Sunday, January 20, 2008

El Cid: God's Own Champion

I'm embarrassed to admit that I have almost no knowledge of Rodrigo Diaz of Vivar, known to history as El Cid, the national hero of Spain. In this, sadly, I suspect I'm not alone among Americans. Thus, I was happy to receive El Cid, God's Own Champion: The True Story of the Knight of Vivar, a new book by James Fitzhenry.

The book is a historical narrative, meant specifically for older kids, perhaps ages 12 and up. It is well written and Fitzhenry's prose has an easy grace that flows well and keeps the reader's attention. Based mainly on Ramon Menendez Pidal's work, The Cid and His Spain, the text chronicles the amazing life of El Cid and gives a glimpse into a time when the threat of radical Islam was even more immediate and dangerous than it is today. The Iberian peninsula in the 11th century was rent with conflicts between the various petty Christian and Islamic principalities, and it was not uncommon for Christian nobles to ally with Islamic ones against other Christians--and vice-versa. Into this confusing morass enters El Cid, an unconquerable hero who accomplishes what seems impossible with the barest handful of men. In this he reminded me of the late Roman hero, Belisarius who found phenomenal military success against similarly daunting odds.

But El Cid's successes provoked the jealousy of his rivals who had the ear of King Alfonso of Castile. Time and again, Alfonso punished and exiled his greatest champion, but through all the injustice, El Cid remained unwaveringly loyal, ever seeking to win back the good graces of his sovereign. In this, too, El Cid's story echoes that of Belisarius who was also unjustly slandered by jealous rivals and who suffered, as a result, the suspicion and punishments of his master, the Emperor Justinian. Of course, the difference is that while Hollywood has made an epic version of the life of El Cid, it has not yet done so for Belisarius. Perhaps this is for the best, however, given what Hollyweird has become these days.

Fitzhenry also portrays El Cid as a paragon of Christian manhood. He is honest to a fault, pious, and humble before his king. He also shows mercy to his enemies and repeatedly tries to win the allegiance of the faithless Muslims of Valencia who repay his friendly overtures and honest justice with sedition and rebellion.

Overall, I enjoyed El Cid, God's Own Champion very much. Because it serves as both a history lesson and an inspiring tale of Catholic manhood, it is an ideal book for parents to read with their kids.

Five stars for this one.

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