Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

It's odd, that when we consider Great Western Literature we do not automatically consider Spain, despite the fact that it produced the first--and still the greatest--novel in Don Quijote (see Orrin's review) and one of the world's best epic poems, El Cid.   All of us recognize the name El Cid, and I remember the pretty feeble movie version with Charlton Heston (supposedly the restored version is much better than the hacked up one they used to show), but has anyone ever read it?  This great translation by the poet W.S. Merwin isn't even in print anymore.  It should be; it's a great story.

The Cid was a historical figure, Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (1043-99),  the greatest Christian knight of 12th Century Spain.  This was a turbulent time in Spain.  The Moors had crossed over from Africa in 711 and won extensive holdings in the South (Andalusia).  By the Cid's day, the badly divided northern Kingdom was uniting for a Reconquista, an attempt to drive out the Moors.  The Catholic Encyclopaedia describes the actual events of the Cid's life:

    Ferdinand I, at his death (1065), had divided his dominions between his three sons, Sancho,
    Alfonso, and Garcia, and his two daughters, Elvira and Urraca, exacting from them a promise that
    they would respect his wishes and abide by the division. But Sancho, to whose lot had fallen the
    Kingdom of Castile, being the eldest, thought that he should have inherited the entire dominions of
    his father, and he resolved to repudiate his promise, claiming that it had been forced from him.
    Stronger, braver, and craftier than his brothers, he cherished the idea of despoiling them and his
    sisters of their possessions, and becoming the sole successor of his father.

    At this time, Rodrigo Diaz was quite young, and Sancho, out of gratitude for the services of
    Rodrigo's father to the State, had retained his son at the court and looked after his education,
    especially his military training. Rodrigo later rendered such distinguished services in the war in
    which Sancho became involved with Aragon that he was made alferez (standard-bearer or
    commander-in-chief) of the king's troops. After ending this war with Aragon, Sancho turned his
    attention to his plan of despoiling his brothers and sisters (c. 1070). He succeeded in adding to his
    dominion Leon and Galicia, the portions of his brothers, but not until in each instance Rodrigo had
    come to his rescue and turned apparent defeat into victory. The city of Toro, the domain of his
    sister Elvira, was taken without trouble. He then laid siege to the city of Zamora, the portion of his
    sister Urraca, and there met his fate, being treacherously slain before the gates of the city by one of
    Urraca's soldiers (1072). Learning this, Alfonso who had been exiled to the Moorish city of Toledo,
    set out in haste to claim the dominions of his brother, and succeeded him on the throne as Alfonso
    VI, though not without opposition, from his brother Garcia, in Galicia, and especially in Castile, the
    inhabitants of which objected to a Leonese king.  The story is told, though not on the best historical
    authority, that the Castilians refused Alfonso their allegiance until he had sworn that he had no hand
    in his brother's death, and that, as none of the nobles was willing to administer the oath for fear of
    offending him, Rodrigo did so at Santa Gadea before the assembled nobility. If this be true, it
    would account in a great measure for the ill-will Alfonso bore Rodrigo, and for his subsequent
    treatment of him. He did not at first show his hatred, but tried to conciliate Rodrigo and the
    Castilians by bestowing upon him his niece Jimena in marriage (1074). It was not long, however,
    before he had an opportunity to satisfy his animosity. Rodrigo having been sent by Alfonso to
    collect tribute from the king of Seville, Alfonso's vassal, he was accused on his return, by his
    enemies of having retained a part of it. Whereupon, Alfonso, giving free rein to his hatred, banished
    him from his dominions (1076). Rodrigo then began his career as a soldier of fortune, which has
    furnished themes to Spanish poets of early modern times, and which, idealized by tradition and
    legend, has made of him the champion of Christian Spain against her Moorish invaders. During this
    period of his career, he offered his services and those of his followers first to one petty ruler and
    then another, and often fought on his own account, warring indifferently against Christians and
    Moors, always with distinguished success, and incidentally rising to great power and influence. But
    in time of necessity his assistance was sought by Alfonso, and in the midst of career of conquest he
    hastened to the latter's support when he was hard pressed by Yusuf, the founder of Morocco.

