Amadis of Gaul
If you thought the sort of fantasy made popular by ”The Lord of the Rings” and ”Game of Thrones” is a new invention you are hopelessly mistaken. Long before the printing press fantasy tales of knights and strange kingdoms and damsels in distress abounded. If you think about it you knew that already. The King Arthur tale is medieval high fantasy and just one of many.
My next book on the list is such a fantasy tale. Completely invented and magnificently imagined this is “Game of Thrones” anno 1500.
I have read quite a bit of fantasy in my time, it is an… ahem, guilty pleasure of mine, and the connection between the old stuff and the present day’s novels is pretty clear. “Amadis of Gaul” is a fantasyland refuge for the readers (or more likely listeners) who in the novel found ideals outlived. It is a place where the good site is championed by worthy and noble knights, where honor is important and bestowed on those who deserve it and where mundane things like money, sickness and petty squabbles are non-existent.
As such it is quite entertaining. The story moves forward with a rapid pace and like any good tv-serial there are both sequential events and a connecting story to tie it all together. I can imagine that in public readings you would want each reading to finish a particular quest, yet keep the larger story on track. The benefit to a modern reader is that it does not get boring.
We follow Amadis of Gaul, the best knight in the world, from his inception and through his exploits which are many. As a Moses child the infant boy is sent off to sea because he was born outside of wedlock, albeit the child of a princess and a king (children outside wedlock is a bad bad thing…), but luckily he is fished out of the water by another king who raises him as his own child. Unaware that he is actually the son of a king Amadis grows into a glorious knight and soon he is on the road as a knight-errant finding adventure and opportunity for glory around every corner. He ends up with King Lisuarte who happen to have a daughter, Oriana, for whom Amadis have the hots. When Amadis eventually learn of his heritage that does not hurt him one bit. In the world of knights being the son of a king (who eventually married Amadis’ mother) is a pretty cool thing.
Later on Amadis finds two brothers of his who were also considered lost and together they are busy being awesome. I have to admit that I only read book 1. Depending on the source there are several sequels, at least four more books, and so I actually do not know how the story ends. My guess is that eventually Amadis and Oriana get each other, but not before an awful amount of trouble and a lot of dead knights.
There are a number of curious things to notice in this novel. For one, where I suspected Tirant lo Blanc to have been written by a woman I am fairly convinced that Amadis of Gaul is conceived by a man. The scenes of romance are plenty, but tend to be repetitive and the women one-dimensional. They all react in the same way and if they are not pretty little ladies, they are bitching snakes full of deceit and venom. Every so often the knight would get a sexual reward from the damsels they save before they ride on. Battle scenes however are super detailed and varied and both bloody and gory. It seems to me that the writer found a particular delight in these and the knights miss no opportunity to bash some heads.
Considering these knight are made blood, flesh and noble manners it is incredible how eager they are to fight and kill. They are super easy to provoke, just call them chicken or throw an insult and they will come charging at you. Or, well, simply to measure their skill against each other, which is reasonable enough except that they frequently die or are badly maimed as a result. Incidentally these bloody activities takes a heavy toll on horses. Just in this first book I bet Amadis alone has lost the first ten horses. Well, I guess they did not care that much about horses back then.
Now all this may sound as if I did not like the book, but I did. It was very entertaining and surprisingly imaginative. But these knights in their stuffy chivalric nobility are so easy to make fun of. I bet Monty Python watched this before making “The Quest for the Holy Grail” and I know Cervantes did before writing “Don Quixote”.
So, if you are fond of modern fantasy you have to read this one. This is the real thing.