Literary aspects of the "Cantar"


The plot of the Cantar: the recovery of the hero’s honour

The structure of “El Cantar de mio Cid” is organised around one concept; the honour of the hero, in two complementary dimensions, public and private. The poem tells of the efforts of the hero to recover firstly his public honour, lost by being exiled due to the malicious rumours about him embezzling money through the taxes levied in Seville, and his private honour, damaged by the outrage committed by his sons-in-law, who mistreated and abandoned his daughters. In consequence, the plot of “El Cantar de mio Cid” follows a W-shaped course, i.e., a double curve of descent and ascent, in which the dramatic conflict (firstly the exile, following by the outrage of Corpes) destroys the initial situation of narrative balance, leading to (through the difficulties of exile and then family dishonour) the disappointment of the hero, who must strive to overcome his losses, to the point not only of returning to the starting point, but surpassing it. In this way, from the loss of royal favour and the expropriation of his lands in Castile, El Cid eventually succeeds in conquering Valencia, after many great deeds, and in being able to treat the king practically as his equal. In the second part, following the dishonour and abandoning of his daughters, after a difficult legal battle, the daughters are finally wed to the crown princes of Navarre and Aragón.

Both parts are not merely in juxtaposition, but closely intertwined. This linkage is due to the obvious but indirect causal relations between both plots. In effect, the deeds of El Cid, which allow him to be reconciled with the king, are also those that inspire the dauphins of Carrión to marry his daughters.  In fact, the king only decides to forgive him on knowing of his plans, perhaps because they guarantee that his personal vision is shared by the court. In this situation, the king promotes these weddings believing that they will be to the benefit of El Cid, in view of the great lineage of his future sons-in-law. On the other hand, at the beginning of the poem the hero (a model father and brave warrior) broaches the subject of an appropriate marriage for his daughters as one of his main objectives, which is blocked by his exile.

However, given that El Cid did not trust this marriage since it was first suggested, the proper compliance of that objective is suspended and is only satisfied through the royal weddings at the end of the poem. In sum, another important aspect that links both plots is that the persons spreading the malicious rumours about El Cid, who had not been punished when the first conflict is resolved, finally get what they deserve through the figure of their leader, Count García Ordóñez, who forges an alliance with the dauphins and their families against the hero, and who is revealed as the traitor he is during the trial of the Corpes affair.  In this way both parts of the story are inextricably linked, giving rise to a single but intricate plot.


The frontier men

Apart from its strictly plot-related links, this double plot has considerable ideological cohesion, based on the ideals of the lower noble class and in general, the inhabitants of the borderlands or frontier zones between Christians and Muslims. In Castilian society of that time, the higher noble class from the interior of the kingdom, to which El Cid's enemies belonged, lived off their rents from the land and based their privileged situation on family legacy and prestige. On the contrary, the men colonising the frontiers owed their increasing wealth to booty won during war (as a result of their attacks on the territory of the Moors) and had obtained permission and immunity from the king due to the risks to which they were exposed while living in the dangerous border area. This social group was formed by low-class nobles and the lower classes who, under certain circumstances, could attain a higher status and enjoy specific privileges bestowed on the noble class (for instance, exemption from paying taxes, or certain legal privileges) and in particular, the social prestige intrinsic to that status.

In short, as opposed to the power of the ancient aristocracy of the north, the frontier men aspired to obtain a reward for their social drive, by making their own merits recognised, instead of the merits and rewards bestowed on their ancestors. Of course, El Cid was never a frontier man, but his vital experience, conveniently converted into literature, was a perfect example of the virtues required in war against the Muslims and the possibility, in those circumstances, of standing out due to their own merits, and not due to the merits of their former glorious lineage. The above notwithstanding, it would be an anachronism to speak of a democratic spirit in “El Cantar de mio Cid”, since the work does not reject hereditary nobility as a principle of social hierarchy, but proposes a certain degree of social mobility (from the condition of low class to that of a gentleman, or from a low-ranking nobleman to a baron) by virtue of the personal achievements of each one, as opposed to the immobile posture of only considering inherited privileges.

This approach is perfectly clear during the first part of the poem, during the exile of the hero.  When El Cid leaves Castile, the way in which he proposed to earn the king’s pardon is precisely by sending him part of the booty obtained in his battles. This serves to let the king know that his former vassal has not disappeared, but continues to perform glorious deeds, and so it would be good for the king to rely on him again. Furthermore, although El Cid no longer depends on King Alfonso, he continues to send him part of his earnings, as if he were still a vassal, which means two things: that a person who behaves in this way could never have stolen the taxes from the king of Seville, as his enemies claim, and that although he was unjustly treated by the monarch, the hero continues to be loyal to him. In addition the remittance sent by El Cid to the king continue to increase, showing that the hero was achieving a higher status in society, and this led to the growing admiration of Alfonso.  After three remittances, the royal pardon was obtained. On the other hand, El Cid’s men also obtained considerable wealth from their battles, and so even “los que fueron de pie, cavalleros se fazen” (v. 1213). Thus, the way in which the hero once again earned the king's favour coincides perfectly with the values and attitudes that make up the frontier spirit.

This orientation is perhaps less evident in the second part, but continues to be a fundamental aspect. On the one hand, the dauphins are depicted as members of the court, and proud of their lineage, who consider their marriage as a way to obtain access to the wealth of El Cid, while on the contrary, El Cid and his daughters are proud to be considered related to them. This stance is what arouses the hero’s suspicions, but nevertheless he acts in good faith with his sons-in-law. The sons-in-law are ceremonious, well dressed individuals who, however, have no objection to spoiling their expensive clothes when, seized with fear, they flee from the lion. This cowardly attitude is repeated in the battle fought against Buchar and, finally, in their vengeance taken against hapless victims, El Cid´s daughters, since they are incapable of confronting him or his men. Thus, a marked contrast is established between these two petty noblemen and the knights who fight for El Cid, accentuating the differences between the aristocrats who survives due to the past actions of their ancestors, and who are unable to fend for themselves, and the warriors that live on the frontier, who owe all they have to their prowess with the sword. This contrast is also extended to the economic sphere: the dauphins boast of their possessions in Carrión, but have no cash, and on the contrary, El Cid, whose lands have been confiscated, and his men owe their prosperity to the booty won at war and have money and jewels in abundance.