    Through some mistake or misunderstanding, however, he failed to join the king, who listening to
    the complaints and accusations of the Cid's enemies, took from him all of his possessions,
    imprisoned his wife and children, and again banished him for his dominions. Disgraced and
    plundered, the Cid resumed his military operations. Upon his return from one of his campaigns,
    hearing that the moors had driven the Christians from Valencia and taken possession of the city, he
    determined to recapture it from them and become lord of that capital. This he did (1094) after a
    terrible siege. He spent the remainder of his days there. His two daughters were married to the
    Infante of Navarre and the Count of Barcelona respectively. His remains were transferred to the
    monastery of San Pedro de Cardena near Burgos, where they now rest.

The poem actually only covers the years from 1081, when the Cid is exiled from the Court, until shortly before his death.  It is concerned less with warfare, though there are stirring battle scenes, than with his relationship with Alfonzo.  Essentially it details how the Cid, in seeking redress of grievances including insult to his daughters, forces Alfonso to act like a King.  It culminates in a grand trial by combat, where The Cid's men at arms vanquish his treacherous sons-in-law.

The story functions on a number of levels: stirring adventure, Christian triumphalism and political instruction.  It is particularly vital to the Western tradition in so far as The Cid is born of middling rank, but rises to preeminence on the strength of his own talents and for the manner in which The Cid requires Alfonso to behave like a worthy leader.  Both of these have obvious implications for the rise of liberal democracy, and to my mind, place The Cid in company with Robin Hood as early democratic heroes.  The translation by Merwin, if you can find it, is readily accessible and vastly enjoyable.  (if not, try this one The Poem of the Cid : A Bilingual Edition With Parallel Text (Penguin Classics) This is good stuff and we should know it better.


Grade: (A)


See also:

