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Review: Translated by Burton Raffel, poetry and moral clarity make 'Song of the Cid' sing

New translations of old texts are in. Simon Armitage and Seamus Heaney won critical acclaim for their renditions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, respectively, managing to make flow two books long the bane of ninth-graders' existence. In his new working of The Song of the Cid, Burton Raffel adds Spain's 13th century national epic poem to this genre.

Banished from Castile by King Alfonso for reasons never explained, the Cid sets out to win back his honor. Defeating everyone he challenges, he comes to command enormous wealth and sends back much of it to the king, who eventually pardons the Cid.

I've always loved medieval texts. Their rhythm is at once foreign and familiar. Words take on a whole new power under the cadence of song. Knights and kings, the manliest of the manly, share deep and unabashed affection. Victory is cause for thanks and celebration. Raffel has done a fine job capturing that feeling.

The Song of the Cid has none of the deep characterization of more complex chivalric tales, nothing comparable to Guinevere cloistering herself from Lancelot's sight or Bedivere's equivocation when asked to dispose of Excalibur, as in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Instead, good and evil are readily discerned. Epic fights, aided by the hand of God, always result in the wicked punished, the just rewarded.

Our world is so complex it's often impossible to say whose cause is right. When we can, it's often heartbreaking to watch evil triumph. The more words like Rwanda, Darfur, waterboarding and suicide bombing seep into our shared consciousness, the more we need occasional relief. A story as morally clear as The Song of the Cid takes us out of reality into a world we can understand.

The original audience of The Song of the Cid was nothing like us. Untold generations, so far distant, held their breath with each of the Cid's feats. Reading a story that has endured as long as this connects us, across centuries, to the eternal.

Nathaniel French is a student at Southern Methodist University.

The Song

of the Cid

Translated by Burton Raffel

Penguin Classics, 256 pages, $15

Review: Translated by Burton Raffel, poetry and moral clarity make 'Song of the Cid' sing 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 4:30am]
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