One of my all-time favourite children’s books is “The Story of Ferdinand”. This tale of a peaceful bull who prefers smelling flowers to butting heads was written in 1936 by Munro Leaf and features beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations by Robert Lawson. Despite its great age, Leaf’s story has endured sufficiently well that an animated retelling of it was released just last year. During my career I read “The Story of Ferdinand” to kids in the library annually and was always delighted that even in this age of frenetic video games and apps, a book with a minimal narrative and monochromatic pictures can still enthral and entertain them. The moral of the story is wonderful as well; the introverted Ferdinand resists social pressure to conform, goes his own way despite parental concerns, and in the end his individuality literally saves his life.
I had this happy ending tucked away in my psyche when my husband and I went to see an actual bullfight in Madrid. There are two sides to every bullring, sol and sombra, the Spanish words respectively for sun and shade. The tickets are separated into these two categories and priced accordingly, with tickets in the shaded section costing more as people are willing to pay extra to avoid baking in the searing Spanish sun. I was glad we splurged for the more expensive option because there are six individual contests in an afternoon of bullfighting so the whole event takes quite some time.
There was a parade into the ring before the fights began just like in “The Story of Ferdinand”. First in was a trumpeter playing a pasodoble, or two step, a famous type of Spanish music and a passionate dance style performed in ballroom competitions. The audience shouted “Olé” when the fanfare was done, and everyone taking part in that afternoon’s proceedings then passed in a long line through the ring with the matadors triumphantly pulling up the rear. No sooner had a big set of double doors shut behind the last matador than a somewhat smaller door opened on the far side of the ring and out charged an enormous bull.
Everyone again shouted “Olé” as the bull began to walk around the ring, looking at the audience and trying, I assume, to figure out where the hell it was. A man on horseback called a picador then rode into the ring behind the bull, the first of two men whose sole purpose was to taunt and torture the poor animal. He carried lances with colourful ribbons on the end which he proceeded to thrust into the muscular expanse of the creature’s neck, angering and weakening it. The dexterity and synchronicity of horse and rider was admittedly quite breathtaking, but skilled horsemanship alone wasn’t enough to distract me from the ever-increasing suffering of the unfortunate beast.
The picador exited and was soon replaced by the banderillero, who deked and swayed on foot around the confused bull, all the while thrusting barbed darts into the animal’s neck to further enrage and exhaust it. Last of all came the matador himself. He was wearing a beautiful outfit known as a suit of lights and strutted and preened as the audience shouted in adulation. Everything got quiet as he turned toward his now frantic and spent adversary. What followed is the part of the bullfight with which most people are familiar. The matador goaded the bull into charging with the fluttering of his cape, then deftly stepped aside at the last moment, the horns of the creature missing his body by mere inches. After several passes, each one eliciting a more full-throated “Olé” than its predecessor, the matador decided the fight was over. Instead of simply dodging the beast this time, he drove his sword into its head as it passed.
In an ideal world that one clean thrust would swiftly kill the animal, but that only happened once in the six fights we saw. The odds of the matador hitting the exact right spot on the bull’s head are pretty slim considering that he is simultaneously dodging the charging beast and aiming his sword at a moving target. The one matador who did manage to make a clean kill that afternoon leaned over the bull immediately afterward, drew a knife from his belt, and used it to saw off the dead animal’s ear. He held the bloody trophy aloft – a fitting tribute to his masterful work – and the audience roared its approval.
The other five fights ended horribly, and of those the first is seared in my memory because it marks the only time in my life when an animal was killed right in front of me. The matador planted his sword in the bull’s head as expected, but the wound proved less than fatal. The injured creature sank down to the ground making a noise so piteous that I immediately began crying in response to its suffering. The matador grabbed his dagger, came up beside the tormented beast and thrust the knife as hard as he could into the base of its brain, grinding the hilt around in circles as one does a spoon handle when stirring a stiff batter. The bull made one more strangled cry and died. The audience shouted “Olé”, my tears redoubled, the matador bowed and exited, and the corpse was ignominiously dragged from the ring, leaving a trail of blood and gore in its wake. My husband refused to leave despite my obvious distress so I had to close my eyes and cover my ears for the coup de grace of the remaining fights, peeking only once when the matador displayed the bull’s ear.
