Emilio José Sales Dasí. La aventura caballeresca: epopeya y maravillas. Alcalá de Henares: Centro de Estudios Cervantinos, 2004


For centuries, scholarly treatment of the libros de caballerías was circumscribed to three areas of study: bibliographic catalogues of titles and their whereabouts; general—and generally disdainful—plot summaries of extant texts; and critical commentaries limited in length from a footnote to an article or book chapter. These early forays into the genre are neither inconsequential nor ignorant; Diego Clemencín’s extensive annotations to his edition of Don Quijote de La Mancha (1833-1839), for example, anticipate Pascual de Gayangos’ magisterial “Discurso preliminar” to his Libros de caballerías (1857) as surely as the most recent collective edition of Cervantes’ masterpiece, published in two volumes (1998). Gayangos’ succint plot summaries of Amadises, Palmerines and others find elaboration in the seminal chapter “Aparición de los libros de caballerías indígenas” of Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo’s Orígenes de la novela (1905-1915), while Gayangos’ “Catálogo razonado” gives rise to one of the most lively debates in libro de caballerías criticism today, namely, the identification and classification of pertinent texts, as carried out in the bibliographies of Daniel Eisenberg and Ma Carmen Marín Pina (2000), on the one hand, and José Manuel Lucía Megías (2002), on the other.

Nonetheless, these studies serve a descriptive, rather than interpretive, purpose. The recent shift to a more literary approach is best exemplified by Juan Manuel Cacho Blecua’s Amadís: heroismo mítico-cortesano (1979), in which the critic connects narrative elements in Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo’s reelaboración to a larger symbolic universe. Yet the field is still so wide open, and the body of material so large, that even the most ambitious literary studies of the Spanish books of chivalry often consist of a volume of collected articles on various titles and topics, such as those edited by Lilia E. F. de Orduna (1992), Rafael Beltrán Llavador (1998) and volume 21 of Edad de Oro (2002).

For this reason, Emilio José Sales Dasí’s La aventura caballeresca: epopeya y maravillas fulfills an important and heretofore neglected need: a wide-ranging but readable literary study of the genre as a whole. Thoroughly informed by current trends in libro de caballerías scholarship, La aventura caballeresca seeks to provide a divulgatory overview of the works’ principal motifs. The first chapter, “El caballero”, treats the hero, his characteristics, his accoutrements and his life trajectory. The second chapter, “El caballero y la dama: entre el amor y la guerra”, studies the female narrative spheres, from the beloved to gender-bending Amazons and cross-dressed knights. Chapter Three, “Los personajes secundarios”, splits secondary characters into helpers (squires, magicians, and dwarfs) and antagonists (pagans, giants and monsters). Chapter Four, “Una aproximación al espacio: entre lo imaginario y lo exótico”, examines chivalric spaces such as the court, the castle, the forest, the sea and the island. In Chapter Five, Sales Dasí ventures into metanarrative, treating the genre’s interplay between history and fiction. La aventura caballeresca  is further complemented by three appendices: a brief anthology of text selections chosen, according to a footnote, by the author and Lucía Megías, who also provides the volume’s prologue; an index of original-Castilian and translated titles in manuscript and print, with author names and first-publication dates; and a brief bibliography including general works on medieval chivalry, recent editions of Arthurian texts and reader guides. The book closes with eight black-and-white sketches of chivalric characters and settings, in a style best described as a hybrid between sixteenth-century woodcuts and twenty-first century comic-book illustrations, by Enric Ruiz.

A critical approach may be considered to have reached a certain maturity when literary studies contain their own motifs; just as nineteenth-century scholars found it de rigueur to lament the Spanish book of chivalry’s lack of aesthetics, relevance and/or originality, today’s scholars insist upon the texts’ interest as a group of ever-evolving treatments of traditional motifs whose sheer numbers testify to their importance in the literary, social and economic spheres of sixteenth-century Spain. And no critic, including Sales Dasí, has yet to resist constant invocations of Cervantes, whose artistic magnitude is perhaps inescapable, but whose major work nonetheless post-dates all of the titles included in La aventura caballeresca’s index. These critical touchstones are lighted upon by Lucía Megías in his passionate prologue, and although many modern aficionados of the books of chivalry may sympathize with his declaration that “es falso – y es necesario decirlo con estos términos—y dice bien poco de quien así lo defienda que todos los libros de caballerías son iguales [...]” (11), the sentiment rings incongruous in a text devoted to, as Sales Dasí explains, “una exposición de los aspectos más característicos y atractivos para el lector actual [of the Spanish books of chivalry]” (16). In this sense, La aventura caballeresca points towards a new future in libro de caballerías studies, one in which the books of chivalry and their constituent literary elements may be studied without apology.