(4 books reviewed)
Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "w. s. merwin"
    -Featured Author: W. S. Merwin (NY Times Book Review Archives)
    -POEMS, ESSAYS & REVIEWS:  W.S. Merwin: (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: What is American About American Poetry? (W.S. Merwin, Poetry Society of America)
    -ESSAY: First Loves (WS Merwin, American Poetry Society)
    -REVIEW: A Scattering of Salt by James Merrill (W.S. Merwin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of RIMBAUD By Pierre Petitfils. Translated by Alan Sheridan (W.S. Merwin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BURNING PATIENCE By Antonio Skarmeta. Translated by Katherine Silver  (W.S. Merwin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE INVENTION OF SOLITUDE By Paul Auster   (W.S. Merwin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of CELESTINE Voices From a French Village. By Gillian Tindall   (W.S. Merwin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of CHAMFORT A Biography. By Claude Arnaud. Translated by Deke Dusinberre   (W.S. Merwin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of HYMNS AND FRAGMENTS By Friedrich Holderlin. Translated and Introduced by Richard Sieburth   (W.S. Merwin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: W.S. Merwin: A Poet in Exile, NY Review of Books
        Collected Poems by Edwin Muir
    -REVIEW: W.S. Merwin: A Sight of the Bright Life, NY Review of Books
        The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala by Munro S. Edmonson
    -REVIEW: W.S. Merwin: 'Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang', NY Review of Books
        Birds in Literature by Leonard Lutwack
    -REVIEW: W.S. Merwin: Footprints of a Shadow, NY Review of Books
        Fernando Pessoa: A Centenary Pessoa edited by Eugénio Lisboa and with L.C. Taylor
        Poems of Fernando Pessoa translated and edited by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown
        Fernando Pessoa & Co.:Selected Poems edited and translated by Richard Zenith
        Always Astonished: Selected Prose by Fernando Pessoa translated by Edwin Honig
        The Keeper of Sheep by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Edwin Honig, and Susan M. Brown
        An Introduction to Fernando Pessoa by Darlene J. Sadlier
        The Presence of Pessoa by George Monteiro
    -AUDIO: Poetry Readings by Merwin
                 W. S. Merwin, "Any Time"
                 W. S. Merwin, "Before the Flood"
                 W. S. Merwin, "Term"
    -POEMS: (from The Atlantic)
    -POEM: Eight: The Stranger:  After a Guarani legend recorded by Ernesto Morales
    -POEM: Far Company (Poetry Magazine)
    -POEM:  Separation (Lumea)
    -POEM: "Yesterday" (Fooling with Words, Bill Moyer, PBS)
    -POEM: Beggars and Kings
    -POEM: Twilight (Neue Sirene)
    -POEMS: links to poetry by W.S. Merwin
    -ESSAY: W.S. Merwin: PLANH FOR THE DEATH OF TED HUGHES, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY: W.S. Merwin: Two Poems , NY Review of Books
    -TRANSLATION: W.S. Merwin translates Canto XXXI of Dante's Purgatorio (Cortland Review)
    -TRANSLATIONS: Poetry from  EAST WINDOW: The Asian Translations by W.S. Merwin (Tricycle)
    -W. S. Merwin (1927- )(Modern American Poetry)
    -Academy of American Poets: W. S. Merwin
    -INTERVIEW: A Poet of Their Own (DINITIA SMITH, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: "A Whole New Thing"   W.S. Merwin on poetry, The Folding Cliffs and Hawai`i (John Wythe White, Honolulu Weekly)
    -PROFILE: Swimming up into Poetry: The Atlantic's poetry editor reflects on the career of W. S. Merwin, whose long association with the magazine spans great distances of geography and art (Peter Davison, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Forging a Unique Spanish Christian Identity: Santiago and El Cid in the Reconquista (Laura Elizabeth Gibbs)
    -ESSAY:  Sex, Semantics, and Chauvinism (Ming Zhen Shakya)
    -POEM: ON READING W. S. MERWIN in the NEW YORKER (James DeFord, James DeFord's Poetry Corner)
    -REVIEW : of Purgatorio by Dante; Translated by W.S. Merwin (David R. Slavitt, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: G.S. Fraser: Three Poets, NY Review of Books
        The Moving Target by W.S. Merwin
        Weather and Seasons by Michael Hamburger
        A Peopled Landscape by Charles Tomlinson
    -REVIEW: Denis Donoghue: Objects Solitary and Terrible, NY Review of Books
        Live or Die by Anne Sexton
        The Lice by W.S. Merwin
        Reasons for Moving by Mark Strand
        Love Letters from Asia by Sandra Hochman
    -REVIEW: Denis Donoghue: Waiting for the End, NY Review of Books
        The Gulf by Derek Walcott
        The Carrier of Ladders by W.S. Merwin
        Darker by Mark Strand
        The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace by James Merrill
        The Whispering Roots and Other Poems by C. Day-Lewis
        Collecting Evidence by Hugh Seidman
        Baby Breakdown by Anne Waldman
    -REVIEW: Stephen Spender: Can Poetry Be Reviewed?, NY Review of Books
        Moly and My Sad Captains by Thom Gunn
        Writings to An Unfinished Accompaniment by W.S. Merwin
        Braving the Elements by James Merrill
        Wintering Out by Seamus Heaney
        The Crystal Lithium by James Schuyler
        They Feed They Lion by Philip Levine
        A Change of Hearts by Kenneth Koch
    -REVIEW: Joseph Brodsky; Barry Rubin (translated by): Beyond Consolation, NY Review of Books
        Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam and translated by Max Hayward
        Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin
        Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam translated by Burton Raffel
        Osip Mandel'shtam, Selected Poems translated by David McDuff
    -REVIEW: Bernard Knox: A Four Handkerchief Tragedy, NY Review of Books
        Euripides: Iphigeneia at Aulis translated by W.S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr.
        Iphigenia a film directed by Michael Cacoyannis
    -REVIEW: Michael Wood: The Insulted and the Injured, NY Review of Books
        César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence by Jean Franco
        Poesía completa by César Vallejo
        Vertical Poetry by Roberto Juarroz and translated by W. S. Merwin
        "Harsh World" and Other Poems by Angel González and translated by Donald D. Walsh
        Muestra by Angel González
    -REVIEW: Roger Shattuck: In the Magic Circle, NY Review of Books
        The Lost Upland: Stories of Southwest France by W.S. Merwin
    -REVIEW: John Bayley: Living Ghosts, NY Review of Books
        Lament for the Makers by W.S. Merwin
        The Vixen by W.S. Merwin
        Flight Among the Tombs by Anthony Hecht
        The Bounty by Derek Walcott -REVIEW: of The River Sound by W.S. Merwin (Jerry Bass, Richmond Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Vixen by W. S. Merwin (Richard Howard, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of Poems in W.S. Merwin's `The Vixen' reveal the uncanny, kinetic power of the written word (Arlice Davenport, Knight-Ridder Newspapers)
    -REVIEW: of Folding Cliffs: Hawaiian Epic  Poet W. S. Merwin crystallizes the history and humanity of the islands in his new masterwork. (Gretel Ehrich, Island Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Folding Cliffs: Pulitzer poet pays homage to isles with `Folding Cliffs' (Suzanne Tswei, Honolulu Star-Bulletin)
    -REVIEW: John Bayley: Green and Secretive Islands, NY Review of Books
        The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative by W.S. Merwin
        The River Sound by W.S. Merwin

