The publication of Maria Odette Canivell recent essay on Lexington Books, from Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, under the title “Literary Narratives and The Cultural Imagination”, brings out to the public a very complex and beautifully written book on a subject dear to many, not only in Spain and the United Kingdom but all over the world. For generations and then some, Camelot has been an inspiration and a dream, even to the media and to the wide public, there is an American period of history generally acknowledge as “Camelot” thus referring to the times of the late President John F. Kennedy and his White House. We all remember the rise and tragedy of the Kennedy Family all too well. And so it will remain. But we also remember the music and the joy, we like to think of Camelot as that marvelous place where “there’s no legal limit for the snow” and where justice and law rule, to employ the terms extensively used on our current political jargon. But Don Quijote calls from another place also. The dreamer of all dreamers, the one who challenges us to dream “that impossible dream”, “to quest for that start no matter how hopeless, no matter how far”, striving towards that evasive and elusive goal that remains ahead or beyond but from where the meaning of life springs and blossoms. Maria Odette Canivells gives us not only a marvelous analysis of the myth and the history that grounds the colossal characters, following a very carefully crafted essay, built with the proper and extensive research accompanied by a strong methodological strictness and the development of a conceptual framework that gives the study solid theoretical support.
The book as such is built around five chapters, “is the hero still worshipable?”; “to be or not to be Arthur: is that the question”; “in a place of la Mancha whose name I cannot recall…”; “the path to herodom” and “how to win friends and influence others” plus a very long Introduction named “35 million kings”. Each chapter has a very extensive bibliographical and different sort of sources as support for the extensive argumentations crafted around every specific subject. The research conducted to complete the book is remarkable it shows and prooves and extensive and long in-depth process to back the theories and positions taken throughout the analysis. It ends with a Conclusion where the author exhibits both knowledge and creativity. The book is about two very well known characters, namely, King Arthur and Don Quijote portrayed as “national heroes”, which is a concept she employs to put before our eyes, the souls of both peoples as seen when we consider the fundamental importance in the construction of national identities as a long and complex process that emerges from the roots of the peoples and those who dare to view themselves and think on how a nation is built. No simple task by any far stretch of the imagination. Two utterly different characters-heroes and two different peoples. Linked together and forced to confront and fight against each other due to an incredible history that even shaped the future not only of Europe but the entire world. Empires clashing in the face of global domination forced by their elites to walk the path of confrontation rather than that of peace and friendship. Oddly enough if we consider that both “national heroes” – to employ Canivell Arzu’s methodological concept – strove for peace and civilization. Arthur and Quijote, as different as they may seem, are both constructors of nations and searchers of peace.
Canivell Arzu engages on an extensive and detailed argumentation on the long, complex process of transforming a hero from its humble and local origins into a general or a national figure of identification. The lengths by which both, Quijote and Arthur, endure it’s becoming or emerging as symbols of national unity or transcend the status of its local mythological condition into that of the identification or bringing into one figure, of a whole people, is incredibly difficult to achieve or even more, to comprehend or describe. Whether it is something altogether spontaneous or carefully constructed, is what she brings before our eyes. It doesn’t seem to be the same on the paths of Arthur and Quijote. One seems to be a long and subtle, well designed, quest for the other it springs from the interaction of history and circumstances. When she presents us with the facts of the naming of names or choice of names, amongst British royalty, leaves out any doubts about sheer coincidence and roots history and descendence on a common and ancient origin. The public and open claim read as “we are the descendants of the Great King Arthur and our goal is the rebuild of Camelot in the shape of a global Empire”. On Quijote’s side, we have another reading, that of the poets and philosophers, intellectuals, that claim for their country a “national hero” which champions values, ideas and principles regardless of any prowess and war victories. It is the birth of a “New Spain”, like many of the great Spanish poets claim. That of justice, equality, and progress. The “New Spain” like, the one that the great Andalusian poet Antonio Machado called upon, the one that walks tall under the inspiration and guidance of Quijote. Fearless in its trust on right, equitant and new beginnings. That which the Dreamer of all Dreamers taught the Spaniards, in general, to conceive, dream on and achieved. Quijote ultimately teaches and entrust on his descendants, the ability to dream all dreams.
The book comes to a conclusion after a very well poised and presented construction of different arguments and thorough exposition of historical facts and an in-depth reading of a long line of sources, ranging from literary works to even, economical and social sciences studies of great relevance. Views on politics and history summon the dialectics of the Spanish/Anglo-British relationships, trough a history of war, deceiving, backstabbing and cultural aggression, this being of no lesser importance if we consider not only the historical roles played by Raleigh, Drake or even the so-called Bloomsbury Circle and the notorious episode, as related by Canivell Arzu, very accurately and punctually, one may add by one Gerald Brenan. Canivell Arzu calls with exquisite precision on the review of the Black Legend in contrast to the heroical positioning worldwide of the Arthurian narrative of dominance. This is a very sensitive and delicate subject one that has political implications, that date not only from the times of the clash of the Emperies but to the building of the New World or to better employ another term, an encounter of civilizations. The birth of British Colonialism – doubled by many and lauded by the same as the most perfect model for nation-building, rooted many of nowadays greatest and some, unsolvable, conflicts, i.e. the Middleast – as opposed to the Spanish approach, labeled as a medieval and unfunctional alternative, that engender poverty and misery in the New World which is a very unfair, unjust dominant narrative that pays no tribute to historical reality and truth. The tale of the triumphant Empire or history as told by the vanquishers.
To conclude this brief commentary on Canivelle Arzu’s recent essay, the opposition established, between Quijote and Arthur might seem challenging or even surprising, national heroes, where a literary character is transformed into a national hero due to a long process, carried out by generations of intellectuals – Spain has to be said, is a great nation of poets, thinkers and writers and this must be stated unequivocally – even from and within the Latin American domain not exclusively from the Iberian Penninsula as such while the global presence of Arthur and Camelot totally transcends the British Isles to become a worldwide phenomena. Arthur nonetheless emerges from the ancient times of the Welsh, Scottish, Saxon or Norman peoples that blend together after fighting terrible wars to became one Kingdom unified by fire and law. Arthur is a warrior no doubt but is also a nation builder and inspiration, a leader and a creator of nations. Quijote is an aspiration, the best of mankind, a horizon of hope and generosity. Quijote inhabits that which is the most human of humanity, that which we call the essence of man. So this is the tale of two Empires, very different in nature, two national icons and symbollic forces that cannot be compared without touching on all that bears the meaning of life and of being humans so this and then some, more, is addressed by Canivell Arzu as she travels and follows the path of these two extraordinary characters and most likely, both of them, where never real individuals but the sum of what is best of the dreams of mankind.