Kid Beowulf #3: The Rise of El Cid. By Alexis E. Fajardo. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
As Alexis Fajardo continues developing his medieval multinational epic featuring twin brothers Beowulf (human) and Grendel (green, big and horned), the most surprising thing is the cleverness with which he reuses and recasts genuine stories from a thousand years ago and more, giving them distinctly modern twists that will make scholars cringe (understandably) while perhaps getting today’s young readers interested in exploring the sources from which Fajardo draws so much drama, intensity and amusement. The first graphic novel, The Blood-Bound Oath, established the nonsensical but crucial-to-the-plot brotherhood of Beowulf and Grendel; the second, The Song of Roland, took the now-exiled brothers from Daneland to Francia (essentially modern France) for often-ridiculous adventures involving not only Roland but also a weaponized elephant and a theme park with a roller coaster. In The Rise of El Cid, the Daneland brothers have wandered south from Francia into the land that will become modern Spain but that, in the 11th century, includes the Christian kingdoms of León and Castile, the Moorish Al-Andalus, and a largely lawless borderland known as La Frontera. Here Fajardo makes his putative heroes largely ancillary characters in a series of adventures in which they, by and large, are no longer central – an interesting development necessitated by Fajardo’s introduction of a host of new characters who interact in support of the story of Rodrigo Díaz, the warrior who would eventually become known as El Cid. The title is a Spanish pronunciation of the Arab al-Sayyid, meaning commander or lord, and it is only at the end of this book that the term is applied to Díaz by a Moorish commander whose life, along with the lives of his men, Díaz saves twice – despite the objections and distinct misgivings of other Christians.
Fajardo’s book begins as well as ends with “El Cid,” because it opens – as did the first two in this remarkable series – with the actual story on which the graphic novel is very loosely based. The tale of El Cid was set down in the 12th century. The form in which it is retold by Fajardo is greatly simplified but basically accurate, as was the case with the Beowulf story that opened the first book and The Song of Roland at the start of the second. In all three instances, Fajardo does something genuinely original by drawing the material from the actual legends in a very different style from the one he uses in his made-up reinterpretations – and using a different colorist for the two tales. The importance of this can scarcely be overemphasized: the start-of-book legendary material simply does not look like anything else in the graphic novel. The two colorists are thus significant contributors to the visual impact of the storytelling: Jose Mari Flores handles the main story, and renders it in suitable, attractive tones that complement the narrative well – while the prologue is colored by Brian Kolm with an entirely different palette, a striking one that brings those pages to life with exceptional skill.
The way Fajardo tells the main story includes too many complexities for easy summation, and indeed perhaps too many for young readers to follow with ease. This is a less-focused book than the first two, looking at internecine warfare and near-warfare in what would become Spain (there is an early reference to the War of the Three Sanchos, which took place from1065 to 1067); at disagreements and treacheries involving Christians and Moors and within the Christian and Moorish communities; and at the whole notion of becoming a mercenary: Díaz becomes one after being unfairly banished, and is clearly a good character, while the Moors who seek war against the Christian kingdoms call on Ibn Yusuf of Morocco and the Almoravids he leads to fight for their cause, an approach that backfires when Ibn Yusuf turns out to be something of an extremist Taliban-style figure more concerned with religious purity than with the spoils of war.
None of the primary events in The Rise of El Cid has Beowulf and Grendel as central characters, but one ancillary one does: they meet some proponents of an ancient and little-understood Roman religion called Mithraism, and those people decide that Beowulf and Grendel are reincarnations of their gods, or aspects of them. And one of the travelers, who are from Britannia, is a girl named Boudi, who turns out to be the ancient Britannic warrior leader Boudica (or Boudicca). The historical Boudica lived a thousand years before the events of The Rise of El Cid, but that matters little in Fajardo’s mashup of multiple histories.
What is particularly important in these exemplary graphic novels is the way Fajardo uses the narrative form to re-tell, often in tremendously changed fashion, some of the great histories and legends of an increasingly dim past. Yes, he gives female characters greater strength, solidity and prominence than those legends did, and more than females had in medieval times; and yes, he emphasizes characters’ relationships and interrelationships for a 21st-century audience in part by having them use modern slang and have adventures that are as likely to be comic as serious (a self-aware pig named Hama continues to accompany Beowulf and Grendel and to have a small but significant role in some events). But some genuine thoughtfulness and real scholarship underlie everything Fajardo does. Like the first two books, this one contains some fascinating material after the story ends, including discussions of Mithras and Boudica; a page explaining and showing Destreza (a specific art of fencing practiced in Spain hundreds of years later than the time of The Rise of El Cid but used in this book for dramatic effect); notes on tributes that Fajardo includes, just for amusement, to Peanuts and the children’s story of Ferdinand the bull; and a good deal more. The Rise of El Cid has no more validity as an introduction to the historic El Cid and his role in Spanish history than The Song of Roland had to the history of old France or The Blood-Bound Oath to Anglo-Saxon Britain. But it shows, again and again, that there were heroes and villains in those long-ago times, political and social upheavals galore, and plenty of chances for adventure, drama and occasional silliness. Fajardo’s books are not history – far from it – but they bring history alive in a highly intriguing way, and in so doing raise the graphic-novel format to a level of literacy and literary merit that is thoroughly remarkable.
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