This opposition of two lifestyles and their respective ideologies reaches its climax when at the end of “El Cantar de mio Cid”, all the groups join forces against the hero, i.e., those that spread the malicious rumours about him, led by Garcí Ordóñez, and those that caused his dishonour, namely the dauphins of Carrión, in an attempt to defeat him in a lawsuit in the royal court. This scene has obvious moral implications, in which El Cid will finally overcome his enemies and the social model they represent. In the first part of the poem, he was able to defeat the enemy with weapons and recover his public honour, and in this second part, he now shows that he can do the same with the law, to avenge his private honour. That way, he succeeds in portraying both his initial enemies and new enemies as villains, proving that his vital attitude and values in war and in peace are preferable to those of the envious, rancid nobles of the royal court. The latter, hiding behind their pride and lordly presumptuousness, are unable to obtain anything through their own efforts and are eventually placed on an inferior plane to El Cid and his men, who are inferior in lineage but superior with regard to ethics, and pragmatism.


El Cantar, a “legal case”

As seen by the resolution of the second part, an important factor in relation to both the ideological and aesthetic dimension of “El Cantar de mio Cid” is the way in which its narrative development responds to the existing legal tradition, whose importance in setting a date to the poem has already been seen.  

This situation is not limited to the final part of the poem but affects the whole text. The initial conflict, in fact, already takes the form of a legal case, for El Cid is exiled, in accordance with the mediaeval figure of “ira Regis” (the king’s anger).  The anger of the king was not only a personal emotion but a juridical institution that implied the rupture of the bonds between the king and his subject, who was forced to leave the king’s lands.

The problem of this legal formula was that the accused was left without a defence, since he was unable to appeal against the king's decision in any way.  The importance of this legal lack of protection is not important if the “ira regis” is due to a notorious crime (rebellion or disobedience to the king), but is a serious matter when caused by malicious rumours spread by mischief-makers or agitators who could put the king against anyone, even if that person was innocent, without it being possible for him to defend himself.

To make matters worse, “El Cantar de mio Cid” describes a series of especially harsh conditions at the start of the exile. In fact, El Cid loses his lands, which was only usually done in cases of treason, without this being the case.  The exiled person could then leave the kingdom, accompanied by his followers (personal troops) within thirty days, whereas in “El Cantar de mio Cid” the term is only nine days. Furthermore, the citizens of Burgos are forbidden to help the exiled person and his men, and this is also quite an exceptional case. These and other aspects show an extremely harsh application of the law, which has the narrative purpose of increasing the difficulties of El Cid at the start of his exile, in such a way that it exalts the deeds he performs to overcome them.  In addition, from the ideological standpoint, this severity and the arbitrary nature of the process add negative connotations to the “ira regis” concept, which applied in this way, became an unjust procedure and a means to force used by courtiers against their enemies. This negative presentation, although not accompanied by an explicit rejection, agrees with the basis of a decree by the Court or consultative assembly of the kingdom of León by which Alfonso IX swore, in 1188, that all persons accused by those mischief-makers would have the right to be heard in their own defence.

In view of the injustice committed, El Cid could have rebelled against the king, by adopting the stance of a rebel vassal, which was quite often the case in French epic literature of that time. On the contrary, our hero accepts the royal decree and prepares to win back the king’s favour, using the legal instruments of that time. According to the Ancient Jurisdiction of Castile, if while in the service of a foreign lord, the exiled person and his followers attacked the king’s lands, they were obliged to send the king part of their booty to make amends, or at least the first two times that this occurred. On the other hand, according to the borderlands jurisdiction, if the frontier troops attacked Muslim territory, they had to give the king one-fifth of their spoils. Acting in a similar way, but without any obligation (since they never attacked the king’s lands and nor were they vassals of the king), El Cid sent the king part of his booty, which proved his loyalty, even in the most adverse circumstances, and favoured his reconciliation with the king. Indeed, one of the legal causes for revoking the “ira regis” was the rendering of certain services to the king or to the kingdom by the banished person.

In addition to regulating his relations with the king, the existing legal provisions affected the internal organisation of El Cid’s troops. The most obvious aspect is the insistence of sharing out the booty fairly, and this is the fundamental motor of the warring activity of frontier troops, which was also based on the external formalities (gathering all the spoils, evaluation and distribution by the officers responsible for sharing the booty) and the proportions thereof (basically, one part for each foot solder, two for each knight and one fifth of the total for El Cid). In addition to this aspect, those regulations also govern the passage of foot soldiers or infantrymen to the status of a low class knight, i.e., a cavalry soldier who, having a horse and the necessary equipment, possessed some of the prerogatives of a nobleman. The same occurs with the sharing of the spoils among the troops of El Cid following the conquest of  Valencia, and the severe punishment imposed by the hero on deserters following the conquest, which was quite common in real life, since after obtaining a good many spoils on the frontier, many preferred to return to the less dangerous lands of the interior.

Of course, everything related to the reconciliation between the king and El Cid, and the marriage of the latter’s daughters to the dauphins of Carrión takes place in accordance with the appropriate ceremony, in which juridical symbolism takes on great importance, i.e., the performing of certain gestures and uttering of certain words without which a legal act would lack validity.  The best example of this is the kissing of hands, i.e., the vassal kissing the hand of his lord at the time of the feudal act. To a mediaeval mind, it was not enough for both parties to simply reach agreement, but that specific gesture was necessary for the feudal relation to be considered truly established. However, the point where the juridical component is converted into the central element  of the plot is in the last part of “El Cantar de mio Cid”. To gain an idea of its importance, it should be said that following an offence of the magnitude of that committed against El Cid´s daughter, the usual thing would have been for the father to have recourse to private vengeance, in accordance with the epic tradition, and, after gathering his knights, to launch a fierce attack against the dauphins of Carrión and their family, killing them and destroying their lands and property. However, El Cid does not decide on this type of cruel vengeance, but chooses to use a regulated legal procedure to avenge the outrages committed by persons of noble standing, through challenging them.

