History and Story in Amazon’s El Cid (2020)
Reading the medieval epic Poema de Mio Cid (or Cantar de Mio Cid) is my favorite way of introducing university students—most of them Americans—to the social and cultural landscape of medieval Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal). Those who know anything about the Cid, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (c. 1048–1099), imagine him as a crusader hero of Christian Spain. His popular image, on horseback with sword raised against a presumed Muslim foe, deliberately evokes the iconography of “Saint James the Moor-killer” (Santiago Matamoros). Reading the medieval poem complicates this mental image of virtuous Christian heroes facing nefarious Muslim enemies. Make no mistake: Rodrigo and his men kill thousands of Muslims in the course of the poem, and the narrator revels in descriptions of Muslim blood dripping down the arms of the Christian soldiers. But the poem also testifies to bloody battles in which Christians fight against other Christians “willingly and with pleasure” (de voluntad e de grado, v. 1005), as well as to the loyalty between Rodrigo and local Muslim leader Avengalvón, whom he describes as “my friend in peace” (mio amigo es de paz, v. 1464). The poem offers a gateway into the complicated relations between Christian Spain and Islamic al-Andalus: seven centuries of political, social, and cultural interactions that cannot be summarized in a single word, whether the rosy-toned convivenciaor the bellicose Reconquista. For this reason, it is an ideal way to give students their first glimpse of the Iberian Middle Ages through a medieval literary source.
Contemporary media imaginings of medieval characters can be another effective teaching tool, which is why I eagerly awaited the release of El Cid, the new series streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Created by Luis Arranz and José Velasco, its first season debuted in December 2020, and a second has already been commissioned. Rodrigo is played by Jaime Lorente, known for his roles in the popular Spanish Netflix series La casa de papel and Élite. He goes by the nickname Ruy, but throughout the season he also earns two more titles, the Latin campi doctor (battle expert) and the Arabic sayyid (lord), from which derive his legendary Spanish honorifics el Campeador and el Cid. We follow Ruy as he moves from Vivar to the kingdom’s capital city of León, trains as a squire to King Fernando’s son Sancho, and helps Sancho and the Muslim troops of Zaragoza defeat the Aragonese at the Battle of Graus in 1063. To this Bildungsroman are added several secondary plots: Queen Sancha’s plan to take the Leonese throne from her Castilian husband; the machinations of the monarchs’ eldest daughter Urraca to exert influence over anyone she can; and a love triangle between Ruy, a young Jimena, and Jimena’s betrothed Orduño. Although it is a Spanish production filmed in Spanish, it is marketed for a global audience, with dubbing into six languages and subtitles in almost twenty more. With thematic and visual parallels to Game of Thrones, a healthy budget, and a heartthrob lead actor, the show has all the ingredients to attract viewers and bring the courtly intrigues of eleventh-century Iberia to life.
However, when confronted with medievalism—the post-medieval imagining of the Middle Ages—audiences find it hard to get past issues of authenticity and historicity. For example, when my students watch the 1961 Hollywood film El Cid, directed by Anthony Mann and starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, they express surprise and dismay at how much it strays from the Poema de Mio Cid, which they deem “the original.” In the popular imagination, medieval sources are more authentic, and more historically accurate, than modern ones. Their temporal proximity to events lulls readers into thinking they represent the past as it happened. Modern readers also make assumptions about the simplicity and straightforwardness of medieval texts, forgetting that the rhetorical tools of persuasion and propaganda were just as accessible to medieval writers and audiences as they are to us today.
Critiques of the new series have focused on how it deviates from history, introduces anachronisms, and “corrupts” the medieval past. Some viewers took to social media to point out that Ruy’s sword closely resembles Joyeuse, the sword believed to be Charlemagne’s. Historian David Porrinas González, in his detailed review of the series, points out other minor discrepancies, such as the fact that there was no bishop named Bernardo during Fernando I’s reign, or that the tournament in the first episode had elements of spectacle that are not attested until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.But the Poema de Mio Cid, composed one hundred years after Rodrigo’s death, has anachronisms, too. The sobregonelworn by soldiers and the cuberturas draped on their horses were not documented in the Iberian Peninsula before 1186, and the terms fijodalgo and rico omne to indicate social status were first attested in 1177 and c. 1200, respectively.Historical inaccuracies will be present in any imaginative rendering of the Cid legend, medieval or modern. However tempting it may be to point them out in the new series, I propose that we have more to gain from the methods of aesthetic analysis, that is, the study of literature, film, and visual culture.
