Since my latest novel is set in Avalon, it partakes of the rich mythology of that land, particularly the Arthurian romance and Grail quest stories. In this post, Sue Burke talks about what happened when the Arthurian legends came to Spain and how attitudes toward romance made a once popular novel almost disappear.
Written out of history
By Sue Burke
Who loves a love story? Literary critics don’t when they can label it a romance novel, especially if it includes sorcerers and magic. As a consequence, Europe’s first best-selling novel has been almost completely forgotten.
That book is Amadis of Gaul by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, published in 1508. Never heard of it? Maybe you’ve heard of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, published in 1605. That book made fun of Amadis and the hundred other novels of chivalry that were its sequels and spin-offs. But the whole thing started much earlier.
Tales of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table were brought from Britain to France by Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1170, and from there they spread across Europe. In Spain in the early 1300s, troubadours fused the virtues of the knights Tristan and Lancelot into Amadis, the greatest knight in the world, who lived well before King Arthur but in the same medieval fantasy world.
Amadis loved Princess Oriana, the most beautiful woman in the world, in a story filled with sorcery, enchanted weapons, giants, monsters, and magical locales, along with lots of blood-spattered jousts and battles. Rodríguez de Montalvo collected older versions of the story and created a “corrected and polished” edition for the newly developed printing press. It soon became the most popular book of its time, a favorite of kings, New World conquistadors, and illiterate peasants who attended public readings of books the way we now go to movies.
But even before then, it had critics whose complaints still sound familiar. Around 1380, Spanish chancellor Pero López de Ayala wrote a poem against “books of idle pursuit and proven fictions, Amadis and Lancelot and invented falsities, in which I wasted long hours of my time.”
As novels of chivalry became more popular, the criticisms increased until King Phillip II of Spain banned their printing in 1590, although he had been a fan of them in his youth. Cervantes wrote in the preface to Don Quixote that his aim was “the destruction of the ill-founded machinations of the books of chivalry.”
Still, they remained popular, and though they couldn’t be printed or reprinted, old copies were passed from reader to reader, and new books were written by hand and entered circulation — at least 20 new longhand novels of chivalry, neatly bound like printed books, appeared in the 17th century. They had dashing heroes devoted to beautiful princesses, but not always the “correct” morals. Amadis himself was conceived outside of wedlock, as was his son with Oriana. Later novels became even more racy.
Women loved these books, which made them especially dangerous. A Spanish friar called them “golden pills that, with a delicious layer of entertainment, flatter the eyes to fill the mouth with bitterness and poison the soul with venom [and ruin a young woman’s] honest estate of modesty and shame.”
I don’t think women loved these books for the sex — that’s a male fantasy. Renaissance women loved them because in these fantasies, and in contrast to their real world, women were important. Ladies and damsels appear on every page. There are damsels in distress, of course, but so much more: powerful queens and sorceresses, schemers, healers, best friends, brave errand-runners, witnesses, assistants, lovers, temptresses, and beloved wives — even female knights.
How could self-appointed arbiters of literary quality take such books seriously? Amadis of Gaul and the century of chivalric literature that it inspired were too subversive to include in the official history, and when they were mentioned, they were vilified as trash by people who had never read them.
Even today, genre novels — fantasy, science fiction, and romance — remain ridiculed as sub-literate and childish. And yet, like Amadis of Gaul, they sell well, proof that someone loves them. I hope we never forget them, new and old. That’s why I’m translating Amadis of Gaul from medieval Spanish to English, a chapter at a time, at http://amadisofgaul.blogspot.com/