It is precisely in order to prevent vengeances and reprisals that could lead to private wars between confronting noble factions that two closely-related institutions were used during the second half of the 12th century: the friendship between noblemen and the challenge. The first meant an implicit agreement of peace and loyalty among all the members of the nobility due to their lineage, by virtue of which no-one could inflict harm on another without first declaring their enmity. The second obliged all complaints made by noblemen about another to be made as a formal accusation followed by a challenge, which was usually resolved by a singular combat between the challenger and the person challenged, or on certain occasions, their relatives or vassals. In the case of the challenger winning, the accusation was considered proven and the person challenged was discredited for ever and lost part of his noble privileges.  In “El Cantar de mio Cid” all the formalities stipulated for the challenge in the legislation existing at the end of the 12th century are scrupulously complied with. To that end, after informing King Alfonso of the offence, the courts met the Battler accused the dauphins before the court, and they were challenged to a  duel by two of his men. The king accepts the challenges and organises the respective judicial duels, in which three of the most important followers of El Cid face the dauphins and their older brother. The victory of El Cid’s men avenges the offence, practically without bloodshed, as befits the most advanced customs of law existing at that time.


The El Cid portrayed in El Cantar: fortitude and wisdom

This wise attitude, which is also patent in the first part, when the hero, although in exile, behaves loyally instead of rebelling against the king, is due to one of the basic traits of the behaviour of El Cid in this poem: his discretion. The other is, of course, his military skill. In this way, the hero responds fundamentally to the classic characterisation through “sapientia et fortitude” (wisdom and fortitude).

Naturally, that wisdom is not erudition, in this instance, but rather a mundane wisdom, i.e., a sense of proportion, the ability to think ahead and, in short, caution. As for fortitude, this is not identified with physical strength (although this was certainly necessary for a mediaeval warrior), but with the capacity to act, the capacity to lead and finally, martial and moral authority.

In the case of El Cid, his “sapientia” is above all, measure, as shown, depending on the case, in his discretion, sagacity and also his resignation. Thus, it is clear from the start of the poem, in the first verse, which reads: “Fabló mio Cid bien e tan mesurado: / -¡Gracias a ti, Señor, Padre que estás en alto! / ¡Esto me an buelto mios enemigos malos!-” (vv. 7-9).

Instead of cursing his adversaries, the Battler thanks God for the trials to which he is put, so that the last verse quoted above, rather than an accusation, is simply the confirmation of a fact. From that moment on, the hero must survive with his men in the harsh situation of exile.  But this exile, although constituting a sentence, also opens up a future laden with promise, as our hero soon exclaims to his lieutenant: “¡Albricia, Álvar Fáñez, ca echados somos de tierra!” (v. 14).

The goods news is that of the exile, since it hails a new period in which El Cid will learn how to take advantage of this new situation (as will most certainly be seen later), partly thanks to that same measure that leads him to carefully plan and execute his tactics without haste, but also treat the Muslims of Al-andalus he has defeated with compassion, or wisely organise the governance of Valencia after conquering it.

In the second part, that same measure is what leads El Cid to voice his claims through legal channels, without taking direct reprisals by massacring his enemies, and this is also seen in the sagacity with which he directs the trial, together with his astuteness in developing his military skills.

His “fortitudo”, in turn, is clearly shown through his strength and resistance in the field of battle, but above all, through his capacity to act in general, and in particular, his strength of character. Thanks to this El Cid succeeds in overcoming the bitter moments of his departure, on abandoning his family, “así•s’ parten unos d’otros commo la uña de la carne” (v. 375), and then immediately embarking on a unstoppable career that will end with the conquest of Valencia, the reunion with his family and as the climax of the first part, the royal pardon. In the second part, his “fortitude” (fortitude) allows him to give the right response to the outrage committed by the dauphins, for although El Cid decides not to inflict a cruel private vengeance, he is no less forceful in his demand for public vindication. Therefore, as occurs with his “sapientia” (wisdom), this virtue is shown to be as effective in peace as in war. This could not be otherwise in an ethic, that of the spirit of the frontier, that placed special emphasis on valuing personal effort and considered that personal merits should procure the social betterment of an individual, but without breaking the framework of the organisation of estate.


Castilian heroic model

This type of hero, despite having classic roots, makes “El Cantar de mio Cid” a singular work in mediaeval Castilian epic literature. Most of the works comprising this group tend to describe excesses of cruel vengeance rather than the measured tone of El Cid and, strangely enough, they deal more with internal conflicts or power in Christian kingdoms than with the fight against the Moors, irrespective of whether this is due to presuppositions of the Reconquest.  

It is possible that “El Cantar” also offers a particular combination of tradition and novelty in the formal plane, but it is difficult to determine this with any precision, as none of the epic poems that were supposedly written before it has been conserved in verse, and they are only known through the prose versions that were incorporated into the chronicles of the 13th and 14th centuries. In any case, it is quite probable that “El Cantar” was a marked renovation of the traditional model, due to the obvious direct influence of French epic literature and also, possibly, existing Latin historiographers.


The metrics

The component in which “El Cantar de mio Cid” appears to better adapt to generic conventions of the Castilian mediaeval epic is its metric system. This is based on long verses with two pauses, one at the end, that determines the frontier between the different verses and another internal one, or caesura, that separates the two internal parts of each verse, or half-lines.

Both the verses and their half-lines have no regular length, hovering between nine and twenty syllables, except on rare occasions (which usually coincide with problems of textual transmission), whereas most of the verses have between fourteen and sixteen syllables. On the other hand, this variability indicates that the true fundament of epic prosody lies, not in the syllable count, but in the accentual rhythm, based on the presence of certain tonic accents that as rhythmic supports.

The other essential element of the epic metric system is the assonance rhyme, which is created by the coincidence (from the last accented syllable) between the vowels of the words ending the verse, irrespective of the consonants. Examples of this are verses 23-24: “Antes de la noche, en Burgos d’él entró su  carta / con grand recabdo e fuertemientre  sellada” (the rhymes are underlined). More specifically in “El Cantar de mio Cid” the fundamental element of the rhyme is the last tonic vowel. As for the last vowel, it is only relevant if not -e, in such a way that for instance, “pinar” rhymes with “mensaje”. The case of the ó, which rimes with ú and ué is an exception, which may be followed by either -e and -o, thus el Campeador, nombre, Alfonso, fuert and suyo rhyme with each other.

When several consecutive verses share the same rhyme, they form a verse or stanza. The verse usually has an irregular length and does not fulfil a homogenous function.  Like epic verses, which are usually a unit of meaning, with hardly any enjambment, the stanza has a theme-based unity and a certain degree of autonomy. The change in rhyme (and thus in stanza) does not fulfil a specific mission or responds to fixed laws.