Literary analysis, my field of expertise, asks us to pay attention to structure, themes, characters, symbols, tropes, and repetitions. Our aim is to understand not just what a text says, but also how and why it says it. The medieval Poema de Mio Cid has an undeniable poetic and political agenda, and even the sources written during Rodrigo’s lifetime were first and foremost literary compositions. El Cid, the 2020 series, is no different. As I watched El Cid with an eye for the literary, two threads emerged: an ideology of fragmentation and an Orientalist aesthetic. Identifying such ideological and aesthetic patterns is a valuable skill for interpreting medieval sources, in which the boundaries between history and literature are less distinct than they are today. Moreover, the methods of literary analysis are useful for anyone living in the post-truth era, in which fact-checking must go hand in hand with narrative and rhetorical savvy to make a difference.
A Hero Divided
Amazon’s El Cid recasts its hero in a political and social world that is based in the history of eleventh-century Iberia, but also resonates with contemporary concerns. As Matthew Bailey reminds us, this is typical of all retellings of epic legends: “The most important quality of a hero is not conformity to strict historical fact, but adaptability to evolving conceptions of heroic behaviour.” El Cid offers its twenty-first-century audience a divided hero and an ideology of fragmentation. Ruy is pulled in different directions by various forces, including kinship, politics, religion, sex, and self-interest. The world around him is likewise divided according to competing interests, loyalties, and desires.
In the series, the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula are portrayed as small, provincial polities in constant negotiation with one another. After the death of King Bermudo III of León in 1037, the kingdoms of León and Castile have been united under Bermudo’s sister, Sancha of León, and her husband, King Fernando I of Castile, who assumes control of both kingdoms. But this union is uneasy: the Leonese nobles and clergy, represented by Count Flaín and the bishop Don Bernardo, are conspiring to assassinate Fernando and upgrade Sancha’s title from queen consort to queen regent. When Ruy discovers the plot and decides to act, his best friend and confidante frames it as a political dilemma: should he support León or Castile? For Ruy, these political alliances are complicated. On the one hand, he has family ties to León, and his grandfather is involved in the assassination plot. Additionally, in the show’s mythology, Fernando of Castile was responsible for the death of Ruy’s father at the Battle of Atapuerca in 1054. On the other hand, Fernando is his king, and his duty as a knight-in-training is to protect the king at all costs. Ultimately, Ruy makes a compromise by saving the king’s life without outing the conspirators. This literally cutthroat political world reflects the medieval sources better than the nationalist narrative championed by early Cid scholars like Ramón Menéndez Pidal. But it also resonates with political fragmentation in the contemporary world, and Ruy’s indecisiveness suggests that compromise and opting out are viable paths for a hero faced with a difficult dilemma.
Relationships among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in El Cid are also characterized by fragmented ideologies, in which official policies mingle with popular attitudes of hostility, curiosity, and indifference. At the start of the series, Fernando’s policy toward the Islamic taifa kingdoms of Zaragoza and Toledo is to levy parias—tributes paid in exchange for military protection—rather than conquering them outright. Both his son Sancho and the bishop criticize this decision not to vanquish their “infidel” neighbors, but Fernando responds that the taifa kingdoms provide the gold and luxury goods that finance his kingdom. Fernando’s pragmatism echoes how contemporary scholars like Brian Catlos characterize interfaith relations in medieval Iberia, proposing conveniencia, convenience, as a better keyword than either enlightened convivencia or constant conflict. However, the Castilian king’s attitude does more than translate current research on Christian-Muslim relations to the small screen. Rather, it has its own place in a broader narrative, in which self-interest and financial profit are portrayed as the most sensible motives for action.
