- Heroic Forms: Cervantes and the Literature of War by Stephen Rupp
In a recent book review, George Packer wrote: “As narrative, the war on terror has been like the nouveau roman, with no coherent plot, only jarring disjunctions of cause and effect, time and place” (The New Yorker, July 20, 2015, p. 72). Stephen Rupp cites a few twentieth-century accounts of warfare as he examines how Cervantes creates—if not the chaotic contingency of post-modern narrative—multiple and sometimes subversive perspectives on the classical models of martial prose. Heroic Forms includes analysis of pastoral, epic, lyric and picaresque, and passages in which Cervantes treats war and related issues such as recruitment, violence, heroism, prudence, and the desire for fame. The prose is mostly straightforward, and the reader is left with a deepened understanding of Cervantes’s use of epic and chivalric conventions in a changing world.
Chapter one discusses La Numancia as a fusion of epic and tragedy. The former is the dominant mode, as the citizens of the besieged city achieve fame and prophesy the glory of Spain through their heroic resistance to the Romans. The Roman general Cipión, implementing tactically sound yet ethically dubious siege warfare, becomes a tragic figure. Impelled by his imperial duty to prudence, Cipión foregoes heroic armed confrontation. The Numantians not only deny the Romans military spoils by destroying themselves rather than surrendering, but they also usurp epic fame in their refusal to accept the compromise offered by their militarily superior adversary. The commentary repeatedly circles back to Cipion’s avoidance of “open battle,” the collective suicide that deprives him of material and glory, and the child Viriato’s defiant leap from the tower both aggravating this deprivation and solidifying the prophetic constancy and valor of Spain. But Rupp reminds us that the dichotomy is not a simple one: if the heroic steadfastness of Numantia provides the foundations for Spain’s rise, the contemporary context of the play’s composition might suggest uneasy parallels between imperial Spain and Rome. “The play’s focus, however, centres less on opposing the ethos of epic or the political designs of the Hapsburgs than on exploring the limits of traditional heroism under specific conditions of warfare, and the problem of fidelity to heroic values under changing social and historical circumstances” (55). Rupp supports his analysis with relevant references to Vergil and Cicero, and early modern writers like Erasmus, Tasso and Ariosto, Alonso de Contreras, and Ercilla. [End Page 193]
Chapter two focuses on pastoral scenes into which there are incursions of epic and its associated violence and preoccupation with fame. When, on the way to Toboso (2.8), Sancho gets Don Quixote to admit limitations in the glory achieved by classical heroes, Rupp detects a pattern in Cervantes’s representation of martial fame: “In La Numancia Cipión covets the contingent glory of public renown; in Don Quixote the knight-errant pursues the certain glory of the redeemed in heaven, a state that demands patience in this world, but offers enduring rewards” (71). Rupp’s contention is consistent with a shift he later traces in Cervantes’s Algerian dramas, “from martial to spiritual heroism” (103). With his discussion of the wonderful episode of the asinine rebuznadores (2.25-7) and the peculiar case of Vicente de la Rosa (1.51), Rupp fruitfully incorporates Erasmus and Francisco de Vitoria to bring out Cervantes’s critique of humankind’s violent inclinations. Invoking Raymond Williams on the tendency for Renaissance pastoral to elide the realities of labor and land use, he also proposes that Cervantes depicts “practical pastoralists” with decidedly material concerns, as with the sheepflocks Don Quixote mistakes for armies (1.18). Compelling as these ideas are, I was left with the impression that virtually any scene in a rural setting—which would apply to most of Don Quixote—is taken as an engagement with the pastoral. Some scenes are more convincing than others as commentary on the genre’s aesthetic, ideological, and economic underpinnings. But this...