In the case of the poet considering an aspect of the narration to be completed (irrespective of whether or not it coincided with an episode) a new verse was started. For example, the first stanza tells of the departure from Vivar; the second describes the route between Vivar and Burgos and the third, the entry into Burgos. Up to now, each stanza refers to a concrete episode, with a change of scenario. On the contrary, the stay in Burgos covers two stanzas, but each develops a different aspect. The third, already quoted above, refers to the reluctant welcome of the citizens; the fourth tells of how, despite their sympathy for the exiled Rodrigo, the people of Burgos do not dare to disobey the royal order forbidding them to offer him shelter, and so El Cid and his men must camp outside the city, on the banks of the river.

On other occasions, the change in stanza is due to more specific criteria, for example, in referring to the preparation, the development and outcome of a battle. It is also used to delimit the interventions of the characters, indicating the change from narration in the third person to direct speech and vice versa, or through dialogue, a change in interlocutor.

On other occasions, the separation in stanza serves to delimit parts of the narration that interrupt the linear relation of events and this technique may disorientate the modern reader. This occurs in what are known as the repeated passages, in which one stanza repeats the content of the previous one, in more detail or with a slightly different approach. This is what occurs in verses 72 and 73, which give two different versions of the summoning of the troops to lay siege to Valencia. In these cases, it is an enlargement or complement of what is already said, and not a repetition of the narrated event.

On the other hand, in parallel passages, successive events that are really simultaneous are narrated in consecutive stanzas. For example, in the judicial battles at the end of the poem, the combats of the three pairs of opponents take place at the same time, but the poet narrates them successively, in three different stanzas (verses 150-152).

The verses are, in fact, grouped into sections called songs. The existing manuscript lacks any express indication of an internal division, but the verses of the poem themselves refer to it. The division of songs one and two is justified by verse 1085: “Aquí•s’ compieça la gesta de mio Cid el de Bivar”, which uses a standard formula for starting a work or section thereof and the "Historia Roderici” commences in exactly the same way: Hic incipit gesta de Roderici Campidocti (“Here begins the story of Rodrigo the Battler”). The frontier between song two and three is marked by verses 2776-2777: “¡Las coplas d’este cantar, aquí•s’ van acabando, / el Criador vos vala con todos los sos santos!”, while verse 3730 explicitly closes the “Cantar”: “en este logar se acaba esta razón”. In this way, “El Cantar” is comprised of three sections, which Menéndez Pidal called the Exile Song (v. 1-1084), the Wedding Song (v. 1085-1277) and the Corpes Office Song (v. 2278-3730).


The formula-based system

In addition to the metric lay-out, the traditional epic style certainly gives “El Cantar de mio Cid” another characteristic recourse: its formula-based system, i.e., the reiterated use of certain set phrases in certain metric conditions.

However, in this case there is much less certainty than in the prosodic aspect, since the formulae of “El Cantar” have a close relationship with 12th-century French epic literature and because in many cases, because they cannot be derived from previous songs of deeds, either because they affect topics or aspects that are not present in them, or because they respond to material or cultural novelties from that period. One clear example is the combat, in which the description, which is extremely stereotyped, responds to the innovations produced in handling the lance during the 11th and 12th centuries.

This is incompatible with poems that were supposedly composed during the 11th and even the 10th century, for which reason it must be admitted that either “El Cantar renovates the formula-based system along the lines of existing French epic literature or that the pre-existing Castilian songs were renovated during the 12th century, Before the composition of the poem on El Cid.

A formula is a stereotyped expression of one idea that is repeated two or more times in a text, filling a whole half-line and if occupying the second, providing the rhyming word. For instance in verses 2901: “¿Ó eres, Muño Gustioz, mio vassallo de pro?” and 3193: “A Martín Antolínez, mio vassallo de pro”. When the expression is not repeated literally but contains a verbal modification, but even so, is equivalent and interchangeable, a variation in the formula is obtained, known as a formula-based locution. This occurs in verses 402, “a la Figueruela mio Cid iva posar”, and 415: “a la Sierra de Miedes ellos ivan posar”. According to these modes, there are three cases: that a formula exists with no formula-based locutions; that a formula exists accompanied by formula-based locutions and that only formula-based locutions exist, without the mode of a strict formula. All of these and their methods of use configure the formula-based system of the work.

This system operates on three levels: that of the composition, that of the constitution of the text and that of reception.  With respect to the first level, the formulae provide assistance to the poet, since they enable him to obtain the rhyme and prepare the episodes on the same topic or a similar one. However, in “El Cantar de mio Cid” and in most European mediaeval epic poetry, the use of formulae is not merely a mechanical resource for composition but plays a stylistic role in constituting the text, by virtue of factors such as harmony or contrast in the tone of a scene, or as a specific phonic or rhythmic effect. As for reception, in the mediaeval period, this was done mainly orally: the public listened to the poem being recited or sung.  In those circumstances, the use of formulae fulfils an eminently practical mission, by helping the minstrel memorise the epic verses and enabling the audience to understand the work by increasing redundancy. Furthermore, it satisfies an aesthetic preference: a taste for seeing certain topics treated in a similar way.

Use of epic epithets

One resources linked to the formula-based system is the use of epic epithets.  These consist of more or less set expressions (although they do not always strictly comply with the formula-based requirements) used to qualify or designate a specific character, in all cases positively (the enemies of El Cid are never described using an epic epithet). This may be comprised of a noun in apposition to a proper name or a relative adjective or phrase that qualifies it.

As opposed to an epithet, as defined by rhetoric, an epic epithet has a specifying and not merely explicative function. In “El Cantar de mio Cid” the character of the hero receives the largest variety of epithets, for example, “el Campeador contado” or “la barba vellida”. These include the astrological epithet that refers to the favourable influence of the stars at the time of El Cid’s birth and his investiture as a knight. Both their basic forms are, respectively: “el que en buen ora nasco” and “el que en buen ora cinxo espada”. Practically all the characters surrounding the hero are described using epithets; these include his wife, Jimena, who is “muger ondrada”, and his lieutenant, Álvar Fáñez, who is described as “el bueno de Minaya” or, in the words of El Cid, “mio diestro braço” (v. 753 y 810). In addition, the king is also described by an epithet, such as “el buen rey don Alfonso” or “rey ondrado”.


