El Cid (Oxford Classic Tales)El Cid by Geraldine McCaughrean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The “Cantar de Mio Cid” or “The Poem of El Cid” is the national epic of Spain and a portrait of its noble hero, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known the world over simply as “El Cid,” a nom de guerre derived from the Arabic, “sayyid” or “The Leader.” Though he was a thorough Christian in an emergent Spain at a time when half the Iberian penninsula was under the Muslim occupation of the Almoravids, the degree of respect and admiration he garnered from both sides of the religious and cultural divide can be gleaned from what the Muslim historian Ibn Bassan wrote of him:

“This man, who was the scourge of his age, was, by his unflagging and clearsighted energy, his virile character, and his heroism, a miracle amoung the great miracles of the Almighty.”

Both friends and foes concurred that he was the greatest general of his time, and one of the most noble. This epic poem, unlike many others does not focus primarily on heroic scenes of national battle, martyrdom and glory, as might be found in such epics as the “Chanson de Roland,” but rather on the underlying nobility of character, humanity and honor of its hero as a man. El Cid was an extraordinary man, but he also lived in an extraordinary world, 12th Century Iberia, the land of the future yet still embryonic Spain and Portugul, which was as yet still divided amoung the Four Worlds of its past and present, and which was to serve as one important midwife to the birth to the two additional future worlds which would in turn give birth to our world: the birth of the world of the Renaissance in Europe, and the birth of the Modern World, our Modernity, in the long wake of the globalization commencing and ever accelerating, especially from Columbus’ discovery of the New World from that future Spain which would lead onward through centuries of European colonization to the unification of the Whole World, which is also Our World.


In Spanish, there are two common names for the eight centuries of history (from 711 AD to 1492 AD)in which Islamic forces controlled some portion of the Iberian Peninsula: the “Convivencia,” or “The Co-Existence,” and the “Reconquista,” or “The Reconquest.” The two terms present in their alternative connotations the recurring Huntingtonian choice of the modern world in its intercultural relations, between a “Clash of Civilizations” or a “Clasp of Civilizations” towards a common future.

“Four Worlds” thus came together during this period of history: The Arabic Muslim World, the Western Christian World, the Classical Graeco-Roman World and the Judaic World. These four worlds may be seen alternatively as either an extraordinary confluence and cross-fertilization, or as an embattled forced cohabitation of mutual conflict. In either case there is no denying the vital role Iberia played as the portal through which the rich Classical Culture of Greece and Rome—the texts of Aristotle and Plato that would be read by Aquinas and his successors–most often translated initially from Arabic into Latin as amplified by Arabic scholars Ibn Rushd (Averros) and Ibn Sina (Avicinna)in translation centers such as Toledo—would re-enter the Western canon, which “re-birth” would engender what we regard as the Renaissance, or Early Modern Era if you will. This retransfer of a tradition in significant part from the Arabic World to the Western World underscores a further important fact, that the Classical Graeco-Roman Tradition was the common heritage of both the Western Christian World and the Muslim world.

In their mutual practice of selective amnesia the West is apt to forget that its science and philosophy would be unthinkable but for the Arabic contriubtions, echoed in the very words, of Algebra, Alchemy (Chemistry),Algorisms and the recovered texts of Aristotle. The Muslim world is also apt to forget that those achievements did not come out of the deserts on the backs of camels but out of the libraries of Alexandria and Baghdad housing the works of Archimedes, Ptolmey, Euclid, Plato, Aristotle and Epictitus in Arabic translation. Both Islam and the Western Christian world are also fitfully forgetful of their common heritage in their shared monotheistic religion and God, both derived from the Fourth World of Judaic heritage, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage embracing the Torah, Bible and Koran alongside the Abrahamic heritage of a shared history from the Creation of Genesis, Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, Issac & Jacob, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad. Much of the Arabic and Muslim world was part of the Roman World and of the Greek empire of Alexander before, and shared a common heritage with or constitued an integral part of “The West.” The three cultural siblings of the Mediterranean-Mesopotamian world have been at odds, strife and rivalry so long they have forgotten they are brothers born of a common home and heredity.

