Tirant lo Blanc
Planes are great for reading and on this trip to China I managed to knock off another book from my book list: “Tirant lo Blanc”. It is also entirely fitting that I am sitting here in Istanbul writing the review while I wait for my connecting flight as the major part of the story takes place in this city.
With Tirant lo Blanc I am finally through the ancient texts in later reprints and have arrived at texts actually written around the times they got printed… almost. In this case there is only 20-30 years between the writing and the printing, but at least we are not talking centuries anymore. That means that I can safely say that I have arrived at the… later half of the 15th century.
“Tirant lo Blanc” is very much a book of its time, for better or worse. The late medieval era was the heyday of chivalric romances and “Tirant lo Blanc”, the white knight, is almost the quintessential knight’s tale, so I take it that its inclusion on the list is as a representative of its genre. Here is the supreme knight with all the noble or at least chivalric qualities of a knight. He is brave beyond measure, fights the enemy in open battle and wins through skill and bravery and not through tricks. He is modest of ambition and gives his wins away rather than keep them for himself and he will go to stupid extremes to avoid looking selfish and greedy. Tirant is also a romantic hero who will go through fire and water for his lady and yet respect her to an extent where he hardly dares to speak with her. Pick a random Hollywood movie (such as “Shane” or “Superman”) and these are the qualities we are looking for in our hero and Tirant has them all.
But this is the 15th century and a knight of lofty station is also of a will and in a position to deal out swift judgement on those of lesser station he feels offends him or his code of honor. Killing a man or maiming him to a cripple is only an offense if he is of similar station. Many are those Tirant happens to kill and even when he realizes his mistake there is little regret. Servants, Moors (muslims) or just about anybody not a Christian knight are free game.
So, yeah, an interesting look at the medieval ideal of a man.
“Tirant lo Blanc” follows Tirant lo Blanc on his travels around the known world. He manages to visit England, Sicily, Constantinople and the Barbary Coast (North Africa) leaving a wake of corpses and broken hearts. Half the book is devoted to Tirant’s battles and the other half to all the romantic escapades in between. The battle parts soon become tiresome through repetition, super human skill and a general foul up of geography and actual events (Moorish invasion of England???, total victory over the Turkish invasion force in front of Constantiople when it actually fell, Catholics in Greece where people are and is Eastern-Orthodox etc.). The romantic scenes however are far more vivid and they are those that carry this story.
In those romantic sections we get real characters and realistic scenarios… almost. We are still dealing with human ideals anno 1470, but had this been a movie this would not be R rated, not even PG. The brave knights become tame as lambs in the presence of these women and the romantic setups with nightly visits in bedrooms and close escapes out the window are genuinely entertaining. The emphasis on these elements and indeed the quality difference between battle and romance made me wonder more than once if the writer was actually a woman and Joanot Martorell, the author credited, just a front. I can just imagine how this story would have been a success with the girls in its day.
For me the book was a mixed bag of candy. Not surprisingly a lot of the writing is antiquated and motives and morality hopelessly outdated. I know that for centuries to come this will be a recurring theme, but when a man’s success is measured in how many he has managed to convert to his religion it is missing the mark for me. Rating people in A people, B people and infidels also grinds on me. Oh me and my 21st century sensibilities… However there are also surprisingly modern elements such as the bedroom sequences and the ending, which I really did not see coming.
“Tirant lo Blanch” was made into a movie of the same name in 2006 (Spanish-English co-production). I have not watched it, but I looked it up and it looks positively naughty and fairly close to the book. I think I will have a go at it.