Readers are often surprised at the modernity and timelessness of some medieval works, and at our ability to recognize experiences we share with the characters. ''Tirant lo Blanc,'' a late 15th-century prose romance, combines social, psychological, and emotional realism, while remaining very much a medieval work that carries the reader back to the days of gallant knights and fair maidens.
The current taste for things medieval, as evidenced by the popularity of Umberto Eco's ''The Name of the Rose,'' indicates that the time may have come for this great and authentically medieval work to become known to a larger audience than it has thus far enjoyed. It is the sense of authenticity in both the descriptions and, often, the dialogue that simultaneously brings the reader closer to the world of chivalry, and the concerns of the 15th century closer to him. In particular, the portrayal of women bespeaks sensitivity and knowledge on the part of the author, and it is timely indeed: Women in ''Tirant lo Blanc'' desire, above all else, freedom of choice in their lives.
The unusual qualities of ''Tirant lo Blanc'' were heralded long before now. To liberate Don Quixote from the increasing perils of reading frivolous, indeed, dangerous, books of chivalry, his niece, the barber, and the priest build a bonfire in which to destroy the printed offenders. But the priest is delighted to see one title:
''Here's 'Tirant lo Blanc'! (Give it here, friend, for I promise you I've found a wealth of pleasure and a gold mine of enjoyment in it...). It's the best book of its kind in the world. The knights in it eat, sleep, die in their beds, dictate wills before they go and many other things you cannot find in other works of this sort.... Take it home and read it, and you'll see everything I've said is true'' (from Cervantes's ''Don Quixote,'' translated by David H. Rosenthal, cited in the introduction).
Despite such high praise from the father of the modern novel, few have heard of ''Tirant lo Blanc,'' and even fewer have read it. Translator David Rosenthal advances some convincing and generally accepted theories for this - such as the 300-year decline of Catalan, the book's original language, which began at about the time of ''Tirant's'' publication in 1490 and continued with the brutal suppression of Catalan during the Franco regime. Rosenthal's eminently readable translation, in a handsome volume with many helpful footnotes, is the first modern version in a non-Hispanic language - and a welcome addition it is to world literature.
The ''other works of this sort'' mentioned by Cervantes are generally known as romances of chivalry. The romance was the dominant form of literature before the advent of the novel. Contemporary readers as well as critics tend to view the novel as the supreme prose form, and they often scorn medieval and Renaissance works for failing fully to embrace novelistic techniques. Certainly, the romance has affinities with the novel, but it has its own goals and organizational patterns. A romance tends to idealize, and medieval romances usually portrayed the court and aristocratic society. In describing its structure, C. S. Lewis, in ''The Allegory of Love,'' borrowed from music the phrase ''polyphonic narrative'' for the organization of romance narratives in which the many characters and episodes move freely, often in complex plots and motifs, and yet are ultimately interlaced so that nothing is left unresolved. As Gillian Beer tells us in ''The Romance'': ''The polyphonic form means that the intensity is based on the senses (bright colours, sounds, swift changes of scene , beautiful women, elaborate descriptions of architecture and ornament).'' Cervantes clearly recognized the genre to which ''Tirant'' belonged, but it was the additional features of plausibility and realism that ensured his admiration.
The author of most of ''Tirant,'' the Valencian aristocrat, knight, and man of letters Joanot Martorell (d. 1468), began his work in 1460. Critics speculate that Martorell wrote three-quarters of the book and left plans for the North Africa section and the ending, both of which were later amplified by Marti Joan de Galba, who falls somewhat short of the skill Martorell exhibits.
The first part, before we meet Tirant himself, is Martorell's reworking of his earlier prose romance, ''William of Warwick,'' itself based on a 13 th-century Anglo-Norman romance, ''Guy of Warwick.'' William of Warwick, also known as the Hermit, valorously saves England from invasion and then, in his guise as a hermit, instructs the young Breton, Tirant, in the proper knightly code. For Martorell, who infuses much of the work with humor, knighthood was a sacred institution. Much of what might be called knightly doctrine comes from revered medieval authorities and historical data, as Rosenthal explains in his introduction and footnotes.
After various exploits in England, Sicily, and Rhodes, Tirant lands in the Greek empire, in the longest section of the book, where he alternately vanquishes infidels, courts the emperor's daughter, Princess Carmesina, and meets other memorable women, such as Stephanie, the Easygoing Widow, and Pleasure-of-my-life. Martorell seems to have evolved as a storyteller as the book unfolds. Had he been able to amplify and revise it himself before his death, it might have been as consistently artful as it is in this part. Here, amid court intrigues, military campaigns, and a few ribald love scenes, the characters emerge as multifaceted, and much of the dialogue sparkles.
The remaining sections, set in North Africa and the Greek empire, consist of peripatetic scenes characteristic of romance, concluding with the summing up, in which all loose ends are tied together and the story closes. Hollywood producers' hearts would be warmed to see that the author does leave possibilities for a sequel.
If the reading is sometimes, for me, bogged down by tedious battle scenes, it is never so for long. I enjoyed the personal relationships more than the military campaigns, but ''Tirant lo Blanc'' is nothing if not a tome with something for everyone. Martorell displays a panorama of medieval pageantry and enough historical and geographical detail to satisfy and delight fiction-lovers and historians alike. Martorell's special skill is in his ability to capture and accurately re-create what appears to be real life and feelings. ''Tirant'' abounds with examples of principles and experiences that speak to the modern reader.
One chapter, ''Abdullah Solomon's Advice to Tirant,'' offers counsel on government and just rulers, which remains pertinent to this day: ''Advise him to act like an emperor, knowing merit precedes felicity, and teach him to honor God , love his country, and serve justice, without which no reign, however opulent, can long endure. Likewise, a rule based on violence cannot last.''
A most unusual feature is Martorell's ability to create women whose feelings and concerns traverse the centuries to strike contemporary chords. Women normally had limited and predictable roles in romances of chivalry. Here, female characters manifest a desire to have some kind of control over their own lives. Specialists, in occasionally criticizing the sex scenes, miss an important point. Today, the question of choice embraces wide possibilities; far fewer options were available at that time, even to princesses. Given that women's power was obviously limited because of a preeminently powerful social structure, women had only one opportunity in which to give or withhold consent: sex. In ''Tirant,'' chastity has more to do with freedom of choice and bargaining power than with morality. At one point Princess Carmesina laments her lack of freedom: ''What a curse ... that I should not only be subject to my parents but also scolded by that wet nurse...!'' And when Tirant engages in flowery circumlocution to express his physical desires, Carmesina cuts him short: ''Captain, ... though I have never been to France, I understand your words and see that you wish to take me by force, yet I ask not for domination but for liberty in love.'' Sex may, at times, be humorous in ''Tirant'' and a celebration of human vitality, but it is never gratuitous.
''Tirant lo Blanc'' reflects major movements and trends in medieval literature - courtly love, chivalry, debates, hagiography - and presages some Renaissance preoccupations as exemplified by such classics as Machiavelli's ''The Prince'' and Castiglione's ''The Courtier'' and, as noted earlier, by Cervantes's praise of ''Tirant's'' verisimilitude.