The volume’s structure responds to recent trends in global approaches to narrative motifs, a field of study whose interest for mythologists, anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, literary critics and folklorists, among others, contributes to its liveliness as well as to an oft-times frustrating incoherence. Cacho Blecua’s Amadís: heroismo mítico cortesano, for example, takes advantage of this variety by permitting free-associations between text and theory, or better still, theories, but the range of works treated in La aventura caballeresca requires a certain degree of organization. Like its predecessors, La aventura caballeresca avoids strict definitions of slippery terms such as motivo, folclórico and mitológico, and the chapters reflect different approaches to motifs, from Chapter One’s echoes of Lord Raglan’s treatment of the hero to Chapter Three’s adoption of Vladimir Propp and A. J. Greimas’ tale-roles of helper and villain. On the other hand, La aventura caballeresca succeeds in breaking down the text into character, accoutrement, action and situation in such a way that the volume entire seems to respond—although perhaps by chance—to Finnish folklorist Heda Jason’s recent suggestion that a motif-study take into account, among other items, single characters and their qualities, single requisites and their qualities, single deeds and their qualities, couplings of character and deed, results of actions, and spatial and geographic contexts (2000: 23). As a result, a genre once infamous for its lack of narrative structure becomes enjoyably coherent.

This organizational parsing, furthermore, allows for an impressive interplay of primary sources, and contemporary and/or otherwise related secondary material. Sales Dasí’s observations are thoughtfully supported by examples, and in many cases, direct and extensive quotes, from relevant texts; not surprisingly, the Amadís sequence is well-represented here, but it is also a delight to come across a pertinent reference to, say, Florambel de Lucea or Adramón. Related texts cited range from Andreas Capellanus’ De amore to Benoît de Saint-Maure’s Roman de Troie, as well as numerous comparisons to Arthurian works of the Provençal and Vulgate traditions. Sales Dasí makes a special effort to illuminate the relevance of this marvellous fiction to historical Spain through drawing attention to parallels in records ranging from Alfonso el Sabio’s Siete Partidas to Christopher Columbus’ Diarios de viaje. At the same time, the author takes pains to present the libro de caballerías as an Early-Modern manifestation of a narrative technique which continues to enjoy popularity in story-books and films such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Thus the libro de caballerías expands to touch upon texts of other genres, purposes, and centuries, which in turn suggests either a less-static reading of the Spanish book of chivalry or an appreciation of narrative as more formulaic than heretofore realized.

La aventura caballeresca offers something for everybody, although the exact identity of Sales Dasí’s ideal reader remains a mystery. An academically-trained public will appreciate the volume’s neat synthesis of recent critical trends as supported by an impressive depth and range of primary and secondary materials, but may find attempts to pursue a particularly intriguing idea frustrated by the complete absence of citations and critical bibliography. A less specialized reader, meanwhile, will surely be attracted to Sales Dasí’s readable style, his ability to draw parallels between popular stories of all ages, and Enric Ruiz’s charming illustrations, but the number of texts involved may challenge his ability to keep titles and references straight. Perhaps the richest reading of La aventura caballeresca may be harvested by one in which a general or younger reader finds guidance from a more experienced specialist, and supplemented by either well-known texts such as Amadís de Gaula or selections from anthologies such as that provided by Sales Dasí’s first appendix or Lucía Megías’ more extensive Antología de libros de caballerías castellanos (2001).

In conclusion, La aventura caballeresca makes an important contribution to libro de caballerías studies. The volume’s critical formation provides a clear and well-organized synthesis of the numerous but somewhat disparate contributions made by previous investigations. The chapters’ structure remains true to various trends in worldwide motif-studies, while providing coherence to a rather unruly genre. Within these chapters, an impressive number of titles, whose access remains difficult for most modern scholars, are treated with deftness, and their understanding is enriched by frequent references to an equally-impressive number of secondary sources. The illustrations and reading suggestions make the volume a pleasant introduction to the genre for general readers or novice Hispanists; libro de caballerías specialists, meanwhile, will share Sales Dasí’s genuine affection for his subject matter, and find it a useful guide to single texts or anthologies—or as a stand-alone study, as it certainly merits.


Kristine Neumayer (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Works Cited

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