Originally published in Catalan in 1490 and now newly translated by David H, Rosenthal, Tirant Lo Blanc is a prose masterpiece written by the Valencian nobleman Joanot Martorell and completed by Marti Joan de Galba after Martorell’s death. Written when the Catalan influence in Sicily, Rhodes, and other parts of the Mediterranean was still significant, Tirant takes the reader into the world of medieval knighthood, festivity, heroic death, and courtly love. Praised by Cervantes as the “best book of its kind in all the world,” Tirant enthralls the reader in the same kind of ambigupus and sophisticated story telling that we find in Don Quixote.

At times, the author gives the reader direct and vivid narrative, while at others the reader’s imagination must carry the burden. When several knights dishonor themselves roughly one-third of the way into the book, Martorell simply states that all were punished in the manner earlier prescribed as appropriate in such cases. It is left to the reader to recall the rules of knighthood earlier taught to Tirant, the story’s protagonist, and then to imagine the erring knights with their costumes ripped away and hot water repeatedly thrown on their heads.

Feats of arms abound, but prowess with the sword and lance cannot help Tirant resolve the internal conflict between the ideals of the ascetic knight and the passion of a lusty Renaissance courtier pleading for the favors of the Princess Carmesina. Once the action moves from the English court to the exotic bedrooms of Constantinople, the invincible knight proves only too human in the seductive combat of love. In his treatment of sexual passion and its conflict with the needs of society. Martorell’s “modernity” surprises and delights the reader.

Rosenthal’s translation is superb, deftly conveying both the profundity of Martorell’s themes and the verbal playfulness of the style. The translation is so well done that it reads like an original text. My only complaint is that the original names ought not have been translated so literally: “Easygoing Widow,” “Dryfount,” “Look-what-you-do.” I think that most readers would have preferred the Catalan: “Viuda Reposada,” “Fontseca,” and “Cataquefaras.”


[Tirant Lo Blanc, by Joanot Martorell and Marti Joan de Galba; Schocken Books; New York]