Books

Away, foul creature! But not too far.

The Portuguese Portal arose partly as a means to showcase the vibrancy and relevance of Portugal’s fantasy and science fiction scene, demonstrating how it beams with new voices while also exemplifying previous adventures in the genre. A vitrine for a richness still mostly unknown abroad. As one would expect when translations comprise only a few authors as far as the English speaking market is considered and remain scarce throughout all languages.

Alexandre Herculano (1810-1877) might have approved of such a project.

Profoundly patriotic in the least reactionary implications of the term, Herculano joined the troops of D. Pedro IV against D. Miguel I [1] and later took on official positions as a royal librarian, first at Porto’s Public Library – which he helped establish in 1833, staying there as the second librarian until 1836 –, and later at the Ajuda Library.[ii] He served as one of the tutors to the future king D. Pedro V, the monarch seemingly having life-long esteem for the scholar though certainly acknowledging Herculano’s partiality towards the Middle Ages.[iii]

Alexandre Herculano, by João Pedroso

To be sure, Herculano brought a remarkable and much-needed scientific rigor to the study of history. His História de Portugal (1846-1853)[iv] formed the first critical and document-based tome, fully denuded of the mythical episodes and explanations Catholicism had long imposed it. Likewise, subsequent works proved relevant to the field. But Herculano did favor the medieval times to the detriment of all others. While regarding the Renaissance as an epoch of decline, he held the Middle Ages as both the fundamental and the ideal period of Portuguese existence. The key to national identity. An era when the perfect balance between individual freedom and state authority had been achieved. So full of honor, moral vigor, exemplary governing system, and defining aspects for Portugal’s own culture that it required precedential studying and thorough comprehension. At least if one was to carry its instruction into the future.[v] Accordingly, Herculano made the period the subject of both his scholarly writings and his fiction.

Editor-in-chief of the literary newspaper O Panorama [The Panorama] from 1837 to 1839, he kept on collaborating with the journal until 1844. Many tales that would end up in the two-tome collection Lendas e Narrativas [Legends and Narratives] (1851) went through a first publication there, amongst them “A Dama Pé-de-Cabra: romance de um jogral” [“Lady Goat-Foot: romance of a minstrel”] (1843).

Despite a few, significant changes in details, Herculano’s short novella follows the structure of a same-titled family legend recorded in Earl D. Pedro of Barcelos’ Livro de Linhagens [Book of Lineages] (1340-43). Both tell of how, atop a rock, the Lord of Biscay met a most beautiful, albeit cloven-footed Lady, married her promising never to cross himself, sired a boy and a girl with her, and lost wife and daughter upon breaking the vows in the aftermath of an incident involving two dogs. Of the little damsel, neither narrative speaks again. Meanwhile, the young master grows into heir and saviour of his father. Obviously with a momentous aid by his otherworldly mother who not only provides advice but instrumentally lends him a steed of supernatural swiftness. The Lord is thus rescued from the Moors he had seek to battle. Having ensured the duo safe return home, the tales then remark on the life-long gifts bestowed on the son, stating his forever victoriousness in battle.[vi]

Identical stories for similar yet disparate aims.

The Earl’s is a Melusine-like legend, meant to claim for the Haros of Biscay a remarkable ancestry.[vii] One that, as it asserts the region’s deep-rooted independence from the Kingdom of Castile, reinforces the feudal household eminent status by supplying them with blood ties to fairy nobility. Such particularities would make them a family of utmost respectability in its entire line: upholding Christianity, attentive to the old ways too, and so meritorious even the aristocratic spirits of the ancient, natural world favoured them through the ages.[viii]

The consequences sketched at the end of Herculano’s retelling clearly fall into akin effects, but not an analogous feeling.

For all Herculano also wished to establish a commendable heritage – concerning an entire nation instead of a lordship –, and despite undoubtedly working to highlight the vastness of Portuguese history, he neither advanced information about previous renderings nor adhered to the story’s lore. Rather, he refashioned the Lady’s hoof as the sign of an accursed condition, forgoing the pagan connotations to Earth and fecundity deities and replacing them with devil-fearing Christian morality.

In a voice with some orality marks and through several framed narratives recounted by the title’s minstrel – aspects representative of the story’s origin as a folk tale –, Herculano paints a society wrapped in the Church’s rhetoric and superstitions. So to hell with the Lady, who in this version died an adulteress. And then on with her to an existence lingering on the land of the living. She does not even warrant a name. Her lover does, notwithstanding the worst transmutation into the steed. Moreover, they both share in a certain egalitarian defamation bestowed by a continuous string of derogatory adjectives. Similarly, every single event they trigger comes described in a manner meant to stress the damnation attributed to their activities and associations.

Better to keep a safe distance. Although not a very far one.

The narrative may come infused with this Catholic discourse quick to judge and prone to spot the devil’s work and creatures at each meagre opportunity, but it likewise lets it transpire that only the Lady and the steed manage any efficiency in their actions. Indeed the religious bombast crosses into satire. Along with the Church’s procedures. There is no excommunication or intimate dwellings with devil-adjacent beings that cannot be purged with the right amount of Moors killed. Nor do the exorcisms performed last very long. The beings soon return. And truly, as fixated on the devil and his possibly colluders as this world is, both narrator and characters exhibit an ambiguity about seeking help from such sources, sometimes trembling before the idea, others suggesting selling one’s soul does not amount to that big a price given the advantages acquired.

