Mention Spanish literature, and if you get any response at all it'll probably be a remark about Don Quixote. Perhaps no other work represents its nation of origin more than Cervantes' masterpiece, and the novel is in turn represented by Spain itself. Yet, while modern novels began with this satire, Spanish literature began long before, and in quite another context.
The literary work of Spain (if we can use such language) is El Cantor de Mio Cid, or The Song of the Cid. Modern readers may know of this poem from the film El Cid starring Charlton Heston, about the Medieval Spanish hero Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. El Cid Vivar (or, Vivar the Lord) was a Christian knight whose career was devoted to driving the Muslim Moors out of Spain and restore to his nation its rightful Christian rule.
El Cid was actually the title given Vivar by the Moors, his enemies. His own people called him El Campeador, the Champion. In an age when honor has little to do with warfare, we may wonder why Vivar's foes would give him such a lofty title. It was for no other reason than that he treated everyone as human beings, and that he was noble in all dealings, never stooping to deceit, to trickery, or to backstabbing, all practices common both to the Spaniards and the Moors of his day.
All representations we have of Vivar are, by necessity, romanticized. But then, one of the chief purposes of literature is to purge away the impurities in a person's character and use the pure metal left behind to fashion an image that will last through the centuries and inspire all who behold it to imitate and honor the subject of the sculpture. And the genius of Spanish literature is its ability to make images that are so compelling and recognizable they endure for centuries and across cultures.
Spanish writers are also among the best in the world at using language as it ought to be used—to make the profound profoundly beautiful. This is particularly true of her poets, like Federico Garcia Lorca, Miguel de Unamuno, and hosts of others, who do not merely tell us things, they sing to us of what is most true, most lovely, and most real.
The one thing that informs all this writing, from The Song of the Cid to Don Quixote to the poetry to the mystical devotional writings of John of the Cross, is Catholicism. The religion of Rome is one of the defining features of Spain, and whether writers are mocking it, hating it, espousing it, or simply taking it for granted, you aren't likely to read a Spanish writer who doesn't grapple with it.
In The Song of the Cid, one of the reasons Vivar's enemies have such a high opinion of him is that he doesn't persecute them on account of their religion. They are his enemies, and he fights them relentlessly, but he fights to free his Spain for Spaniards, not because he hates the adherents of Islam.
This is a far cry from the attitude that led to the Inquisition, when Jews, Muslims, and Christians who refused to conform to the Catholic iteration were tortured and killed wholesale. But it's not the only time the sentiment arises in Spanish literature—a lot of the craziness of Don Quixote is meant to parody and satirize the backwardness of a country that couldn't move forward because it couldn't relinquish its bigotry and religious intolerance.
Not that Spain is known only for its intolerance. Far from it: the country's geography has made it the home of Spaniards, French people, Basques, Africans, Arabs, and many more. It's a beautiful land, and a beautiful people, and its literature (despite the fact that Spain has often taken a backseat in world proceedings) reflects its beauty, its schizophrenia, and its strength.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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