- Literary Narratives and the Cultural Imagination: King Arthur and Don Quixote as National Heroes by María Odette Canivell Arzú
As with all humanistic methodologies, a dispassionate analysis of cultural studies reveals implicit biases and blind spots attributable to the field's institutional origins. As a critical perspective and apparatus developed for the study of contemporary cultural production, cultural studies exhibit a myopia regarding texts and narratives inherited from previous eras, limiting its critical focus to "new" or "original" cultural production by living authors. As it expanded its reach into earlier historical periods (e.g., early modern cultural studies), this synchronic bias would persist with an emphasis on how cultural products engage their original context, thus excluding their cultural engagement in later periods. Literary Narratives and the Cultural Imagination offers a welcome redress of this myopia through a comparative reading of English and Spanish "national heroes" of literary origin: King Arthur and Don Quixote. María Odette Canivell Arzú's monograph is ambitious and broad in scope—which means that it will be subject to critique, but also that it is a worthy endeavor and, I hope, an encouraging sign that the synchronic "presentism" of cultural studies may now be waning.
Canivell Arzú's book is structured straightforwardly, with five main chapters framed by introductory and concluding chapters. This structure allows the author to address thorny issues and to establish an analytical framework encompassing both nations of this comparative study—not to mention the fraught historical relationship between them—before zooming in to each national case study and then bringing those findings into a comparative analysis in concluding chapters. As one might expect, her introduction makes the case for the book's relevance and importance, including the need to resolve a number of unanswered questions and paradoxes [End Page 776] that become apparent upon comparing the Arthur-Great Britain and Don Quixote-Spain relationships. The point of departure is the notion that the comparison reveals intrinsic cultural differences between Spain and Britain, articulated via a dichotomy of "traditions" borrowed from Carlos Fuentes: "La Mancha," an individualistic cultural orientation ascribed to Spain, versus "Waterloo," a more collective and "deeply rooted British sentiment of singularity and oneness" (xiii).
Chapter 1 addresses notions of heroism and, more specifically, of a national hero, that will guide the deeper dives into Arthurian Legend (Chapter 2) and Don Quixote (Chapter 3). The challenge of the first chapter is to justify the author's project despite a very thorough list of problems that might be presented to question its viability. Chief among them is the apples-to-oranges comparison of the two heroes: Arthur is a historically verified person from the sixth century, while Don Quixote is a fictional character from a seventeenth-century novel; Arthurian legend has evolved for over a millennium, while Cervantes's knight is a satirical character repurposed as Spain's national hero at the end of the nineteenth century. Canivell Arzú also notes the inherently quixotic nature of her project to access through these characters insight into each nation's "soul" in an era in which notions of homogenous national essence are out of fashion, both in the academy and in contemporary popular culture. While readers agreeing with these concerns may not be satisfied with the author's responses to them in the book, she should be commended for identifying and naming them.
Notwithstanding such intellectual honesty, these admitted problems explain what are necessarily very different approaches to Arthur (Chapter 2) and Don Quixote (Chapter 3). After an archeological examination of the historical Arthur, the development of Arthurian legend across fifteen centuries (from before any political entity resembling "Great Britain" existed and including its development throughout the European continent in the Middle Ages) is eventually tied to nineteenth-century efforts to "nationalize" his heroism. It is perhaps the most impressive achievement of the book that it manages to corral such disparate data into a coherent narrative; in turn, that narrative illuminates the persistence of the legend in British...