Muslim armies first arrived in the Iberian Peninsula in 711 in a northward sweep stopped only by Charles Martel at Poitiers. The first dynasty of Emirs in “Al-Andalus”–“Land of the Vandals”–were the Umayyads. Most cities of al-Andalus were relatively independent with the great political and cultural centers at Cordoba, Granada and later Seville, as testified to by such remnants as the palaces and mosques of the Alhambra.

Poetry was the premiere literary form of the Arabic world, practiced by rulers, courtiers, philosophers and religious leaders and it flourished in Al-Andalus. The integration of Greek philosophy in the Muslim, Christian and Judaic worlds from the 10th century through Avicenna, Averros, Aquinas and Maimonides provided a common language and set of problematics to the Muslim, Christian and Judaic worlds. In Iberia for a significant time the tolerance of the Muslim rulers for “the dhimmi” or “Peoples of the Book” allowed Christians, Jews and Muslims to cohabit and contribute to their mutual heritages. The Sephardic Jews were an important element of this mix, fluent in the Arabic of the rulers yet retaining familiarity with the languages of the Classical Graeco-Roman world, Greek and Latin, as well as Biblical and Talmudic Hebrew, allowing them to serve in translation centers such as Toledo in an important cross-cultural role. Christian refugees from the crusades against the Albigensians in Provence also took refuge alongside Jews. Arabic and Islamic poetry including both the sensuality and mystic spirituaity of love of such masters as Abu-Nawas, Ibn al-Rumi and Hafiz and undoubtedly contributed to the development not only of Spanish, Portugese and Mozarabic poetry, but also the rise of the Troubadors and Minnisingers. Many renown scholars hailed from Iberia or nearby including Ibn al-Arabi, Yehuda ha-Levi, Ibn Rushd (Averroes)and Moses Maimonides.

Sadly, this period of confluence of cultures would end in repressive intolerance from both powers and religions. The rise of Muslim fundamentalists with the Almoravids and the later Almohads would cause persecutions of both Jews and Christians. A Muslim pogrom in Granada in 1066 would kill 3000 Jews. It is well known that in 1492 in Spain and 1497 in Portugul the expulsion or forced conversion of Jews and Muslims began and continued with the Inquisition, with many of the Sephardim taking refuge in the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul or Thessalonika. The Almohad Muslims were no less intolerant, driving Jews out of Morocco and North Africa by repression as exemplified by the case of Maimonides, who fled to Egypt to escape Almohad persecution.

Nonetheless, important elements of this fruitful cohabitation would survive and enrich the world. One already mentioned would be the transmission of lost Greek and Roman Classic texts such as Aristotle with commentaries by Ibn Rushd, Averroes and Ibn Sina, Avicenna, which would fuel the Renaissance. Another would be the cultivation of navigational skills in Portugul via Henry the Navigator, enriched by the experience of Arabic navigational experience and skills. By the time of Columbus, the contributions of a Fifth World, the Chinese, would seep through in the form of the compass, gunpowder, paper and printing to enrich the mix, without which Columbus’s journey would have been impossible. Together, the Four Worlds (or Five) would lead to the discovery of America, the New World, and thereby through Magellan to the circumnavigation and commencement of globalization of the world. The Renaissance then fueling the rise of Western Science and the Enlightenment in turn would lead to the growth of the global European Empires, beginning with the Spanish and culminating with the British, the largest Empire in world history, an Empire of Globalization on which “The Sun Never Set.” Thus the Renaissance, of which Iberia was one midwife, would lead to our Modern World.


This then was the world of El Cid, pregnant of an unseen future of global portend. How did he live his life and become legend within that world?

