Heroes of Old: The Cid

The literature of ages past has given us many iconic heroes, whose feats and fame have defined for us what it means for a human to be extraordinary. Some were historical, some purely imaginative, and still others combined qualities of both. Hercules, Beowulf, Arthur, Cú Chulainn, Arrow-Odd – all of them admired for possessing certain qualities that allowed them to achieve things or see wonders that the rest of humanity only dreams of.

But it is in my mind that most of these heroes are better known by generalized reputation than actual familiarity with the original stories. So, as I reflect upon these elevated individuals in my personal readings, I will also share some of my thoughts on them with you.

The first hero, since I recently reread his story, is Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, more commonly known as the Cid. (Or as El Cid Campeador, or simply Ruy Díaz.)

The Source

The Poem of the Cid, composed most likely around A.D. 1200, is remarkable for two main reasons: it is by far the most complete epic of medieval Spain to have reached us (most others being so fragmentary as to be unreadable), and it tries very hard to root its stories in historical fact. The historic Cid was a knight of Castile, vassal to King Alfonso VI, and lived roughly between the years A.D. 1042 and 1099. His many battles and exploits won him fame and honor, and although The Poem of the Cid does freely take artistic license, it also strives hard to connect its invented story elements with many known facts of the Cid’s life.

The story is separated into three parts, called Cantars, and the frame story is this: certain evil nobles at the court of King Alfonso are jealous of the Cid and have turned the king against him through the spreading of lies. In his unjust anger, Alfonso exiles the Cid, swearing that if he ever returns to Castile his life and lands will be forfeit. But so beloved is Ruy Díaz that hundreds of knights and soldiers join him on his way out, filling the ranks of his army and bolstering his spirit. As he leaves Castile, the Cid swears that he will work incessantly to regain the favor of the king, and will hold no grudges nor enmity against him.

The First and Second Cantars are mostly a series of battles and conquests. The Cid, with his army of volunteers, is attacked by neighboring kings who fear his presence. Both Christian and Muslim armies he routs, with his brilliant cavalry charges always causing the numerically superior foes to break. He plunders so much gold and valuables that he can make all his men wealthy and still be rich himself. This section of story can become tedious, as there is neither much tension nor much of a plot. The Cid always wins, no matter what.

The Third Cantar is where the story itself becomes interesting, because it provides the Cid with a battle that cannot be won on the battlefield, but only through moral fortitude. His battles won and his favor with King Alfonso regained, the Cid celebrates by allowing his precious daughters to be married to two young nobles, the Infantes of Carrión, at the nobles’ request. Unfortunately the Infantes are evil, cowardly men who nurse an absurd grudge against the Cid and are devoid of all the manly virtues. On the honeymoon, they humiliate, abuse, and abandon the Cid’s daughters as a way of getting revenge against him. Their stupidity should be evident. Yet the Cid’s reaction is a very telling one, I think, and not necessarily the most expected. Rather than seek revenge, he appeals to Alfonso for justice, demanding only a trial, and that the wedding gifts he gave to the Infantes be returned and his daughters held innocent of this dishonor. The trial becomes a matter of interest for the whole kingdom, with all the nobles gathered to hear the testimonies of both sides and pass judgment. In the end, two of the Cid’s closest friends and vassals step forward to fight the Infantes in a trial-by-combat. The Cid should not have to defend himself against such outrageous insults as the Infantes offer. Of course the villains are slain, the daughters remarried to good men, and the Cid becomes an ancestor to future kings of Spain.

I am using the translation by Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry, first published by Manchester University Press in 1975, re-published by Penguin Classics in 1984.

The History

My interest is only in the Cid as a poetic and literary character, but that examination will be helped by knowledge of some of the story’s historic context.

Obviously the real Cid looked like Charlton Heston.

Eleventh-century Spain was a kaleidescope of Christian and Muslim petty kingdoms, almost evenly split between the two religions in terms of land. Muslim armies from the Umayyad kingdom in Morocco had invaded in the year 711 and conquered most of the Iberian peninsula, until they were halted by Christian victories at Toulouse, Covadonga, and Tours (when they invaded France). The intervening centuries saw the beginning of the Reconquista, a general push by the Christian kingdoms to retake their old lands. It was haphazard and disorganized, but fairly steady – it did not end until 1492, when the Castilians under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally captured the Moorish stronghold of Granada. (This victory allowed the monarchs to fund a certain nautical expedition by one Christopher Columbus.)

