Reader’s Recommendation: The Song of the Cid, translated by Burton Raffel

Three beautiful cantos, then a smattering of notes. From nine days, the beginning of exile, the evocative imagery of furs and hawks and the voice of the titular Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, El Cid, ‘The Lord’ a reader knows the kind of epic poem this will be.

It’s a beautiful thing, in the way both poetry and classics are. fresh pressed, but also with the smell of well-made books. It feels like it’s occupied my shelf for years, another iteration of a story hundreds of years old. Rather than the usually very good and classic art, the cover is simply a sword. Black and white, rapid. It suits the theme of a man of action, what I gather to be a cultural romanticisation of beauty going by the other great Spanish word I have read; The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

I’ve noticed the classic tales have an enjoyable quality that neither fantasy fiction or philosophy has; emphasis upon the nature of personal power. Like the life of William Marshal, or Miyamoto Musashi it was clear that these classic tales of heroism revolved around someone who had to face similar, arguably cyclic corruption hardly out of place in the modern day. Every life has its trials, best faced alone. People may wish us well, but charity cannot be counted upon. What made El Cid so indomitable, so beloved by his chronicler was matching his faith and idealism with action and conviction. One who imagines a better world, charts a new course, or pens a great treatise is a wonder to society. But the great figures and legends, those who astound us first and foremost needed to live, and living in the actual tales means survival. Trusting to fortune as a guiding star, with the courage and eloquence to winkle affection, approval and reputation.

In no small number of battles, conflicts and issues which I will not take joy away from others by spoiling, that spirit of persistence appeals most to me. While providence is attributed to El Cid and to many figures of history who gained cult like followings, academic pedigree, or something like sainthood; there is truly no saying where the higher power ends and superhuman persistence begins.

The pull of the classics, even the notion of a ‘classic’ is to root oneself for a time in the certainty of a life. We feel, I find time and again that sense of propulsion, love of life, and love of a life’s duty that captivates us. Cassanova, Vivar, Tsunetomo, little different to celebrity biographies written by ghostwriters or biographers with the appeal of living vicariously throughout a given time and given history. And also, to piece together and fashion for ourselves an appreciation of what can be called virtues. Those who thought ‘ahead of their time’, of a generous nature, terrifically strong, passionate and loyal lovers in devotion to romance, truth, or a particular calling. The romanticism of such things lingers strongly in the mind after reading The Song of Cid, which so obviously remains a classic because of the intricate writing working to captivate as the greatest of poets do.

Thin, like The Book of Chivalry penned by Geoffroi de Charny, or the recently reviewed Chivalry by Maurice Keen the book details a great deal within a short page count, and this is with a second language.

The Song of the Cid also has utility and use as a means to freely read and improve with two languages, the Spanish here given prominence to the left-hand side. I appreciate a humble introduction too. Too many times I’ve passed through many pages of a book, purely to get to the wisdom and the source. I’m more appreciative of Burton Raffel’s introduction, and the translation because of this. Like a person giving an over-rehearsed pitch for something, after a point I think people feel restless, less willing or attentive and are usually found right to be impatient and disappointed. The Song of The Cid presents after its snappy translation the greatest thing for many a fantastical, fantasy, or historical book of legend: A map. ‘The Cid’s Route’ is an excellent aid for the story, understated as it is elegant. I feel there was an intentional minimalism to this translation, an impression which only grew stronger after my first read, and when gathering my thoughts and writing this review down.

To be as direct as The Song, the Cid, and no doubt Burton Raffel intended; it speaks for itself. You should read it. It is great poetry, a classic chivalric tale. Emblematic of the pride of Spain for a beloved folk hero. Those with an interest in knights, the medieval period, Valencia or Castile ought to treat themselves to a great work.


Raffel, B (Translation). The Song of the Cid. Penguin Books, London, 2009.

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