El Cid, Rodrigo Diaz, was a real historical personage, born to a modest noble family in Castile who rose by virtue of his military talent, courage and character to be one of the kingdom’s foremost officers. Spain did not yet exist and the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Leon, Navarre and Portugul were in constant conflict amoungst themselves as well as with the similarly disunited Muslim mini-states, or “taifas.” He rose to generalship in the civil wars and inter-state wars, but not without making enemies on the way. Throughout the entire poem, the Cid is portrayed as an exemplary hero and vassal; he is also an ideal lord himself.

Because of conspiracies and slander of his enemies, in particular Count Garcia Ordonez of the Beni-Gomez clan whom he had defeated and humiliated, despite El Cid’s many victories fighting for King Alfonso, The Cid is exiled from his native Castile. Essentially, by exiling him, Alfonso has relieved him of his obligations as a feudal vassal. These obligations, much like those of the characters in “La Chanson de Roland,” revolve around fidelity, loyalty, and support.

Central to the feudal system is the fact that vassals of a lord often have vassals themselves. The Cid is presented as being an ideal lord as well to his own vassals, which seems to balance the humility he shows to Alfonso, his own Lord and King. He is generous to his followers, shows them respect, and accepts their counsel. Perhaps most importantly, he allows his vassals to serve him honorably. All this is shown to sharply contrast El Cid’s intrinsic honor to Alfonso’s opportunistic and selfish treatment of him, devoid of any intrinsic honor.

Accordingly, the first part of the epic focuses on the military exploits of the Cid, which are not just a recounting of his personal valor but a portrayal of his generosity, love and care towards his men and vassals. Minaya, his chief captain is allowed to share in every glory and honor. Reciprocally, the Cid’s willingness to accept these proposals did honor to Minaya by allowing him to place himself in a position to gain glory, and Minaya’s eagerness to place himself in the thick of the battle does honor to the Cid. In contrast to the corrupted relationship between King Alfonso and the Cid, the Cid’s own relationship to his subordinates shows he is both an ideal lord as well as an ideal vassal to his own superiors in the feudal ethical order.

El Cid conquers and becomes the Lord and ruler of Valencia. He fights many battles against both Muslim and Christian states and is always gloriously successful, amassing immense wealth and war booty. It is notable that the wars are not just between Muslims and Christians but reflect complex alliances and power struggles in both communities. Sometimes the Cid fights alongside Muslim allies, and in each case even the Muslim states honor and respect his qualities as a leader, general, gentleman, man of courage and man of honor, universal values transcending both cultures.

Despite his unjust exile, The Cid continues to act as a superbly successful vassal, remaining loyal to the King and upholding the King’s glory and honor, while maintaining his own innocence and preserving his honor and dignity even in exile. Continuing to go from victory to victory on the frontier he persists in sending Alfonso rich spoils from his conquered territories in the Muslim south and humbling himself through his messengers. Finally, when restored to the king’s favor by these means, he defers loyally to Alfonso’s wishes, even when they conflict with his own, as in the case of his daughters’ marriages, which are arranged by the King with neighboring Princes.

Having accepted the Cid back into his good graces, Alfonso proposed that the Cid marry his daughters to two youngsters of a rich and old Leonese family of which Alfonso thought highly, and wished to influence for his own political advantage. The Cid did not like the match and told the king that he would not marry them so himself, but that he would give them to the king, his lord, to be married honorably. Alfonso then married them to the young Leonese, the Princes of Carrion. The newly-weds joined the Cid in the rich city of Valencia, which he had conquered from the Muslims. The Cid conferred upon his sons-in-law costly gifts, and they accepted them eagerly without much thanks.

