Review of Amadis of Gaul, Books I & II

The first two books of Amadis of Gaul are a pleasure to read, absorbing, and hard to put down. The only possible rough patch would be the narrative of the long series of Amadis’s and Galaor’s victories in the middle of Book I, which, since both knights are invincible, borders on the monotonous. However, the story soon becomes more politically intriguing and generally deeper, so that the reader is fully enthralled by the end of Book II. Indeed, it is hard to resist the temptation, even after 682 pages, to dive right into the second volume, containing Books III and IV. (Even so, I think I will balance my palette with a taste of something else before returning to Amadis.)

The world of Amadis of Gaul consists of three overlapping and sometimes conflicting moralities. The first morality, the aristocratic one, equates good looks, personal honesty, martial valor, and fine pedigree, resulting in the assumption that a handsome man must therefore be an honest man, who must therefore be a good fighter, who must therefore be a man of noble birth. These linkages are nonsensical to the modern reader, who may be amused by such statements in Amadis as “‘I really believe you are telling the truth, for I heard you praised extravagantly for your good looks’” (p. 91); but they were accepted by the pre-modern reader, who, perhaps because he was an aristocrat himself, wished to believe that his position atop society was justified by the general superiority of all the individuals in his class. It is interesting in this respect to observe that many of the villains in this book are ugly of appearance or of nonstandard physical types such as dwarfs and giants. In any case, this aristocratic morality of Amadis is so internalized that its compiler, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, never pauses to examine it.

The second plane of morality, the religious one, holds that God’s favor determines everything and that self-confidence, in the Augustinian sense, is folly. In contrast to the passively-accepted aristocratic morality, the religious one is elaborated more explicitly. Often, its invoker is a character in the book, as in this dialogue between the evil Arcalaus and the heroic Amadis:

“Knight, you are in danger of death, and I do not know who you are; tell me so that I may know, for I am thinking more about killing you than overcoming you.”

“My death,” said Amadis, “is at the will of God, whom I fear; and yours at that of the devil, who is already angry for having supported you and wishes that your body, to which so many evil vices he has given, should perish along with your soul” (p. 207).

Just as frequently, the reminder that God is in charge is provided by the narrator himself. Thus are we told that the arrogant King Dardan “esteemed his own strength and the great zeal of his heart more than the judgment of the most high Lord, who with very little of His power brings it about that the very strong are overcome and dishonored by the very weak” (p. 151). In a few places, too, the narrator speaks in general, didactic, terms, as in:

And at this juncture, as the story seeks to proceed, you will be able to see how little the strength of the human mind suffices when that high Lord, with slackened reins and lifted hand withdrawing His grace, permits the judgment of man to exercise its powers freely; whence it will be manifest to you whether great estates, high dominions can be won and governed with the prudence and diligence of mortal man; or if when divine Grace is lacking, great pride, great greed, a throng of armed soldiers are enough to maintain them. (p. 630)

Of course, the notion that possession of “great estates, high dominions” could only have been won and kept through divine right is a huge justification of the prevailing class system and suggests that the religious morality reinforces the aristocratic. However, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, in soliloquizing that the high may be brought low, seems also to be positing the religious morality as a contrast to the aristocratic.

Finally, there is the romantic or chivalric morality, which subjects even the most well-born and divinely-favored knights to their ladies. Amidis himself, after declining to serve King Lisuarte of Great Britain, becomes the sworn knight of Queen Brisena, as though to prove “how much greater influence women have on knights than men do” (p. 167). Of course, Amidis’s true master is Princess Oriana, his lover, “at whose slightest angry word heard by him – for such is his great fear of angering her – he would bury himself alive” (p. 507). Indeed, since Amidis is so completely the devotee of Oriana, it might be wondered whether he really serves God at all. When he accepts a dangerous fight with the giant Famongomadan, Amadis at first dismisses the concerns of his squire by trotting out the familiar religious morality: “I want to test the compassion of God,” he says, “whether it will please Him that the very great violence that this enemy of His commits be done away with by me.” However, a few lines later, Amidis prays not to God but to his lover, then miles away: “Oh, my lady Oriana! Never did I begin a great feat on my own initiative wherever I might be, except with your help; and now, my good lady, help me, for it is so necessary for me” (p. 538).

One might suppose that the romantic morality would come into direct conflict with the religious, if and when it leads to sex, but Rodriguez de Montalvo never uses words like fornication or adultery to describe sex out of wedlock. He seems, however, to draw a distinction between sex and love and to invest the latter with a religious aspect – especially when the woman is in command.

Common, purely sexual episodes result from passion and appetite, as in:

At this time the maidens were going about through the castle searching with the other women in order to give them something to eat; and Galaor and the maiden, called Brandueta, were talking alone about what you hear, and as she was very beautiful, and he was covetous of such viands, before the meal came or the table was set, both of them rumpled a bed that was in the hall where they were, thus making her a matron who before that was not, satisfying their desires, which, in a short space of time, each looking at the other’s beautiful youthfulness in bloom, had become very great. (p. 266)

In spite of this enjoyment, though, Galaor and Brandueta do not become permanent lovers. They each take their pleasure and move on.

Contrariwise, Amidis’s parents, King Perion and Princess Elisena, fall hopelessly in love, despite their moral virtue. Elisena’s “great modesty and exemplary life could not prevent her from becoming a prisoner of incurable and great love for him, and the king in like manner for her.” At dinner, Perion expresses hope that “my whole life will be employed in serving you,” and later, Elisena’s maid, Darioleta, arranges for them to be together, at which, King Perion considers himself “very fortunate that God had brought him into such a connubial state” (pp. 25-30).

The offspring of this union, Amidis, and his lover, Oriana, grow up together innocently, he serving as her page. With years of love budding between them, and with Amadis having demonstrated his martial valor and high birth, they find themselves, likewise, at dinner, and Oriana grasps Amidis’s hand under the table. Each confesses the most consuming desire for the other, and, as Amadis weeps and loses the power of speech, Oriana promises to give herself to him (pp. 294-296). When, at the conclusion of a subsequent adventure she undertakes to fulfill her promise, she charges him only to “see to it that, although here below it may appear error and sin, it not be so before God.”

And Amadis is able to “see to it” by surrendering the initiative  — and by surrendering himself, body and soul — to Oriana:

When he saw her thus so beautiful and in his power, she having agreed to do his will, he was so distraught with joy and bashfulness that he did not dare even to look at her; so that one could well say that in that green grass, on that mantle, more by the grace and courtesy of Oriana than by any immodesty or boldness on Amadis’s part, was the most beautiful maiden in the world made a matron. (p. 339)

As I understand it, chivalric literature was influenced by Sufi Islam and transformed by the troubadours, who reoriented its ecstatic devotion from God to woman. Amadis of Gaul is a monument of this unique form of worship.

It’s also, as I said, a lot of fun.

PS. An OpEd in today’s Wall Street Journal by Ashley McGuire called “The Controversial Text That Saved Me” contains the following sentence that may be apropos: “The trust spouses place in each other imitates the transcendent trust that faith teaches us to put in the divine when things aren’t fully within our control.”

PPS. At one point, Amadis’s conduct seems to anticipate classical liberalism. After freeing a group of prisoners, he says to them, “Friends, may each one of you go wherever he pleases and where it be most advantageous for him” (p. 213).

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and a soon to be published novelist.

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