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“Mon fill,” dix l’ermità, “tot l’orde és en aquest llibre escrit, lo cual jo llig algunes vegades perquè sia en record de la gràcia que Nostre Senyor m’ha feta en aquest món, per ço com honrava e mantenia l’orde de cavalleria de tot mon poder. E així com cavalleria dóna tot o que pertany a cavaller, així cavaller deu donar totes ses forces a honrar cavalleria.”
“My son,” said the hermit, “the entire rules of the order are written in that book, which I sometimes read in order to recall the favor which Our Lord has done me in this world, since I used to honor and maintain the order of chivalry with all my might.”
–Joanot Martorell, Tirant lo Blanch lib i, cap xxxi (1490)
On a recent trip to Spain, I decided to cart along a translation of the fifteenth century chivalric romance Tirant lo Blanch. I came to it from a recent reading of Don Quixote. One of the most dramatic scenes in that novel, one which may in fact be critical to understanding what Cervantes is up to, involves the ransacking of a library in which many of Don Quixote’s books are consigned to the flames. And in that process, Tirant lo Blanch pops up, with Cervantes delivering quite an extraordinary tribute:
by right of its style this is the best book in the world: here knights eat, sleep, and they die even doing a will, things that all the rest of books of this genre lack. Having said all this, I am telling you that he deserved to have this book written because he did not do as many silly things as to deserve to be thrown to the galleys for the rest of his life. Take the book home and read it, and then you will realize that all I told you about it is true.
Well, I took his advice and invested quite a few hours with this book. At first I was puzzled, because it really doesn’t measure up to Cervantes’s masterwork. It seems a run-of-the-mill piece of chivalric romance, certainly lacking the humor and wit of the great Castilian. I kept asking myself, what is it that Cervantes sees in this work?
Viewing it that way—tracing the links back from Cervantes—you can quickly see what he found so appealing in it. This work is written in the waning fifteenth century, and notably it is not written in Spanish—a language which, strictly speaking, was just emerging at that point. It is composed in the Valencian dialect—which shows a closer family resemblance to Catalan or Provençal than to the Castilian idiom. But in the end, this work is a chivalric romance in much the way that Cervantes’s novel is—there is a curious element of critical detachment and conscious fictionalization. Cervantes tell us his narrative is but a rendition into Spanish of a manuscript originally authored in Arabic that he acquired from a Moor in the Jewish quarter of Toledo, who was on the verge of pulping it. The author of Tirant claims he is just translating a tale he found in English. That claim seems to have been accepted at face value for some time and there is an old English text that treats the life of the Earl of Warwick, who appears at the outset of this work. But this is not a translation of it. Like Don Quixote, Tirant is an original work.
Tirant is a sweeping tale that revolves around a much larger world than that of Don Quixote. It begins in England, moves to Greece and Constantinople, involves battles in central Anatolia and on the Black Sea, and dealings with the Saracens of North Africa as well as peoples of sub-Saharan Africa—it is a distinctly maritime world, like that of the Aragonese aristocracy that it describes. Many of the shorter tales seem quite conventional, others charged with a frank sexuality unclouded by any sense of shame. (Morality on this point figures not in guiding the conduct of the protagonist, but in his judgment of how others may act.) But there is a chivalric ethos that permeates the entire book. What separates this work from the less successful examples of the genre of chivalric romance is perhaps that it has an amazing measure of irony and detachment.
In chapter xli, for instance, our narrator has three lawyers executed summarily and he promises to improve the world by thus disposing of the entire legal profession. He sees the world of legalism and of rising professional classes as a threat. Words and pens, he suggests, are for women and lawyers, not for knights and men of action. (Our author, I suspect, lost some court case and still harbors a grudge against lawyers.)
But these remarks really do remind of Cervantes, because they can only be fairly understood and reconciled with other key parts of the text if we accept them as ironic, perhaps even comic. The author indeed made his mark on his own society and on posterity as a writer, not as a man-at-arms. And much of the book is a plea for the recognition of a higher order that must direct the conduct of mankind. He disdains the Byzantine bureaucracy and its legalism, but he counts an idealized vision of internalized law (which he would call “the order”) as something essential. Tragedy befalls those who fail to appreciate this in the course of the work.
Conversely, the key is furnished at the novel’s outset in a series of fascinating dialogues that our protagonist conducts with a mysterious hermit, a figure associated with timeless wisdom. “My son,” the hermit says, “the entire rules of the order are written in that book.” But what book does he mean, exactly? At first glance, the hermit seems to be talking about a specific written work that described the chivalric order, of which a number were composed between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. But that answer falters. Better to understand the reference, much in the style of Cervantes, as to the very book that the reader is holding. These are lines that could therefore be set above the entire book, Tirant lo Blanc. The book to which the hermit refers is a book of life and an inward voyage. He is not glorifying a particular hero or a particular life well lived, but rather a sort of inward quest that is the essence of the chivalric ideal. And on this point, Tirant lo Blanc and Don Quixote find a very profound point of agreement.
Listen to a series of selections from the Cançoner de Montecassino, the great collection of Aragonese sacred and profane music collected for King Alfons V el Magnànim in 1442
More from Scott Horton:
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."