The pardoner’s tale

Christopher North on a sentimental fad that risks cheapening the ritual of the bullring

Sol y Sombra

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


‘‘Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand.” So begins the 1936 children’s classic about a toro bravo who prefers flowers to fighting. Ferdinand the Bull was an instant success, popular with every sandal-wearer and fruit-juice drinker from Eleanor Roosevelt to Gandhi. Hitler, naturally, had the book burned as pacifist propaganda.

Most aficionados heartily dislike the story, partly because it is implicitly abolitionist, but mainly because anthropomorphising a fighting bull robs him of his elemental dignity.

Me? I have always had a soft spot for it — a weakness shared by the most famous matador of all, Juan Belmonte. I loved the 2017 animated film version, with its flawless depiction of Las Ventas, the Madrid plaza.

What most people don’t know is that Munro Leaf’s 1936 story was based on true events. The real-life Ferdinand was a handsome jet-black bull named Civilón, born in the cork-oak pastures around Salamanca. Young bulls learn to use their horns by fencing with their brothers and, following a nasty gashing, Civilón was befriended by his breeder’s seven-year-old daughter, Carmelita.

It was unprecedented. A fighting bull is bred to hurtle at any perceived challenger. Uniquely among herbivores, he will charge, not from self-defence or fear, but from what can only be termed courage. Yet here was a toro bravo who had apparently overcome his DNA and renounced his heritage.

People came from all over Spain to see the extraordinary sight of a fighting bull eating from a little girl’s hand. So well known was Civilón that rightist commentators began mockingly to bestow his name on the hapless republican prime minister, Santiago Casares Quiroga (coincidentally, “civilón” was also a derogatory term that Spanish soldiers used for civilians).

In June 1936, the canny manager of the old bull ring in Barcelona, the Monumental, contracted Civilón as one of a string. It was the corrida of the season: everyone wanted to see whether, once he set foot on the sands, Civilón would remember his pedigree and charge. He did, unhesitatingly putting his head down and launching himself at the picador’s horse.

The audience rose as one man to demand the indulto, the sparing of an exceptional bull so that he can be put to stud. The president, confronted with a unanimous petition, consented, waving the orange handkerchief that is rarely seen in the ring. Whereupon the breeder, Carmelita’s father Juan, called Civilón over to the side of the ring — and the bull, so lethal moments earlier, trotted over meekly to nuzzle his hand.

An aficionado can go for many seasons without seeing an indulto. Bullfights are meant to end with the protagonist’s death. That death can be accomplished beautifully or scrappily, depending on the quality and courage of the matador.The bull, for his part, can be either resigned, stalking quietly to the edge to sink to the sands, or heroic, lunging forward even after the sword has found his aorta. But the events themselves are as preordained as in a Greek tragedy — which they closely resemble. If a bull should disable or kill a matador, the ranking surviving matador will complete the rite.

That, at least, is the theory. In reality, bullfighting goes through occasional spasms of indultismo (or “indultitis”). The trouble is that everyone stands to gain from these pardons. The spectators get to feel that they were part of something special. The matador is spared the most dangerous part of the afternoon — having to go in over the bull’s horns, so that an upward thrust will disembowel him. The breeder gets his merchandise back. But if the indulto is cheapened, the entire ritual risks becoming void.

Indultismo has come close to destroying the fiesta in Mexico. And there are alarming signs it is on the rise in Spain. During the first decade of this century, there were, on average, ten indultos a year — roughly one for every 300 bulls. In 2019 there were 43. This year, as regular readers will know, I saw an indulto at each of the ferias I watched — Olivenza in Spain and Béziers and Nîmes in France.

Nearly 90 per cent of Spanish corridas were cancelled this season, and the handful that went ahead had little or no audience. Yet there have been indultos in Astorga, Mérida, Valdepeñas, Andújar and Villanueva (as well as the one in Olivenza). Spectators are plainly overcompensating for the dismal lockdown season. But, in doing
so, they are creating a menace that will outlast the coronavirus.

Oh, and Civilón? Real life is not a children’s story, and Spain is reliably morbid. Two weeks after his appearance in Barcelona, the civil war broke out, and Civilón was butchered and eaten by Red militiamen.

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