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Morphology of the Cantar de Mio Cid by Jack J. Himelblau (review)

From: Hispanófila
Volume 168, Mayo 2013
pp. 135-136 | 10.1353/hsf.2013.0029

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Jack J. Himelblau's Morphology of the Cantar de Mio Cid uses Vladimir Propp's critical framework for Russian fairytales in an analysis of the Castillan epic poem and shows us its applicability to different literary genres. Himelblau's argument is carefully outlined and logically presented to the reader, who, while perhaps lacking in knowledge of the linguistic and rhetorical terminology he employs, will nevertheless find the book's new approach to the epic interesting.

In Chapter 1 ("Preliminary Remarks"), the author states that his objective is to answer a question raised by Alan Dunde's "Introduction" to the second English edition of Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (1968), namely what is the relationship of the latter's work to the structure of the epic? Himelblau employs Propp's theoretical blueprint of the thirty-one functions necessary to form a complete fairytale "to decipher the composite morphological structure of the Cantar de Mio Cid" (6). He also adopts Propp's approaches, terminology, and symbols in order to create "a formal modus operandi that methodically and accurately describes the diegetic strands that comprise the unity of a narrative poem such as the Cantar de Mio Cid" (1). These diegetic strands, explains the author, can be identified and studied as "moves," a Proppian term that denotes the progression of a tale from a state of equilibrium to a state of disequilibrium and back to equilibrium. It is around these "moves" that Himelblau organizes and presents his research.

Chapter 2 ("The Number of Tales in the Cantar de Mio Cid") is a brief two-page chapter that succinctly outlines the 19 different tales Himelblau's study finds in the Cantar. As the author points out, presenting all nineteen tales in chronological order would only confuse the reader and thus compromise the book's objective. Therefore he chooses to focus on three "core diegetic episodes that comprise the substance of the epic poem" (8), while reserving the Appendix for his examination of the remaining sixteen.

Chapter 3 ("The Tale of the Exile of Rodrigo Díaz, the Cid"), Chapter 4 ("The Tale of Fernando González and Diego González, the Infantes of Carrión"), and Chapter 5 ("The Tale of the Revenge of the Cid on the Infantes of Carrión and the Remarriage of Doña Elvira and Doña Sol to the Infante of Navarre and Infante of Aragón") can be reviewed together since they follow the same lines of development and deviate only in what they analyze. Each chapter is sub-headed by the poem's "moves" using both the symbolic and numerical transcripts of Propp's literary functions. Himelblau proceeds to take the reader through each function step by step, explaining in precise detail how its linguistic and rhetorical components build the poem's narrative one piece at a time.

The "Conclusion" wishes that the study serve as a buttress to the author's previously published Proppian analyses of the Popol Vuh and Miguel Ángel Asturias's El Señor Presidente (1946), suggesting that "the human brain has created — and, indeed, can create — only a restricted number of pristine, core narrative structures; that all stories are variants of these said core narrative structures" (125); and that "what Propp has discovered is the pristine, morphologic, core structure of narrative form from which subsequent diegetic schemes derive" (125).

In the end, Himelblau's study is more about Propp's revolutionary approach to literary analysis than about the Cantar de Mio Cid, medieval literature, or even the Epic itself. The nature of this type of analysis requires much plot summary, and this book is no exception as the author gradually maneuvers the reader through the poem, line by line in many cases. For this reason, it functions in many ways as a guided reading of the text, and therefore is an excellent resource for students new to the Cantar. Additionally, the author includes English translations of the original Old Castilian, making the work appealing to a wide-range of literary scholars interested in studying narratives through a Proppian lens. The reader, though, would be greatly served by a background in Proppian jargon, as the book abounds with specific terminology. Nevertheless...

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