Monday, August 5, 2013

The Epic Poem, the Novel, and History

The Seven Noble Knights of Lara is based on Los siete infantes de Lara or de Salas, an episode of Spanish history tied up in poetry and heroism. It is a story full of violent passions and old-fashioned revenge. It hits such an unusually fevered pitch that some scholars believe the story must have originated in the epic tradition of northern Europe. It might have traveled to Spain through royal marriages during the thirteenth century. In spite of the differences between this epic and other Spanish stories, The Seven Noble Knights of Lara displays a typically Spanish obsession with geography and treats specifically Spanish themes, such as coexistence and wars with the Islamic governors of Andalusia and the supremacy of Castile among the Christian kingdoms. 
None of the poetry of the original epic — if it ever existed — has survived to the present day. In the thirteenth century, King Alfonso X el Sabio had his scholars compile a history of Spain from the beginning of time to their present day, and they recorded the episode of Los siete infantes de Lara over the course of several chapters taking place during the rule of the second Count of Castile, García Fernández, in the late tenth century. In the twentieth century, scholars noticed that in several places, this supposedly historical text rhymed and presented meter and repetition typical of epic poetry. Some of the stanzas have been reconstructed, but the closest we can get to the entire original story is through the prosified version and later medieval histories.
Whether the incident represents historical facts has always been up for debate. The possibility that the medieval historians derived it from an epic poem does not argue for or against its truthfulness, as traveling minstrels or jongleurs would have been the main source of news at the time, and they could remember the facts more easily when it followed a familiar format (and rhymed).
Two fantastical elements in the story argue against the historical nature of the tale, but they can also be interpreted as miracles — confirmations of God's glory in everyday life — which medieval people would have taken as utterly factual and believable.

The first miraculous event concerns a ring which has been split in two, and the pieces separated in distance and time. As in other folk tales, when the two halves meet again, they magically fuse, never again to be sundered. Whether because it was considered a miracle, or they thought magic was more prevalent a few hundred years before, or they just weren't that concerned with details, the medieval historians record this without comment. I knew today's readers wouldn't swallow the magical reunion of the ring's halves without question, so in my novel, I simply had the ring melded back together in a normal forge.

The second fantastical occurrence concerns Don Gonzalo's eyesight. He goes blind with weeping over the years Salas is in ruins, and when his fortunes change, his sight miraculously returns. I'm sure it's more metaphorical than a strict plot point, but I recognized this as an opportunity to give the reader an experience of the medical practices of the day. Physicians were doing successful eye surgery in the Arab world at this time, so in my novel, Don Gonzalo develops sudden cataracts from weeping, staring into the sun, and even a swift kick in the face. Later, I go into the gory details of cataract surgery with an Andalusian doctor. The method is still performed the same way in developing countries today. The scene also serves to emotionally bond some of the characters. 

Author Kim Rendfeld called this passage "riveting." I couldn't be more pleased with the results of my efforts to reconcile the fiction and the historically believable in my little epic. 

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