Theme-based composition

The theme-based composition is achieved by the use of reiterative patterns in presenting certain events. This involves the use of a similar structure when describing episodes with a similar content. The different phases may be referred to using a specific series of formulae, such as the one quoted in the case of the combat, but in other cases, the expression is more varied. One example of this mode are the envoys sent by El Cid to the king, described in seven phases: the order given by El Cid, the departure of the messenger, the journey to court, the presentation before the king, the explanation of the message, the response of the kind and the return of the messenger.

In these cases, as in most of “El Cantar de mio Cid”, the narration is sequential and follows the chronological sequence of the events. However, as already seen in referring to the repeated and parallel passages, on occasions, the poem abandons that procedure.  The first corresponds, most certainly, to the start of the poem, to the extent that the content of the first lost page can be substituted. Indeed, the part that is lost (no more than fifty verses) was insufficient to tell of all the events leading to the exile of El Cid.

It is extremely likely, therefore, that the poem did not commence at the start of the story itself (the envoys sent to Seville to collect the taxes) but in medias res (in the middle of the situation), when the hero receives the order to go into exile. This would explain the referral to the background of the action in retrospect, in verses 109-115. In relation to this procedure, there are narrative ellipses or suppressions at that time, which are taken for granted.  This occurs, among other things, when events are announced that are later not described, because it is assumed that they have occurred, and it is considered superfluous to make mention of them. For instance, in verses 820-825, El Cid orders Álvar Fáñez to pay more than one thousand masses in Burgos cathedral and give the money that is left over to his family. Upon his return, El Cid is happy that his orders have been obeyed (v. 931-932), but nothing is said about this in relating the deeds of Álvar Fáñez in Castile.

Another situation in which the linear narration of events is broken is in the narration of simultaneous events. Apart from the case of the judicial battles commented on previously, that situation arises in cases when the store must focus on another character, in addition to the hero. For example, when El Cid conquers Castejón, while Minaya launches an attack in the valley of Henares; on all three occasions when the hero sends his messengers bearing gifts for King Alfonso or when, with the king in Castile and el Cid in Valencia, they both prepare to go to the place where they are to be reconciled.

In some of these cases (the first and third envoys) the part about the hero is omitted, but in most instances, the poet prefers to relate one part of the story and also another. In this case, the alternating or intertwining technique is used, which consists of referring in successive parts of the plot to what has actually occurred at one time, expressly underlining the transitions between one part and the other. Sometimes, the distinction between them is emphasised, by making those transitions coincide with a change in stanza, which makes them parallel passages.


Double narration

Another characteristic recourse of epic poetry involves a great complication, at least for modern-day readers: the double narration technique, i.e., referring to the same events twice. Two modes exist, the retrospective, and the prospective. Retrospective narration consists of recapitulating what was related immediately before. This procedure is used in chain verse, with those at the beginning of a stanza recalling the end of the preceding one, which allows the audience to follow the thread of the story.

As for the prospective mode, this consists of narrating an episode up to a certain point, and making brief references to certain events, and then referring again to the latter, in a more detailed manner or from a complementary standpoint. This is the case, as already seen, of the repeated passages, in which the change in stanza makes it easier to identify the extent of the repetition.

However, a greater problem is posed in identifying the use of double narration in longer sequences which, moreover, do not always coincide with the stanza limits. This is what occurs when El Cid offers the count of Barcelona his freedom, which happens only once, but is recounted on two occasions, with emphasis being placed on different aspects in each case. First, an advance mention is made (verse 60, v. 1024-1027) and then the author returns the thread of the narration to that subject (in verse 62, v. 1033-1035b). The case of the end of the scenes of the Tagus is even more complex, when King Alfonso forgives El Cid, since this is a triple narration: the original explanation is dealt with in verses 2094-2120; the first repetition, in verses 2121-2130 and the second, in verses 2131-2165, following which the chronological order is resumed.

Each of the repetitions enlarges on different aspects of the initial version: the first gives fresh information about the farewell meeting of the king and El Cid, whereas the second places greater emphasis on the marriage pacts and the delivery of gifts by the hero, on bidding farewell to the king and his entourage.


The verb tenses

Another difficult aspect for modern-day readers to grasp is the different verb tenses and modes that are used. In principle, this can be attributed to the author’s wish to introduce an element of variety, given that otherwise, he would have been forced to use only the past simple tense, which is habitually used to narrate past events. However, this, which could justify the use of the present simple as a narrative verbal form, is insufficient to explain the sudden alternating of certain tenses with others. One important element in this sense is the rhyme, as the assonance has an influence in selecting the verbal inflection, which explains the use of tenses that would otherwise be incomprehensible. However, the changes in tense only not occur in the rhyme, and for this reason it is plausible to think that the use of the verb in “El Cantar de mio Cid” responds to an aspectual component, i.e., the difference between completed actions and uncompleted actions, or between occasional actions and actions taking place over time, together with the constraints of the rhyme and strictly time-related considerations.

In short, the liberal manner of selecting the verb tenses responds to the attitude of the implicit narrator or author, understood as the voice that relates the events in the poem itself. In “El Cantar de mio Cid”, its acts as an omniscient narrator, i.e., it controls all the events narrated, as if actually witnessing the scene from above, without anything being hidden from it. In consequence, it does not adopt the perspective of a first-hand witness to the facts (whether identified or not with any of its dramatis personae), that could narrate only what it perceives directly. On the contrary, it always knows more than any of the characters intervening in the plot and can talk about any of them with the same degree of omniscience. Thus, it does not transmit the events from a limited and specific standpoint, but provides the audience with general information, regardless of what each character knows individually. This lack of perspectivism does not constitute an absence of focalisation, since the narrator, does not focus solely on the hero, despite this being its fundamental objective.  On the contrary, other characters may occupy the central focus of the narration, albeit temporarily. This gives rise to the cases already mentioned, regarding intertwining and parallel passages.


The narrator’s perspective

One result, fruit of the combination of the omniscience of the narrator and his attitude to what he recounts and to his listeners, is the use of dramatic irony. This consists of providing the reader or listeners with more information than the actors themselves actually have, thereby creating a contrast between their expectations and those of the audience. Depending on each case, this contrast may generate comic situations or dramatic tension.

