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Amadis of Gaul. Books I and II
A Novel of Chivalry of the 14th Century Presumably First Written in Spanish
João de Lobeira (14th century)
revised and reworked by Garci Rodrígues de Montalvo (1508)
Edwin B. Place and Herbert C. Behm (translators)
University of Kentucky Press, 685 pages

Stephanie Foley
Amadis of Gaul
João de Lobeira
João de Lobeira (d. 1403) is the putative 14th century author of two or three books of the Amadis which were later edited and expanded upon by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. Possibly a Portuguese cleric, de Lobeira's original manuscript is thought to have been lost in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo
Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo (d. 1504) collected and edited three previous books of Amadis, expanding from them a Book IV (1508), and independantly writing the first of a vast number of sequels and derivatives by various authors: Sergas de Esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandian (1510). So influential were these books that the Spanish took the name for California from a land described in this book.

Edwin Place, Herbert Behm, John E. Keller
Edwin Place was professor emeritus at Northwestern University. Herbert Behm taught language arts in California. John E. Keller, professor emeritus of Spanish at the University of Kentucky, is co-author of Daily Life Depicted in the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

Early English translations, (e.g. Anthony Munday) - access may be restricted

Early French translations: (Books I-VIII by Nicolas d'Herberay, seigneur des Essars)

Amadis in The Encyclopædia of Fantasy

Illustrations from French d'Herberay editions

Amadis spared from the pyre in Cervantes' Don Quixote (Chap. 6)

"Iberian Chivalric Literature" by Craig Levin

A Spanish page on Amadis
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Some might think The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Silmarillion and the many subsequent volumes culled from the Tolkien archives, not to mention the works of his imitators, as a literary first for fantasy, a work of pure imagination emerging as a sort of societal and literary icon. Similarly, one might think Conan as the first literary super-warrior to become an industry onto his own, with vast numbers of sequels, adaptations, and ripoffs. Of course, in both cases, one would be roughly 500 years out of date, 600 years if one hearkens back to the origins of Amadis of Gaul.

Assembled, edited and expanded into five volumes by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, from a no-longer-extant 14th original attributed to one João de Lobeira, Amadis de Gaula became a huge bestseller in 16th century Europe. It spawned numerous sequels, running to over twenty volumes in the original 16th century French edition (links at sidebar), and spawning innumerable imitators, particularly the Palmerin tales. Amadis de Gaule also had a significant influence on French society (amongst others): Le trésor des Amadis : contenant les épîtres, complaintes, concions, harangues, deffis & cartels, recueillis des douze livres d'Amadis de Gaule pour servir d'exemple à ceus qui désirent apprendre à bien écrire missives, ou parler françois (1560) gathered quotations from the first 12 books of the French translations of Amadis to serve as a manual of good taste in manners, writing and speech, which was both highly regarded and widely distributed.

Roughly a century after the publication of the first installment of Amadis, the romance of chivalry had become a literary laughing stock of endlessly derivative sequels, prequels, spin-offs and imitations (sound familiar?), inspiring Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's classic Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605), about an old man so taken up by such romances that he comes to believe himself a fearless knight. However, when Don Quixote's friends intervene, and burn his vast collection of such books (which in itself serves as a short history and critique of the genre), they spare Amadis of Gaul:

The first that Master Nicholas put into his hand was The Four Books of Amadis of Gaul. "This seems a mysterious thing," said the curate, "for, as I have heard say, this was the first book of chivalry printed in Spain, and from this all the others derive their birth and origin; so it seems to me that we ought inexorably to condemn it to the flames as the founder of so vile a sect."

"Nay, sir," said the barber, "I too, have heard say that this is the best of all the books of this kind that have been written, and so, as something singular in its line, it ought to be pardoned."

"True," said the curate; "and for that reason let its life be spared for the present. Let us see that other which is next to it."

And elsewhere Don Quixote, and by extension Cervantes, praises Amadis as the greatest literary knight of all.

Besides Sir Philip Sydney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1590), the influence of Amadis extends well beyond the 16th century. A number of characters in James Branch Cabell's Biography of Manuel, quite a lengthy series itself, bear names from Amadis of Gaul, Lisuarte in Jurgen and the main character, Perion (Amadis' father in the original) in Domnei. There is also evidence from her journals that Mary Shelley was reading Robert Southey's 1803 translation of Amadis of Gaul at the time she began to write Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

All this praise aside, what is it all about? Set in and around England after the Roman era, but before the advent of Arthur, it tells the complex interwoven story of the adventures of Amadis, the greatest knight of all time. Love-child of King Perion of Gaul and the lovely Elisena, Amadis is left in a basket to float downriver lest his mother be dishonoured. Known only as "Child of the Sea," he is picked out of the sea by Gandales, and raised with a foster brother Gandalin. Perion and Elisena have two other children, a daughter Melicia, and a boy Galaor, who is kidnapped and raised by a giant. Meanwhile King Lisuarte returns to rule England accompanied by his wife Briana and their lovely daughter Oriana, who is eventually placed in the household of King Perion, where "Child of the Sea" becomes her page, and falls in love. Meanwhile the mysterious sorceress, Urganda the Unknown, prophesies that "Child of the Sea" will be the greatest of knights: the strongest, most honorable and the most loyal in love. Unknowingly Perion knights his son Amadis, and Amadis similarly knights his brother Galaor, before they all discover each other's true identities. The brothers both go off and save damsels in distress, beat up or kill nasty knights, battle evil wizards, giants and sundry beasts, Amadis staying true to his love, Oriana, and his brother, Galaor, being somewhat more inclined to bed the fair maidens. However, this summary of the first dozen or so of the 54 chapters of Books I and II, doesn't begin to summarize all the adventures and complexities of the story.

Place and Behm's translation is largely in modern English -- as opposed for example to Robert Southey's 1803 abridged version -- making it much more accessible to the modern reader. How closely it matches the Castillian original, I'm not competent to assess, but if you're really that interested the original Spanish text of the first four books is available here. Place and Behm also translated Books III and IV, but these are out of print. As modern as the translation might be, the manner in which the plot unfolds is of its time, resembling a 20s cliffhanger movie serial far more than any modern fantasy adventure. Further, the story differs significantly from the standard Arthurian fare, inasmuch as it largely avoids elements of adultery (e.g. Lancelot) -- though there clearly is extra-marital sex -- and significantly bumps up the number and detail of the fight scenes. These are quite well done and exciting throughout, be they with knights, warlocks or beasts. The author puts in a few moralizing asides here and there, but they're fairly few and far between.

Surprisingly, very little seems to have been culled from Amadis of Gaul by modern fantasists -- James Branch Cabell excepted -- at least compared to works like Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur or Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot. Certainly this 16th century bestseller still presents an exciting, fast-paced and ultimately very entertaining story, that modern readers should have little difficulty in appreciating, if perhaps not the many clones it engendered.

Copyright © 2003 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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