meal, seeking counsel with his closest advisors, and weeping when leaving his family for exile. In perhaps the poem’s most memorable image, the separation is described as the parting of the nail from the flesh (v 375). Here is a man, exiled and dispossessed, whose main concern is the security of his wife and children. And when Rodrigo has established himself in Valencia, he immediately calls for Ximena and his daughters to join him, and when they arrive they embrace and weep for joy.
Quickly he takes them up to the highest spot in the city and proudly shows them what he has won for them (v 1607). Pointedly this is no visionary victory for Christianity or for Alfonso VI; it is a touching family reunion, where a proud husband and father shows what he has managed to do for his family (v 1604-07). Domestic concerns such as these give a very human dimension and a universal and timeless appeal to the Poema.
Life in the battlefield is serious business, but the poet makes it clear that Rodrigo was not without a sense of humour, especially at the expense of his enemies. Like money, laughter has a corrosive effect on epic grandeur or solemnity.
Heroes don’t usually have a sense of humour (which brings them close to us) and distance is normally a prerequisite of myth. Rodrigo, despite his economic concerns or pursuit of justice, still has a dry sense of humour. Following his defeat of the Count of Barcelona and a delightful battle of wills over whether the Count will accept the Cid’s invitation to eat (vv 1017-63), Rodrigo thanks his adversary for all the things he has “left” him (v 1069… the point is that the Count, having been defeated, really had no say in the matter).
And there is a delicious tongue-in-cheek moment when the Cid reassures Ximena –when news of an impending Moorish attack on Valencia reaches them– that the Moors are really bringing gifts, i.e. the booty captured from them will serve as dowries for their daughters’ weddings (v 1649-50).
Although the Cid’s blood now runs in the royal houses of Christian Spain following his daughters’ marriages to the Princes of Navarra and Aragón respectively, the Poema shows him an ordinary human being. Money, food, booty, domestic concerns … these are the stuff of everyday life, easily understood by his audience.
The Cid is one of the most accessible heroes in European literature, never distant from the public that admired him. Even his death is reported quietly, in a matter of fact way, in two lines; there is no apotheosis such as in the case of the French Roland whose soul is taken by the Archangels Gabriel and Michael to heaven. Here there is a simple reporting of the fact, followed by a direct appeal to the public: let us do likewise, both good people and sinners (v 3728).
The bringing together of hero and public is a fitting conclusion for a poem which, by demystifying the hero, departs from the traditional epic norm and establishes a new pattern for heroic exploits. It is not the only time that Spanish literature takes this path against prevailing trends; we will see it again in three other great works, La Celestina, Lazarillo de Tormes, and Don Quixote.
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
Watt, Montgomery and Cachia, Pierre A History of Islamic Spain Edinburgh 1965
A very useful web site –in both Spanish and English– on matters relating to the Cid can be found at: www.caminodelcid.org
Image of statue of El Cid in Burgos: By photographer: ElCaminodeSantiago09 2006 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Cid