In contrast to the 2020 production, the 1961 film directed by Anthony Mann tells a narrative of national unification, in part thanks to Menéndez Pidal’s role as historical adviser. Before battle, Charlton Heston’s Cid utters a rallying cry—“For God, Alfonso, and for Spain!”—which would be equally inconceivable in the eleventh century and in the new series. As Mark Jancovich observes, the film “takes as its central narrative the forging of a sense of collective purpose in relation to an external other […] as an analogy for the Cold War.” The film’s Cid is a tolerant Cold War liberal with a clear enemy: the despotic Almoravid leader Ben Yusuf, whose goal is to conquer and subjugate Spanish Christians and Muslims under his totalitarian regime. (The Almoravids were a North African dynasty known for religious and tax reform, who conquered and ruled over al-Andalus from 1089 to 1147.) It is tempting to see the fragmented society portrayed in the Amazon series as an attempt to correct this anachronistic narrative in the popular imagination. But if our explanation stops at historical accuracy, we will miss how this ideology of fragmentation speaks to its contemporary audience. Whereas the Cold War provided the frame for the film, twenty-first-century politics provides the frame for the series. Its fractured world can be linked to the increased polarization of Spanish party politics, exemplified by the emergence of new parties like the far-right Vox, or the rising visibility of the Catalan independence movement. It also echoes contemporary perceptions of political fragmentation on an international scale, particularly in Europe and the US. If literature and other forms of fiction have the potential to transmit an ideology to their audience, then the series’ embrace of actions based on pragmatism, compromise, and economic profit is troubling. Television and other media do not just describe the values and tastes of their projected viewers; they also have the potential to shape them.
Harem Girls and Magical Arabs
In addition to communicating ideologies, fictional narratives rely on artistic tropes with their own aesthetic, social, and cultural histories. The cinematic language that Amazon’s El Cid uses to portray Muslim characters falls back on narrative, visual, and auditory clichés about Arabs and Muslims. The series deserves credit for having its Andalusi Muslim characters speak in Arabic and Spanish, unlike other recent series like RTVE’s Isabel (2012–2014). However, it has not escaped an Orientalist paradigm in which “Eastern” Arabs and Muslims are cast in schematic roles that advance the goals of “Western” Christian characters. This is what Edward Said calls “imaginative” Orientalism, in which “the Orient and Islam are always represented as outsiders having a special role to play inside Europe.” Although religion is the dominant factor at play in El Cid, race and racialization also play a role: while two Muslim characters are black, all the Christian characters are white.
The Muslim men in the series avoid most of the usual stereotypes applied to “Oriental” characters onscreen. They are not lascivious, greedy, or needlessly violent, and they are not religious extremists (although future seasons may fall back on some of these tropes for the reformist Almoravids, as the 1961 film did). They do, however, fit another Hollywood trope for minority characters, that of the magical Negro. Among the features of this trope identified by Cerise L. Glenn and Landra J. Cunningham, the most pertinent here are “using magical and spiritual gifts for the White character” and “possessing limited role outside of magical/spiritual guide.” In the series, the Andalusi Muslims play the role of “magical Arab” at the service of Ruy in particular and the Christians in general.
Abū Bakr (played by Zohar Liba), an astrolabe-carrying physician from Zaragoza on an embassy to León, takes an immediate interest in Ruy. His knowledge of astronomy and medicine is scientific, but its narrative function is magical. He appears in Ruy’s life just in time to heal the telltale wound he’s been trying to conceal, and instead of turning him in for a hefty reward, he offers his services for free. After seeing Ruy talk to birds—a talent based in medieval legend and first mentioned in the twelfth-century Historia Roderici—he declares that the young warrior has baraka, Arabic for a blessing or good fortune. According to Abū Bakr, Ruy’s baraka marks him for an extraordinary destiny, achieving things no man has ever done despite untold tribulations. Keeping the word in Arabic makes it seem strange and foreign; its perceived untranslatability places it in a mystical realm. Moreover, because the Cid legend is so well-known, the audience understands the prediction to be an accurate prophecy. Finally, although much of the action revolves around the exploitation of Abū Bakr’s home kingdom by Christian rulers, his screen time is dominated by his belief in Ruy’s destiny.
Sádaba (played by Emilio Buale), a black warrior and court official in Zaragoza, also exhibits characteristics of the magical Negro/Arab. Like Abū Bakr, he protects Ruy from harm without expecting anything in return. Later, during the Battle of Graus, in which the Castilian-Leonese army battles the Aragonese for control of Islamic Zaragoza, Sádaba’s superhuman fighting skills ensure a victory for Castile and León. As he rides in, the thumping soundtrack grows muted except for a faint strain of Middle Eastern music, and the fighting around him slows to a crawl. He stands on his moving horse, leaps off, and delivers a fatal lance blow to the Aragonese king’s eye before anyone can react. A Castilian soldier remarks afterwards, with a mix of admiration and derision, that it was “as if he had the gift of passing through bodies.” One of the show’s producers proudly notes that this anecdote is taken from a medieval chronicle. The twelfth-century Sirāj al-mulūk (Lamp of Kings) of Abū Bakr al-Ṭurṭūshī reports that a soldier named Saʿdārah infiltrated the Aragonese forces at Graus and killed their king with a lance to the eye, turning the tides of the battle. In al-Ṭurṭūshī’s version, the warrior pulls off this feat not thanks to superhuman speed and agility, but because he is dressed like a Christian and speaks their language, allowing him to pass unnoticed into enemy ranks. I point this out not to challenge El Cid’s claim to historical accuracy, but to illustrate how the discourse of historical accuracy can mask the presence of other, more problematic narrative tropes.
