Background research for ¡Reconquista! (or any book) takes unexpected dips and turns, from Google Street Views of Mexicali, Mexico to the origins of Alta California and the campaigns of Colonel Frémont. But the most unusual find in a week punctuated by trail running in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and a brief, one hour, twenty minute circuit of Carlsbad Caverns (I was first in and had the descent largely to myself!), was a 19th-century translation of the Queen of California from Las Sergas de Esplandián. This 1510 book by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo related an amazing tale that, as the translator and commenter Edward Everett Hale notes, provided the origin of the name of California, for Cortez imagined what is now Baja California to be an island that was to the West of the Indies, following Columbus’ lead in mislabeling the New World.
Hale’s translation and commentary are even more remarkable in their intertextual reading of the postbellum mindset that pervades all the way to San Francisco. He carries a descriptive thread likening the battle prowess of the Queen of California’s man-killing griffins to Civil War naval craft:
These griffins are the Monitors of the story, or, if the reader pleases, the Merrimacs.
And in those comparisons, he shows a careful traversal of residual war sentiments, though he is more direct in calling out the implicit racism of Hiram Powers’ statue of California for being incorrect in depicting Queen Calafia (sic) as classically whitewashed when she was described very clearly as “large, and black as the ace of clubs.”
But what of the story of Calafia? She is queen of an island of Amazonian-like women who kill men and boy children alike by feeding them to a hoard of semi-controllable griffins. The island is made of gold and gemstones litter the ground. Calafia decides to go to war, joining several sultans in an assault on Constantinople. She ultimately gets her chance to deploy the griffins and they kill legions of men on the walls. But when she directs the Sultans’ armies to scale the walls, the griffins slaughter them, too. Oops. She gets control of the griffins, finally, but then the assault becomes more problematic.
Finally it resolves that the Christian-side king will meet with one sultan and Calafia in personal combat to resolve the conflict. The losers will become the subjects of the winners. But before that happens, Calafia wants to meet those with whom she will fight. She is quite taken by the beauty of one of the king’s sons and arrives to check him out on a wild beast:
They brought out an animal which she rode, the strangest that ever was seen. It had ears as large as two shields; a broad forehead which had but one eye, like a mirror; the openings of its nostrils were very large, but its nose was short and blunt. From its mouth turned up two tusks, each of them two palms long. Its color was yellow, and it had many violet spots upon its skin, like and ounce. It was larger than a dromedary, had its feet cleft like those of an ox, and ran as swiftly as the wind, and skipped over the rocks as lightly, and held itself erect on any part of them, as do the mountain-goats. Its food was dates and figs and peas, and nothing else.
So the bestiary contained more than just the ravenous, man-eating griffins. But she and the sultan are ultimately beaten in combat. Indeed, it seems inevitable that the Christians must triumph and the man must best the woman. She even gives up her pagan ways in the end and gets married to a random, good-looking member of the ruling class. She gets her sister a husband, too.
What becomes of the island and the women? They convert, take husbands, and help with further adventures we are told. The story and commentary concludes with some interesting notes on Columbus and his beliefs about the New World (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 1872). Learned men knew Dante and few other things then, so it is not surprising that Hale suggests that Columbus took seriously the cosmic geography that Dante laid out in the Divine Comedy.
The New World, it seems, was named and traversed in equal parts reality and fantasy.