Never allowing his own voice to comment, Herculano piles hypocrisies and exaggerations, thus steering readers towards the critiques weaved in the novella. Page after page, the clergy’s willingness to demonise and promote the persecution of all those not abiding by its every prescription becomes increasingly apparent. So does the noblemen’s propensity for laziness. Where the Earl intended to extol a particular aristocratic line, Herculano denounced the class as largely inconsequential and with an absurd penchant for hunting either game or Moors.

Contrary to what happened in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, or in France from the 17th century onwards to the 18th, Portugal lacked a widespread production of fairy tales aimed towards an adult audience.[ix] There was no broad group of writers developing literary renditions of old folk tales and using them to criticise society’s vices. However, some instances did occur. Herculano’s artistic rewriting of the Lady Goat-Foot tale, a dame with a whiff of animal-bride to her, offers just such an example. Faithful to the author’s preferences, it enacts a plot set in the Middle Ages. Yet, besides telling of Portugal’s ancestry, it further speaks to the nation’s reality in the 19th century, playfully denouncing the obsessions of either religion or nobility and the ensuing oppressions they perpetrated. A contribution to the civilising process by means of a satire drawn from a folk tale.


[i] Years after the Portuguese court escaped to Brazil (1807), thus avoiding capture by the Napoleonic troops, D. Miguel I returned to Portugal (1826). Betrothed to his own niece D. Maria II, daughter of D. Pedro IV who in the meantime had become 1st Emperor of Brazil (1828), D. Miguel I was to act as regent to his bride and queen. However, with the support of the absolutists and his mother the Dowager Queen, D. Miguel I eschewed the previous oaths and was soon proclaimed king. The move leads to a civil war between the liberal constitutionalists who supported D. Pedro IV and the absolutists in favor of D. Miguel I and his traditionalist ideas (1828-1834). With the aid of Spain, France, and the United Kingdom, the latter faction eventually conceded defeat and D. Miguel I ended banished into exile, albeit with an annual pension. A chronological summary of the events appears in http://dpedroiv.pt/en/chronology/1828#datas.

[ii] Further details on Herculano’s life, with an emphasis on his work on Portuguese libraries, are imparted in Luís Cabral, “Alexandre Herculano e a Real Biblioteca Pública do Porto: um caso exemplar”, Revisitando Herculano no bicentenário do seu nascimento, ed. Maria de Fátima Marinho, Luís Carlos Amaral, Pedro Vilas-Boas Tavares, 125-146, 2013.

[iii] Luísa Carvalho quotes a curious instance in O ensino do Português: como tudo começou (2011).

[iv] In later editions, this History of Portugal presented the more accurate title História de Portugal desde o começo da Monarquia até ao fim do Reinado de Afonso III [History of Portugal from the Beginning of the Monarchy to the end of the Reign of Afonso III].

[v] For more on the importance the Middle Ages held for Herculano’s works, see Carlos Manuel Ferreira da Cunha, “Alexandre Herculano e a construção da cultura/literatura nacional”, article in conference booklet, 2011.

[vi] Ana Maria Soares offers a comparative summary and analysis of the two narratives in “A Lenda da Dama do Pé de Cabra: do Livro de Linhagens do Conde D. Pedro de Barcelos a Alexandre Herculano”, Limite, no 5, (2011): 7-30.

[vii] Attention to Portuguese Melusine legends is also found in Irene Freire Nunes, “Mulheres Sobrenaturais no Nobiliário Português – a Dama Pé de Cabra e a Dona Marinha”, Medievalista, no 8 (July 2010), http://www2.fcsh.unl.pt/iem/medievalista/MEDIEVALISTA8/nunes8004.html

[viii] Such graces do not, however, last. If following her husband’s death the Lady adopts a serpentine form – being honored as a tellurian entity and tending to her descendants’ welfare –, once the oblations stop she metamorphizes into an entity that assaults the village women. Soares reads this last transformation as a possible foreshadowing of the Haros’ downfall.

[ix] An account of the Italian and French cases is given by Jack Zipes in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: the classical genre for children and the process of civilization (2006). Zipes equally proposes a social-historical approach to differentiate between folk tales and fairy tales, equating the former with the oral narratives circulating amongst populations and the latter with creative works. The basis and specifications of his reasoning appear in Breaking the Magic Spell: radical theories of folk and fairy tales (2002).

By Inês Botelho

Inês Botelho was born in Vila Nova de Gaia in 1986. She is the author of the fantasy trilogy O Ceptro de Aerzis – comprised of A Filha dos Mundos (2003), A Senhora da Noite e das Brumas (2004), and A Rainha das Terras da Luz (2005) – and also of the novels Prelúdio (2007) and O passado que seremos (2010). She has several short stories published and pens a column for Revista Bang!. With a degree on Biology and a Master of Anglo-American Studies from the University of Porto, she wrote her dissertation on representations of “Beauty and the Beast” in some of Angela Carter’s tales. She is currently a collaborator of CETAPS – Centre for English Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies. For more information, visit https://inesbotelho.com/en/

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