After Spain our next destination was Portugal where I agreed to see a bullfight once I had been assured that they did not kill the bull at the end. The first part of the fight was reminiscent of what we’d seen in Spain except that the Portuguese matadors, called cavaleiros, fight the bull while mounted. Sometimes female riders or cavaleiras are used, something that would never happen in Spain and which made me prefer the Portuguese style of bullfighting right off the hop. Riders of both genders use horses specially trained for the task, and the precision of movement displayed by rider and steed throughout the fight is so fluid and refined as to resemble a choreographed dance. I truly enjoyed everything about this part of the performance except for the very end wherein the cavaleiro planted a bunch of small spears into the bull’s back.
The second part of the fight marked a complete departure from the Spanish style. A man appeared just outside the ring’s wooden enclosure, standing high enough to be visible from the chest up. He banged his hands on the wall and yelled at the bull, drawing it over so that it was facing away from the ring. With the beast suitably distracted, eight men called forcados ceremoniously entered opposite the bull. They marched in with military precision, stopping as one when their leader reached the centre of the ring. The first four men stayed in a straight line while the last four moved to stand side-by-side, reminiscent of soccer players defending against a penalty kick. They all stamped their feet, pushed their chests out, and firmly planted their fists on their hips as though staking a claim and daring the bull to even attempt to take this patch of ground from them.
The first forcado then called out, “Toro, toro, toro!” and the bull turned. A few very tense seconds passed as the animal assessed its new situation, then put its head down and charged. The forcado at the front of the line adjusted his position as the beast approached, readying himself to perform a move the Portuguese call pega de cara, or face catch. This maneuver entails the forcado allowing the bull’s head (but not horns, ideally) to contact his torso, and at that very instant wrapping both arms around the horns to secure his hold. The forcado successfully performed the pega de cara, and dangled limply and ornamentally from the face of the great creature as it continued to barrel forward. Each of the remaining forcados in turn threw himself onto its charging body, jockeying for position like suckling piglets fighting at a sow’s teats.
Even an enormous angry bull knows when it’s been bested and this one was no exception. Before long it stopped trying to move under the weight of the men, thus allowing time for one of them to remove himself from the pile, walk to the back of the beast, and grab its tail. The bull was allowed to calm down for a moment, then on a signal from the forcado at the rear the others disembarked. Now it was just one man holding an enraged bull’s tail and impudently pulling it to make sure he had the animal’s full attention. The irritated beast began twisting his body in an effort to gore his tormentor. You can picture exactly how this looked if you’ve ever seen a dog trying to bite its own tail – the bull racing in crazy circles with the forcado being pulled along behind like a waterskier on land. The creature soon recognized the futility of its actions and came to a stop. The man then let go of the tail, dusted his hands, turned his back on his frustrated foe, and slowly exited the ring without a single backward glance. A group of oxen were then led into the ring and a couple of men herded the spent beast towards them. The bull – whether due to exhaustion, instinct or a combination of the two – placidly fell in beside the oxen and the animals all exited the ring together.
The Portuguese have six bullfights in an afternoon just like the Spanish, and the tail-pulling forcado made it safely out of the ring in five of the contests we saw that day. The sixth wasn’t so lucky. Everything had gone to plan in his fight and the oxen had entered the ring as usual, but the bull clearly had no intention of leaving just yet. Instead it turned to face the retreating forcado and took off towards its unsuspecting target. The audience jumped to its feet as one and multiple voices rang out alerting the young man to the danger thundering up from behind. The forcado didn’t even have time to turn around before the beast was on him, forcibly knocking him facedown into the dirt and grinding his prone body forward against the hard-packed earth. The bull then flicked its head up and sent the now unconscious man flying, his flaccid body spinning over and over in the air and landing like a rag doll amidst a cloud of dust. The men herding the oxen had been frantically trying to get the bull’s attention this entire time, and thankfully they now finally succeeded. The beast turned towards them and passively allowed itself to be led out. It had gotten its revenge and was now ready for some social time. I never found out how badly that young man was injured, but he was completely inert when they removed him from the ring on a stretcher.
Portuguese bulls are usually butchered after leaving the ring, but those that put on an especially good show – like the one we saw attack the forcado – are often put out to stud. Both Spain and Portugal still allow bullfighting, though it has become a divisive issue in the former. Those who want it to continue argue that it is emblematic of their culture and a huge tourist draw, while those opposed are outraged that such a shameless display of animal cruelty is condoned in this day and age. My experience watching bullfights makes for a good story, but I was appalled when I witnessed them three decades ago and continue to be so in the face of their continued existence.