Like the magical Negro stereotype, this portrayal of magical Arabs might seem like a harmless, or even progressive, portrayal of Andalusi Muslims. But as Glenn and Cunningham point out, this narrative strategy keeps minority characters on the margins, denies them depth, and reinforces existing racial (and religious) power structures. Abū Bakr and Sádaba are memorable characters with significant screen time, and one hopes that the second season will delve more into their motives and priorities beyond advancing the narrative of the Christian hero.
Unfortunately, the Muslim women in the first season fare much worse. Their portrayal echoes the stereotype of the harem girl described in Jack G. Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs: “They appear as bosomy bellydancers leering out from diaphanous veils, or as disposable ‘knick-knacks,’ scantily clad harem maidens with bare midriffs, closeted in the palace’s women’s quarters.” In a harem scene at the palace in Zaragoza, a group of women—including one black woman—dance in various states of undress and offer themselves to the Christian soldiers as a reward for their success in battle. These eroticized Muslim women contrast with the show’s Christian women, whose costumes are modest and whose onscreen sexual encounters mostly reinforce monogamy, as in the love scenes between Fernando and Sancha. With the exception of Urraca, the sexuality of female characters follows a paradigm organized by religion: young Christian women are concerned with preserving their virtue, while young Muslim women are depicted as objects of sexual consumption for Christian men.
Amina (played by Sarah Perles), the daughter of the emir of Zaragoza, fits this paradigm well. When Ruy gets lost in the emir’s palace, he accidentally enters a sumptuous, incense-filled chamber in which Amina sits with legs spread, painting Arabic poetry on her thighs with henna. She flirts with him, making sure he gets a good look as she translates the verses. Although her dialogue suggests agency, her sexualized pose indicates availability. In a later episode, their inevitable sexual encounter is depicted as sensual and free, with no strings attached: the audience knows that Ruy will not stay in Zaragoza, even though Amina asks him to. It is possible that the historical Rodrigo had an affair with a Muslim woman, perhaps during his exile in Zaragoza later in life (though probably not with the emir’s daughter). But interfaith love affairs between a Christian hero and a Muslim princess, often ending with the woman’s conversion to Christianity, were also a common trope in medieval and early modern Spanish literature. In the Christian imagination, the sexual submission of Muslim women served as a metaphor for the military and political subjugation of al-Andalus and other Islamic powers to Christian rule. It is this literary trope, far more than the historical record, that informs the characterization of Amina in the series.
The tropes described above divide the characters of Amazon’s El Cid into white Christians with power and agency, and Muslims (including black Muslims) whose job is to serve the Christians’ agenda. In this form of imaginative Orientalism, “Eastern” Muslim characters assume schematized and predictable roles with relation to their “Western” Christian counterparts. “East” and “West” might fail as geographic signifiers in medieval Iberia, where Muslims and Christians occupied overlapping territories, but the Orientalist paradigm holds true. Understanding this narrative paradigm, and how contemporary forms of media continue to draw from its repertoire of images and tropes, is more valuable for today’s viewers than assessing the historical accuracy of a work of fiction.
Despite the critiques I have leveled against this series, I found much of it fun to watch. The princess Urraca, played by Alicia Sanz, is an example of how the show shines when liberated from both the historical record and the legends surrounding Ruy. Little is known of Urraca’s life, but her character in the series dramatizes both the immense power a woman could wield at court, and the limits placed on that power by her gender. She uses all the strategies at her disposal to manipulate those around her, in ways that are often uncomfortable to watch. As the firstborn child, she rails against an unjust political system that prohibits her from inheriting the throne because she is a woman. Is this feminist position historically accurate? Probably not, but then again, women’s accounts of their political beliefs from eleventh-century Europe are exceedingly rare. Regardless, it is entertaining, and it tells a multilayered story about medieval women that gets viewers thinking about the relationship between gender and power.