In “El Cantar de mio Cid” the latter occurs rather than the first, for instance, when the dauphins of Carrión leave Valencia with the daughters of El Cid, as the latter is not aware of the plans of vengeance harboured by his sons-in-law, but the audience is, and so it looks on helplessly as the vengeance is perpetrated. In all cases, this use of dramatic irony does not mean that the narrator rejects humour. On the contrary, on certain occasions the narrative voice adopts a deliberately ironic tone to recreate comic situations.  This is the case in the part about the chests of sand being pledged to the moneylenders Rachel and Vidas, in the scene of the prison and freeing of the count of Barcelona or in the lion escaping in Valencia.

This indicates that the narrator of “El Cantar de mio Cid” does not adopt a neutral stance, but on the contrary, he is always in favour of the hero, and has no trouble in describing the count of Barcelona as being a mischief-maker or arrogant, or frequently referring to the dauphins of Carrión as evil; however, this is done only after their ignoble plan for vengeance against El Cid, as it would have not been proper to do it earlier.

At any rate, his attitude towards what is narrated is sometimes expressed in a less explicit albeit no less effective manner, especially through exclamations that show his complicity with the hero and his followers. For example, on expressing his joy in verses  1305-1306: “¡Dios, qué alegre era todo cristianismo, / que en tierras de Valencia señor avié obispo!”. This expression may have a formula-based component.  Another way in which the narrator expresses his lack of neutrality is through not using the third person (whose regular use is typical of an impersonal narration based on an omniscient stance), in order to appear directly before the audience to either address it in the second person, or to present himself to the audience using the first person.

Both procedures are used above all as a delimiting function, and are mainly formula-based. However, even in these cases the narration is brought closer to the public, which effect is favoured by the fact that in public recitals, minstrels embodied that narrator before the public, therefore creating a certain degree of complicity between them. At all events, this effect is sometimes sought in a more expressive way. This is what occurs when the narrator, in order to arouse the admiration of his audience for the festivities organised in  Valencia to celebrate the wedding of the daughters of El Cid, speaks directly to his listeners: “sabor abriedes de ser e de comer en el palacio” (v. 2208). One special case that demonstrates this attitude is when the dauphins of Carrión are planning the outrage of Corpes. At this point, the narrator clearly expresses his distaste for these characters and invites the audience to do the same: “Amos salieron a part, ¡veramientre son hermanos!, / d’esto qu’ellos fablaron nós parte non ayamos” (v. 2538-2539). Through this exceptional resource the author shows his technical skill and capacity to improve on traditional resources.


Characterisation of the protagonists

Despite his omniscience, the narrator does not use his capacity for introspection, i.e., he practically never reveals the thoughts of the characters directly, which is quite common among traditional omniscient narrators. Furthermore, despite not adopting a neutral posture, as we have just seen, he does not usually use the technique of giving a character or moralising description of his characters, although some of the epic epithets refer to the qualities of the persons to whom they are addressed.

As a result, the characterisation of the protagonists is done mainly using two resources: what the narrator tells us about them (their deeds) and what they themselves say (their words). This means that the direct interventions of the characters are considerable in number and the proportion of dialogue as opposed to narrative in “El Cantar de mio Cid” is one of the highest in mediaeval literature. 

When reproducing the words of the characters, the narrator uses three options: direct speech or a transcription of the words of the characters, indirect speech or a summary by the narrator of what is said, and in exceptional cases, of what a character thinks, and free indirect speech, which is similar to the previous one, but without a syntactic subordination of the intervention of the character.

As regards the expression of each character, the most important aspect is not the linguistic form, as there is no individualisation in that plane, but the content. In general, the actors use the same tone as the narrator and the only visible difference is that the former do not use the verb tenses as freely as the latter.

This distinction seems to be due to the narrative voice having a series of expressive needs that are more complex than those of the characters, who only need to refer to the immediate context, without considering any criteria regarding stylistic variety and attention to aspectual nuances which, as has already been mentioned, function in the narration.

Neither is the manner of speaking of certain characters in relation to others personalised. It can only be inferred that the oath of Sant Esidro (Saint Isidro) is exclusive to King Alfonso, which constitutes an echo of the historic devotion of the king for that saint, and that the Muslims (except for the more Romanised Avengalvon) never use the term “vos”, but “tú”, an unexpected trait of linguistic truth that reflects the way in which the inhabitants of Al-andalus spoke romance, imitating the Arabic use, in which language the use of the plural courtesy form is not used (except on some extremely solemn occasions).

What does, in fact, distinguish each character, is what he or she says, and not how they say it. Their attitudes, intentions and desires are what allow them to be characterised. In this sense, there is hardly room for ambiguity: basically, there are positive and negative figures, depending on whether they support El Cid or oppose him. However, there is no mechanical distribution of virtues and vices between both extremes and the presentations of all of the characters always have their own shades of meaning. For instance, the count of Barcelona, the dauphins of Carrión and Garcí Ordóñez all have in common their courtly pride and scorn for El Cid, but each one has his own peculiarities.

The count is a braggart, but also knows how to behave on a battlefield, and although ridiculed, does not give such a negative impression as the dauphins. These are portrayed as selfish, deceitful and cowardly, and are, without doubt, of the lowest moral character that are depicted in “El Cantar”, something which the narrator himself emphasises, as has been said previously. As for Garcí Ordóñez, he tries to discredit the hero, but he is eventually the one who is discredited.

In a correlative form, El Cid does not treat each one in the same way. He uses irony in the case of the count and Ordóñez, but in the first instance, it is a friendly irony, whereas in the second, it is laden with aloofness. On the other hand, in the case of the dauphins, following the sincere appreciation shown to them in Valencia, he demonstrates his absolute scorn which leads him to describe them as traitor dogs (v. 3263). The relationship between the hero and his sons-in-law, which changes from distrust to affection and from affection to absolute rejection, also shows that the characters of “El Cantar” have certain degree of evolution. The case is more obvious in King Alfonso, who gradually abandons his initial anger, to the point of feeling deep affection for El Cid, whom he admires to such an extent that he tells the members of his court: “¡Maguer que a algunos pesa, mejor sodes que nós!” (v. 3116).

In general, it can be said that the characterisation of the protagonists has many nuances and in particular, that of El Cid, who is capable of showing pain and joy in his love for his family, resolve and doubt in his military plans, companionship and solemnity in court and (something that is rare in epic heroes), a profound sense of humour, not only during his meeting with the count of Barcelona, but when he pursued King Buchar, among other episodes.

