Around the figure of King Don Pelayo are concentrated the mists, like those that arise in the Asturian forests and mountains. It is not clear if he existed or did not exist, if he was Gothic or Spanish-Roman, if he considered himself a king, if the Battle of Covadonga really took place, or if we can call the process that the warrior initiated Reconquest. Nor is it clear if Pelayo is a character for all audiences (as it seems to be in Asturias) or his legend has been hijacked by the extreme right (as it seems in other areas, Twitter among them). The historical sources are brief and ambiguous, and the Asturian hero is the subject of strong controversy among historians and fans.
The good thing about the historical novel is that, in addition to being historical, it is a novel, so that it can travel through the terrain of fiction. This is what the writer José Ángel Mañas has done in his novel ¡Pelayo! (The Sphere of Books). Mañas has been known mostly for his generational novels, which deal with the theme of youth, the night, the debauchery, the sordid (as Kronen stories O mensaka), but for some time it has also given the historical novel. “I have a degree in History,” he explains, “and although I went through college a bit like a tourist, in the end that shapes your head.” He began fabulating about Alexander the Great, but then he turned to the great Spanish themes. “I wanted to unravel the mysteries of Spain in this time of turbulent identity, which is not an easy thing,” he explains. Some of the themes of his books are the start of the Civil War in 1936 (Republican Episodes), the resistance of Numantia (The hispanic) or the conquest of America (Conquerors of the impossible). Another milestone was missing, and it was Pelayo.
In 711 the Muslims conquered the peninsula with astonishing ease. The internal disputes between the supporters of the Gothic kings Rodrigo and Witiza made it easy for them. Also the Roman past. “Actually, the dirty work was done by the Romans: having formed centers of power and built roads, the conquest was easier,” explains Mañas (the same happened in America when conquering the Aztec and Inca empires). The real resistance appeared in the Picos de Europa, where the figure of Pelayo emerges, which Mañas found to be very romantic.
“The previous idea that I had of Pelayo was of a kind of rebel, of outsider, from Asturian Robin Hood ”, says the author. Then he discovered other juicy data in the chronicles: his ties with the monarchy, his role as a breeder of Asturcan horses, his presence at decisive moments in history, such as the Battle of Guadalete (the Muslim victory that allowed his advance on the peninsula) or the battle of Covadonga. He seemed a character very similar to King Arturo, although without so much cultural recognition: the figure of Pelayo has not been so used in novels or audiovisual products, and that Mel Gibson hinted a couple years ago you would like to make a movie about the character. According to Mañas, it won’t be long before we see a great audiovisual production about Pelayo (perhaps along the lines of El Cid from Amazon Prime Video, received with mixed reactions).
“The figure of Pelayo has not been as treated as that of King Arturo or that of the Cid, and that his historical weight is much greater,” says Mañas, who has found certain parallels with Arturo: they are two Christian leaders who resisted against invasions (Saxons and Muslims), that have Celtic roots, that are in the legendary origin of their nations … There were pieces that were missing in the Arthurian legend of Pelayo, so Mañas, who is a novelist, invented them: in his story there appears a character who fulfills the role of mentor to the magician Merlin, and a sacred element, such as the Holy Grail, which are the relics of Santa Eulalia, who was the patron saint of Asturias. By the way, the narrator of the story is Pelayo’s empowered sister, Adosinda.
Pelayo’s story can be told as a heroic deed to enchant children and adults, just like an episode of Game of Thrones, or politically, as the origin of the Spanish nation and a symbol of resistance against Islam. It has been traditional that the right and the extreme right have appropriated Pelayo to give substance to his story. Many historians allege that the story was invented in the time of Alfonso III (King of Asturias between 866 and 910) to ennoble the origins of his lineage and the kingdom of Asturias. Texts such as the chronicle of Alfonso III, where it refers, are not considered entirely reliable for this reason. The sources, moreover, are all much later than the events they narrate. “As the chronicles are questionable”, points out Mañas, “each one positions himself where his intuition tells him, and there the debate arises. Everything depends on the reliability that we give to the texts ”.
The term Reconquista, the process that supposedly began in the Battle of Covadonga and ended by the Catholic Monarchs with the taking of Granada, became popular in the 19th century among the conservatives of the Bourbon Restoration. It was also, for obvious reasons, to the liking of the Franco dictatorship. Already in democracy, Covadonga, Pelayo and the Reconquest have been raised by ultras from Blas Piñar’s New Force to the current Vox of Santiago Abascal, who have held rallies in that mountainous Asturian enclave and declared their intention to carry out a new Reconquest of Spain in the face of their political adversaries and what they consider a Muslim invasion. “We are not going to ask for forgiveness, neither for the history nor the symbols,” Abascal said there. The Reconquest would be seen from this sector as a heroic national liberation struggle against the Moorish invader. There is one thing that can also unite the figure of Pelayo with certain sectors of the current right beyond nationalism: it is presumed that one of the reasons for his rebellion could be the refusal to pay taxes.
Other currents deny or lessen the importance of the events of Covadonga or, like the British historian Henry Kamen, doubt the existence of a process of reconquest as such: “No military campaign can last eight centuries,” he declared to EL PAÍS. Eight centuries in which, in addition, in periods of peace, coexistence and mixing between Christian and Muslim kingdoms was frequent. The account of the battle of Covadonga is frequently oversized; in certain sources it is directly fantastic, with the Virgin intervening in the battle and causing the arrows of the Muslims to magically turn against them. In some version there are even demons that come out of the depths to lend a hand. It is given greatness, but most likely, according to many experts, it was a simple skirmish, yes, with profound repercussions.
“What I try to claim is that Pelayo belongs to everyone and that the feeling of Spanishness can and should coexist with different ideologies”, Mañas, who also thinks that sections of history that have not been told are being dealt with from the historical novel enough, over those who have tiptoed over. “Now there is a lot of talk about the importance of the story in politics, in the same way, there is a fierce struggle for the historical story. That’s what we’re doing ”.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.