The Princes foisted on the Cid’s daughters prove to be mere poseurs, hypocrites, arrogantly insistent on their own superiority, and cowards. El Cid’s vassals did all they could to hide the youths’ flaws from the Cid. One afternoon, as the Cid lay napping, a “pet” lion escaped its cage and entered the room where the Cid was sleeping. The Cid’s vassals stepped between the Cid and the lion, but the sons-in-law were terrified to the point of incontinence and hid under a couch and bed. The Princes are then humiliated in the eyes of all and decide to return ignominiously home. Greedily, they take all the gifts El Cid has given them. En route they feel the sting of their own dishonor and worthlessness and take it out on their wives, El Cid’s daughters, stripping them naked, beating them unconscious and abandoning them to die in the wilderness, cursing them as low-class sluts who never deserved to marry Princes of their own royal blood and superiority. The daughters are luckily rescued by El Cid’s loyal followers narrowly escaping the death intended for them.

The Cid sent word of this shameful act to the King, and Alfonso declared that he would arrange a trial where the Cid could seek justice. The Carrion family relies upon upper-class aristocratic solidarity with the King in expecting that Alfonso would recognize the validity of the boys’ claim that their wives had been too low-born to be accepted into the royal family of Carrion, and that it would be politically opportune to side with them. Their anxiety was great however when they discover that Alfonso was determined that they should stand to answer the Cid’s charges. When the date for the trial came, the Cid and his vassals put on their mail and belted their swords and went into the court wearing them under their cloaks fearing underhand assassination from their enemies.

At the trial of the Princes of Carrion, for having dishonored and injured the Cid’s daughters by beating them, stripping them naked and abandoning them do die in the wilderness, the family of Carrion tries to buy their way out by making material restitution to the Cid. For his own part he acceeds to the King’s attempt to compromise, but his honor still unsatisfied, he suggests to his vassals that they should denounce the Princes of the Carrion family and challenge them to a duel, or knightly combat on principle of honor. He then leaves, allowing his vassals the opportunity to distinguish themselves by fighting for their lord’s honor.

This of course does not mean that the Cid is a coward. In fact, his bravery is legendary. However, he has achieved fame and honor, and allows his vassals to do the same. The Cid’s central function in the poem, however, is as an honorable vassal and champion of Alfonso within the feudal ethical order.

Alfonso is completely oblivious of the fact that it was he who had been dishonored. Instead the King acts only out of political expediency and never honor. If he does partial justice it is only because it is expedient, never because it is either right or out of love or care for his vassals such as El Cid.

In the end El Cid’s own faithful friends and vassels end the matter by challenging the Princes to a duel, or combat of honor which they cannot refuse. The Princes plot to asassinate El Cid’s champions before the combat but are thwarted, and finally they are defeated and dishonored.

The poet, then, saw in the Cid an opportunity to create a hero who would exemplify the heroic virtues that seemed to be lacking in a debased contemporary society. The Cid of the “Poema del Cid” is loyal almost to a fault. He never fights as a mercenary for the Moors, as did the real historic Cid, but instead gains territory for his king and church only at their expense. In the Poem which becomes the national epic of Spain as a militantly Christian nation, the Cid is distorted somewhat to typify a brutal, vengeful self-righteous and militantly intolerant Christianity, whereas the historical Cid was arguably more cosmopolitan and tolerantly respectful of both Christians and Muslims. Nonetheless,by offering an ideal of the kind of behavior the poet wished was more common, the Cid is presented as a hero perfectly suited to medieval Spain.

The common people in the Poem in the end act as a sort of Greek Chorus in expressing one of the main themes of the work, lamenting in admiration for El Cid: “Dios que buen vassallo, si oviesse buen senor!”—–“God, what a good vassal. If only he had a good Lord.” This tragedy of a worthy knight bound to an unworthy lord is a constant theme in epic, already found with Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad.

This theme also finds expression in my own work, the contemporary and futuris epic Spiritus Mundi, where the character Andreas Sarkozy fights bravely as a South African soldier in the era of apartheid until finally chosing exile from the state he could no longer respect, later becoming a political activist in the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for Global Democracy.

In conclusion, I fully recommend you read The Poem of El Cid as an enduring classic of World Literature expressing universal values, and invite you to read my own recent work, Spiritus Mundi, the contemporary and futurist epic of globalization in our modern world.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

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About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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