The absence of psychological descriptions that leads to the weight of the characterisation falling on the deeds and words of the characters is not an isolated case but forms part of the lack of descriptive expression that in general, exists in “El Cantar de mio Cid”, starting with the physical appearance of the characters themselves, none of which are subject to a prosopography or described in full.

The characters about which we are given the most information, which is still scant, are the daughters of El Cid. When they and their mother,  Jimena, are in the tower of the fortress of Valencia, gazing at the estate of El Cid, we are told, with respect to them, that “ojos vellidos catan a todas partes” (v. 1612). Apart from their beautiful eyes, we know through the words of the hero that his daughters are “tan blancas commo el sol” (v. 2333). The comparison is formula-based and is applied in practically an identical way to a set of chain mail armour (v. 3074), a shirt (v. 3087) and a headdress (v. 3493). This could lead us to think of a purely mechanical descriptive resource, which is therefore lacking in meaning. However, the connotations of this formula-based locution are as positive and their use so seldom, that it is not possible to weigh up the respective benefits in each case.

Of El Cid himself, it is said, from the start, that he sports a thick beard, which is extremely long, due to the oath he took to not trim it until he had regained royal favour. That feature that is so typical of a hero, is described using an allusive epic epithet, with variations such as that of the “luenga barba” or the “barba grant”, and even “las de barba tan conplida” or “la barba vellida”, in which the synecdoche resource is use (use of the part to represent the whole). In contrast with the elegant beard of the hero, his arch-enemy, Garcí Ordóñez, has an uneven beard, due to the fact that El Cid spoiled it by tearing out a strand of hair.

This act was a grave offence in the Middle Ages and punishable by castration in certain jurisdictions, but the fact that Garcí Ordóñez had not dared to exact atonement from El Cid meant (based on the traditions of the time) that the victim himself was to blame for his dishonour. The contrast between both beards, that of the hero and that of his enema, is a symbol of the difference in the respective men: the uprightness of El Cid and the lower moral stature of Garcí Ordóñez.

As for the dauphins of Carrión, although no specific traits are described, in the words of Pero Vermúez, they are handsome, but “en su caso eso no compense, sino que agrave sus notorios defectos: “e eres fermoso, mas mal varragán / ¡Lengua sin manos, cuémo osas fablar!” (v. 3327-3328). One last detail corresponds to don Jerónimo, who, in accordance with his clerical status, wears a crown (tonsure).

The descriptions 

These cases show that the few descriptions given in "El Cantar de mio Cid” usually fulfil a specific purpose and are not purely ornamental. The same occurs with objects, in such a way that when something is described, it is usually in order to enhance it and also to enhance the person who owns it. This has already been observed in the case of the chain mail armour, the shirt and the headdress of El Cid, which receive the same ceremonial treatment as his daughters. In this aspect, two procedures are used. One consists of emphasising the positive qualities of the element described, but without giving any specific details. Thus, reference is often made to the "buenos cavallos” as is usual in a poem that exalts the deeds of knights. As already seen, this is a formula-based use. For this reason, for example, attire is described in a similar way, when El Cid releases the count of Barcelona, in order to give a gift to someone of his rank and show his generosity,  “Danle tres palafrés muy bien ensellados / e buenas vestiduras de pelliçones e de mantos” (v. 1064-1065).

On other occasions, on the contrary, certain more specific descriptive details are given.  In some instances, together with the opinion: “tanta buena espada con toda guarnizón” (v. 3244), pero otras sin ella: “¡Cuál lidia bien sobre exorado arzón!” (v.733). In such cases, it is thought that the quality of the material itself will be sufficient to cause the desired effect; hence, the frequency with which gold is referred to: “Saca las espadas e relumbra toda la cort, / las maçanas e los arriazes todos d’oro son” (v. 3177-3178).

In regard to descriptions of sumptuousness, there is a detailed presentation of the magnificent attire of El Cid in appearing before the court where the dauphins are to be tried. Our hero is dressed for the occasion, in elegant clothes, made of noble materials and with a perfect cut that guarantees the respectful admiration of all those present: “en él abrién que ver cuantos que ý son” (v. 3100).

On other occasions, the positive connotations are expressed in a more veiled and subtle manner. For instance, when, at the end of the battle, it is said that El Cid has “la cofia fronzida” (vv. 789 y 2437) or “la cara fronzida” (v. 1744 y 2436), that detail is not at all trivial. Both the headdress and the skin of the hero show the marks left by the combat due to the mesh of the heavy chain mail armour and are visible proof of the efforts made by the hero on the battlefield.

Another way in which “El Cantar de mio Cid” uses the functionality of its descriptions is through creating certain parallelisms. These could, in principle, be due merely to a formula-based repetition. However, it has been mentioned above that in this poem, formulae are not habitually used in a mechanical way. If, to this, we add that sometimes the similarity is only general, it remains clear that this is not due to a trivial repetition, but a search for a determined aesthetic effect. The use of this type of parallelisms or, on the contrary, of certain contrasts, is one of the stylistic constants of “El Cantar”. For example, when the hero is with the king near the river Tagus where he is forgiven, first of all he lies down before him and kisses his feet, as a token of his maximum respect; then, he kneels and kisses his hands, a juridical symbol of feudalism; lastly, he gets up and kisses him on the mouth, a token of friendship (v. 2020-2040).

These three moments reproduces, to a certain extent, the entire course followed by El Cid during his exile: his initial despair, the ensuring victories and finally, the obtaining of his own estate, leading him to be in a situation that is almost on a par with the king, as he is now, face to face with him.

In addition, those three postures and the kisses can also be related to his gradual approach to the king through the three gifts that El Cid sends him: the first achieves merely a distant acceptance, with no tangible result, the second achieves a warm welcome and permission for his family to be reunited with him in Valencia and the third, brings joyful acceptance and the royal pardon.

At the beginning of the poem a series of similar principles take effect, when, El Cid leaves Vivar through the open gates, sad to be leaving his home, and is then confronted by the gates that are closed in Burgos which prevent him from entering. Both contrast in terms of appearance, but not in meaning: the absolute defencelessness of the hero condemned to exile. On the contrary, the open gates that later receive him in the monastery of Cardeña, although they may coincide with the appearance of the ones he left in Vivar, have a diametrically opposed meaning, for they represent hospitality and the shelter offered by the monks, in addition to a new home, albeit temporarily, for his family.