The period of the Cid is so fascinating because it lies right in the middle of this process. You see, contrary to what you might expect, there was not a perpetual war of hatred between the Christian and Muslim kingdoms. A kind of stalemate developed: the Muslims had taken the large, wealthy cities, but were unable to dislodge the Christians from their northern mountain strongholds. Both cultural groups had a multiplicity of leaders, all with their own ambitions, strategies, and personal prejudices. Christians often fought Christians with Muslim aid, and Muslims often fought Muslims with Christian aid, nearly as often as they fought each other. A king looking for some plunder was just as likely to attack a neighbor of the same religion as one of the enemy religion. There is even one fascinating story of a Muslim prince who, when his throne was usurped by his uncle, sought refuge in a nearby Christian city, whose monarch gave him military aid and put him back on his throne.

In short, most of the kings and generals of the time were concerned with politics more than religion, whatever they say in their chronicles.

The Hero

The world of the poem is much like the historical reality, but with virtues and villainy magnified to enhance the drama. Through this colorful landscape of ever-shifting borders, Eastern arches, and Western towers the Cid rides boldly. Since he is praised and admired by everyone, including his enemies, for his heroic virtues, I find it prudent to ask: what are they?

I haven't actually seen the 1961 film starring Charlton as the Cid and Sophia Loren as Dona Jimena.

Well, his title is from the Arabic Sayyidī, which means “my lord.” This immediately tells us a few things about him. First, although Christian, neither Ruy Díaz nor his soldiers think it strange or unseemly for him to have an epithet in a Muslim tongue. Secondly, the epithet is personal. While in translation he often gets called “the” Cid, or “El” Cid, the Spanish text always calls him Mio Cid, or “my Cid.” This man is equally beloved by those who write about him as those who follow him, and the reason is because he really loves his own people. He has a sensitivity to the needs of other people which is rare among epic heroes, and he is passionate. When happy, he sings in joy and clasps loved ones to his chest. When grieved, he weeps and pulls his flowing beard. When challenged, he steps forward fearlessly and encourages his friends. When offended, he restrains his anger and pursues justice and mercy, because he believes in the justice and mercy of God with all his heart.

An illustration of the last point is how he treats the Infantes of Carrión, his treacherous sons-in-law. Before the treachery, when he had every reason to believe them good men, he welcomed them generously into his family and defended them against other nobles who accused them of cowardice in battle. There’s a great scene where a lion has escaped from captivity and is roaming the palace at night. The Cid’s knights wake and immediately form a circle around their sleeping lord to protect him. The Infantes scream and run away in terror, one of them hiding under a couch. When the Cid wakes up and sees the lion, he calmly walks towards it, grabs it by the head, and guides it back to its enclosure. The Infantes are roundly mocked, but the Cid, refusing to fault them for reasonable fear, forbids the jokes at their expense. Later, when their treachery is revealed, he demands only justice, no more and no less. He contains his hurt and his rage, and remains a real man, while the Infantes remain pathetic, wicked dogs.

Contemplating how to get Sophia Loren to be less melodramatic.

He is also fantastically brave, of course, a paragon of valor. This seems a requirement of all heroes. When an army of fifty thousand men led by King Yusuf of Morocco arrives to besiege the Cid in Valencia, he watches them from the ramparts and laughs with joy because the plunder will make his men rich. He always leads his cavalry charges, taking the most dangerous risks in battle. He inspires every friend with courage and idealism, and every foe with fear and respect. He can cause five hundred men to defeat five thousand with a handful of losses, and then treat his conquered subjects with kindness. He is resolutely Christian, always praising God, but taking part in none of the nonsense of forced conversions or “holy” wars that many of his historical colleagues engaged in.

He is magnificent. He is larger-than-life, absurdly successful, portrayed as nearly faultless, and yet possesses a maturity and self-control that makes the heroes of Greek mythology seem like savage youths in comparison.

But you know what I really like about the Cid? How openly he loves his wife and daughters.

He’s just a big softie when it comes to his family. The poem opens with the Cid tearfully bidding them farewell, as he leaves them in the care of a trustworthy bishop. He kisses his wife, embraces his daughters, and is loathe to leave them. When they reunite many months later in the city the Cid has conquered, it is gloriously joyous. His daughters, Elvira and Sol, don’t have much character, but the Doña Jimena is an interesting woman. She and Ruy Díaz are clearly lovers as well as spouses, and she bears their separation with strength and dignity, never losing face in public but still managing to express her fear for his safety and her desire for his return. The Cid’s love is so great and emphasized so often that it’s really shocking when the Infantes disgrace his daughters so badly. Don’t these wicked idiots know how he loves these girls? Don’t they know the Cid is invincible, unstoppable, and loved by all?

In fact, this might be the main lesson The Poem of the Cid is trying to teach: that it is foolish to do evil to a good man.