      b. c. 1043,, Vivar, near Burgos, Castile [Spain]
      d. July 10, 1099, Valencia
    -Bio:  El Cid  (Rodrigo, or Ruy, Diaz, Count of Bivar) (Catholic Encyclopaedia)
    -Legends - Paladins and Princes - The Cid
    -SUMMARY & COMMENT: The Song of El Cid
    -Discussion Questions:  POEM OF THE CID (SPAN-HUM 2744 / Dr. Folkart )
    -ESSAY: WEAPONS FROM THE SONG OF ROLAND AND THE CID By Magistra Rosemounde of Mercia
    -ESSAY: Multiculturalism Gone Wrong: Spain in the Rennaissance ( adapted from a guest lecture given for the European Civilization course)   (Alix Ingber, Professor of Spanish)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of The SPANISH INQUISITION: A HISTORICAL REVISION By Henry Kamen (Denver Post Books Online)
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA: Spain, history of: The rise of Castile and Aragon
    -ETEXT: The Lay of the Cid (Translation: R.Selden Rose & L. Bacon)
    -ETEXT: Robert Southey: The Chronicle of the Cid, 1637
    -Harold Bloom's Western Canon
    -Philip Ward's "500 Greatest Books": From Philip Ward's 1984 book A Lifetime's Reading: 500 Great Books to Be Enjoyed over 50 Years.
    -ARTICLE: Medieval Riches of El Cid's City (GERRY DAWES, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE QUEST FOR EL CID By Richard Fletcher (Ian Gibson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: MEDIEVAL COWBOYS   Deirdre Headon (D.J.R. Bruckner, NY Times Book Review)

    -BUY IT: El Cid (
    -INFO: El Cid (Internet Movie DataBase)

    -Outline of the Literature of the Middle Ages  By Roger Blackwell Bailey, Ph. D. (San Antonio College Lit Web)
    -The Internet Medieval Sourcebook now part of ORB, the Online Reference Book  for Medieval Studies
    -ETEXT: Song and Legend From the Middle Ages by William D. McClintock and Porter Lander McClintock