Similarly, the entry of the dauphins of Carrión reminds one, in different ways, of the previous presentation of the moneylenders Rachel and Vidas. This similarity is not fortuitous, for both pairs of characters intend to take advantage of El Cid, the usurers during his disgrace and the aristocrats during his prosperity, without participating in the effort and solidarity of the group that justify the ownership and enjoyment of wealth based on the ethics of the poem itself.  These plays between contrasts and similarities thus link certain parts of the work with others, and help to create a sensation of coherence and a perfect assemblage that gives rise to the plenitude of the poetic construction of "El Cantar de mio Cid”.


Cultivated language

Another important factor in that plane is a certain ceremonious style. According to the mediaeval perspective, epic poetry, which deals with exalted themes, also deserves an exalted expression: a sublime or ceremonious style. In “El Cantar” that elevation is most likely achieved through the archaic tone of the language, in accordance with the characterisation made thereof by Menéndez Pidal. In actual fact, there is no complete certainty of this, due to the few romance texts written in the 12th century, which makes it impossible to say whether what appeared to be archaic elements were in fact archaic, just before the year 1200. In all cases, other features contribute to creating that same effect.

Among others, the use of certain cultivated terms inspired by ecclesiastical or judicial Latin, for instance, criminal (libel), monumentum (tomb), tus (incense), virtos (army) or vocatio (name given to a church) and of course, ethnic terms that are related to war, such as almófar (chain mail armour hood), arrobda (patrol), art (trick of war), az (row of soldiers), belmez (padded tunic worn beneath chain mail armour), compaña (band, army), fierro (lance tip), huesa (high boot) or loriga (chain mail armour).

Since the use of these vocabulary is natural in a poem that tells of a warrior’s  deeds, the abundant and correct use of legal terminology is even more relevant, not only in the court scene at the end of the work, but in the poem as a whole.  Apart from the Latinisms already examined, there are words such as alcalde (currently meaning mayor but here, with its original meaning, judge), entención (allegations in a trial), juvizio (lawsuit and ruling), manfestar (confession of a crime), rencura (civil or criminal lawsuit) or riepto (formal accusation and judicial challenge). In relation to these terms, there is the use of synonym and inclusive pairs, a type of expression that is somewhat surprising in a poetic text, but which in a legal text, is required due to the need for maximum precision.  The first consist of mentioning one reference by using two equivalent terms, but each one of these usually has a specific nuance such as in “a rey e a señor, pensó e comidió” or “a ondra e a bendición” (in reference to legal marriage). The second are used to express a whole by the sum of its complementary parts: “grandes e chicos” or “moros e cristianos” (all kinds of people), “nin mugier nin varón” (no-onea), “el oro e la plata” (all kinds of wealth), “en yermo” or “en poblado” (in all kinds of places) or “de noch e de día” (at all times).

Another type of characteristic expression in the poem is formed by physical sentences, which redundantly expresses the agent that executes the action, giving these phrases a kind of epic emphasis. For example: “plorando de los ojos, tanto avién el dolor” (v. 18) or “de la su boca compeçó de fablar” (v. 1456). It is possible that these expressions were reinforced by the mime of the minstrel while reciting the poem, but it is more likely that on the contrary, his own plasticity made it possible. In addition, it is difficult to imagine how the narrator could translate such expressions into epic, unless through exaggerated gestures which are unsuited to the characteristic solemnity of epic works.

The case of the intonation is even more obvious, since it would clearly be reflected in the oral execution of the poem. The rhetorical use of exclamation and interrogation by the narrator has already been seen. Both intonations are also used in the interventions of the characters, within the usual variety of expressive situations, along with the usual enunciative tone.

Special mention should be made of the typical war cry: “Los moros llaman -¡Mafómat!- e los cristianos -¡Santi Yagüe!-” (v. 731).

In addition, the impressive use of rhetorical questions by El Cid is important when he accuses the dauphins before the court of Toledo.   This speech ends in a rather a plaintive tone, with the words: “Cuando las non queriedes, ya canes traidores, / ¿por qué las sacávades de Valencia, sus honores? / ¿A qué las firiestes a cinchas e a espolones?” (v. 3263-3265).

El Cantar and the minstrels

Without doubt, the minstrels took great care to give the correct intonation, between serious and dramatic, to their recitals of El Cid. At all events, little is known about the specific manner in which they recited their poems.  Based on the minstrel-like colophon of the manuscript, it is recorded that “El Cantar de mio Cid” was sometimes read aloud. However, it was probably more common for it to be recited by heart in the form of a psalm with some type of music, and some modern scholars have assumed, but without significant grounds, that it was recited in the form of a Gregorian chant.

This type of reciting could be done in public, on a street or in a square, thereby acting at the will of the passers-by or at the expense of the local councillors, who hired them to liven up local festivities. However, it was customary for the minstrel to act in private, for example, at a wedding, christening or other family gathering. In the case of wealthy people, the minstrel usually performed after the feast.

The extension of “El Cantar de mio Cid” makes it quite difficult (but not impossible) for the work to have been executed in full just once. It is likely that the maximum that could be recited in each session would be one of the three songs of which it is comprised, and on many occasions, only some of the episodes would have been sung, possibly those most appreciated by the audience. Much speculation might exist as to which, based on the theme and tone, but the truth is that no information exists that allows us to be sure in this respect.  

Only the old romance of the Moorish King who lost Valencia (“Helo, helo por do viene / el moro por la calzada”) allows us to venture the hypothesis that the persecution of King Buchar was especially popular among the audience.  As for the interpretation, it is likely that the minstrel used certain expressions (facial, arms or legs) to emphasise different aspects of the narration.  However, it appears more likely that the minstrel’s performance consisted of a pompous recital in which the use of a musical instrument played with both hands prevented a marked dramatisation of the text.   This, on the other hand, was not really necessary in a work that, as already been seen from the physical phrases, is sufficiently expressive in itself.

As is usual in a text that was transmitted verbally, it is difficult to ascertain the success achieved by “El Cantar de mio Cid” during its time. Nevertheless, there are certain indications that this was considerable and long-lasting, and there is no doubt that it was the fundamental ranging pole of the literary consecration of El Cid. Currently considered to be the first classic in Spanish literature, “El Cantar” continues to attract the attention of not only specialists but of the educated public in general.

Author: Alberto Montaner Frutos

Rev.ALC: 27.07.2021