Cordel, Literature of the

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Cordel, Literature of the

Literature of the Cordel. Originally presented in oral form in the tradition of epic and other popular literature in the world, these ballads, primarily of northeastern Brazil, were eventually printed as folhetos (pamphlets or little books) and sold dangling from a cordel (string). The cover, usually in pastel colors, has a photograph or print not always related to the text. The reader, often illiterate, may recognize a familiar tale and be persuaded to buy according to its cover design. A picture of the author and some information are often found on the back cover. Contemporary storytellers, frequently well-known writers, continue to develop the tradition. Read now rather than recited, and without musical accompaniment (both hands are needed to turn pages), the ballads usually consist of high dramatic dialogue as befits the customary content.

The traditional cordel is a collection of folktales in verse (usually sextilhas, six lines of seven syllables each, rhymed a b c b d b) on a wide variety of subjects that express the strict morality of the extended community of the Northeast. To name but a few, there are cordel versions of news events; the lives and exploits of famous bandits, cowboys, saints, and other historical personages; as well as of Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, and numerous other European, Asian, and African figures. Fabled animals, such as mysterious bulls, are part of the vast body of cordel material.

A carefully balanced trial between good and evil, in which the former always clearly wins, is a constant theme in the cordel. Most of the personages are either saints or sinners. The protagonist generally undergoes a test of character which he or she may fail, but usually passes. In narratives of actual or would-be incest, for example, the besieged daughter ascends into heaven at the end, while the father who has assailed or tempted his child descends into hell. In a formula usually resembling a court trial comprising an opposition between honor and dishonor, an initial pact is tested, after which there is a response and a counter-response, followed by a judgment and a final confirmation of the pact.

The stories are offered to the people as models of how daily life should be lived ideally. The traditional pattern is both a literary convention and a means of reasserting a code of ethics. Their authors do not merely protest or chide the dominant class from the point of view and in the language of the proletariat, however, but express politicized and ideological struggles in terms that may not always be literary.

See alsoLiterature: Brazil .


Candace Slater, Stories on a String: Brazilian Literatura de Cordel (1982).

Additional Bibliography

Abreu, Márcia. Histórias de cordéis e folhetos. Campinas, SP, Brasil: Mercado de Letras, 1999.

Curran, Mark J. História do Brasil em cordel. São Paulo, SP, Brasil: Edusp, 1998.

                                      Richard A. Mazzara