The conversation about El Cid, and about medievalism in popular media more broadly, tends to revolve around questions of historical accuracy. When fighting against misappropriations of the Middle Ages by those who would assert Christian and/or white supremacy, an appeal to evidence and accuracy is sometimes the best way, as demonstrated by the work of Twitter activists like @medievalpoc. But when confronted with creative narratives about the medieval period, we can gain more by paying attention to how a story is constructed, and the texts and tropes it adapts. Amazon’s El Cid joins its literary and filmic predecessors as one more adaptation of the Cid legend, with no stronger or weaker claim to authority than the Poema de Mio Cid. By approaching it as fiction, students of medieval Iberia and fans of the series alike can hone the analytical skills necessary to understand the stories of the past as well as those of the present.
Anita Savo is Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Department of Romance Studies at Boston University, where she teaches courses on the literatures and cultures of medieval Iberia. She has published articles on religious polemic in medieval Castilian literature and nineteenth-century editions of medieval texts, and she is currently writing a book about authorship and authority in the works of fourteenth-century nobleman Juan Manuel.
 Lauren Beck, Illustrating El Cid, 1498 to Today (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), 34–50.
 Cantar de Mio Cid, ed., prologue, and notes by Alberto Montaner. Barcelona: Crítica, 1998.
 For evidence that the epithet “Mio Cid” had already come into use in Castilian during Rodrigo’s lifetime, see David Peterson, “The Castilian Origins of the Epithet Mio Cid,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 98, no. 3 (2021): 213–29.
 Interview with producer José Velasco by M. Méndez, VerTele, 15 December 2020, https://vertele.eldiario.es/noticias/el-cid-entrevista-jose-velasco-serie-amazon-prime-video-zebra-producciones_0_2295670437.html (accessed 26 February 2021).
 David Porrinas González, “El Cid cabalga en streaming. Crítica de la serie de Amazon Prime Video.” Desperta Ferro, 17 December 2020, https://www.despertaferro-ediciones.com/2020/el-cid-cabalga-en-streaming-critica-de-la-serie-de-amazon-prime-video/ (accessed 26 February 2021).
 Irene Zaderenko and Alberto Montaner, “Introduction,” in A Companion to the Poema de Mio Cid, ed. Irene Zaderenko and Alberto Montaner with Peter Mahoney (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 7–8.
 Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 101.
 Matthew Bailey, Las mocedades de Rodrigo: The Youthful Deeds of Rodrigo, the Cid (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 10.
 Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid, 201.
 Brian A. Catlos, Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain (London: Hurst & Company, 2018), 428–30.
 Mark Jancovich, “‘The Purest Knight of All’: Nation, History, and Representation in El Cid,” Cinema Journal 40, no. 1 (2000): 88.
 On language in the series Isabel, see Núria Silleras-Fernández, “Versión (no) original: Isabel y Carlos, Rey Emperador frente al multilingüismo y la diversidad cultural,” Miríada Hispánica 12 (2015): n.p., http://www.miriadahispanica.com/publicacion/12 (accessed 26 February 2021).
 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 71.
 On cinematic stereotypes of Arab villains, see Jack G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001), 14–19.
 Cerise L. Glenn and Landra J. Cunningham, “The Power of Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White Salvation in Film,” Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 2 (2009): 142.
 José Velasco, interview by M. Méndez, VerTele, 15 December 2020, https://vertele.eldiario.es/noticias/el-cid-entrevista-jose-velasco-serie-amazon-prime-video-zebra-producciones_0_2295670437.html (accessed 26 February 2021).
 Abū Bakr al-Ṭurṭūshī (Abubéquer de Tortosa), Lámpara de los príncipes, trans. Maximiliano Alarcón (Madrid: Instituto de Valencia de Don Juan, 1931), 2:333–34.
 Glenn and Cunningham, “The Power of Black Magic,” 151.
 Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs, 22.
 Simon Barton, Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 137.
Cantar de Mio Cid, ed., prologue, and notes by Alberto Montaner. Barcelona: Crítica, 1998.
El Cid, dir. Anthony Mann. US and Italy: Samuel Bronston Productions–Dear Film Produzione, 1961.
El Cid, created by Luis Arranz and José Velasco. Spain: Amazon Prime, 2020, https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B08NSDSHCJ/ref=atv_dp_share_cu_r, accessed 26 February 2021.
Photo: Equestrian statue of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, el Cid Campeador, in Burgos, unveiled in 1955 | Shutterstock