First edition cover
|Original title||El Zorro: Comienza la leyenda|
|Translator||Margaret Sayers Peden|
|Genre||Adventure, Historical Novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback) and (audio-CD)|
The novel takes the form of a biography and is the first origin story for this legendary character. In terms of material, it is a prequel to Johnston McCulley's 1919 novella The Curse of Capistrano, which first featured the character of Zorro. The story incorporates details from a variety of works that have featured the pulp hero, including the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro.
Allende's story is split into six parts, each part dealing with one stage of Diego de la Vega's life, with the last part serving as the epilogue. The novel chronicles Diego's upbringing as well as the origins of his Zorro alter ego. He goes to America to find his dream.
Part One (California, 1790–1810)
Captain Alejandro de la Vega, a seasoned Spanish soldier, is sent to the San Gabriel mission run by Padre Mendoza, an experienced Franciscan priest, due to a series of savage attacks at other missions. Led by a warrior chief named Chief Gray Wolf, the Indians want to destroy the San Gabriel mission, the most successful mission in Alta California. Alejandro, aided by Padre Mendoza and a few Indian converts, defeats the Indians; the colonists are successful in hurting Chief Gray Wolf. However, as they contemplate the chief's fate, they find out she is a woman.
She is Toypurnia, a young Indian woman. She recuperates in the mission with Alejandro's help. Alejandro then goes to Pedro Fages, the governor of California. Here he decides to allow Toypurnia to be a lady-in-waiting to Eulalia de Callis, Fages' rich and stubborn wife. After three years, Alejandro meets Toypurnia, who was renamed Regina, at a lavish party to celebrate the arrival of Pedro Fages, who has earlier resigned from his post and was on his way to Mexico with Eulalia. He proposes marriage to Regina and she accepts. The two are wed by Padre Mendoza, and Fages bequeaths a large acreage of land to Alejandro. He retires from the military and becomes a hacienda owner, and later an alcalde.
Regina befriends Ana, a young convert who is assigned to care for her. Regina has a complicated birth, spending fifty hours in labor, and requiring Padre Mendoza to deliver the baby, whom Regina names Diego. The infant boy is baptized on the spot.
Diego and Bernardo, Ana's son, become close friends. Since Ana breastfed Diego while his mother was convalescing from her pregnancy, as well as Bernardo, the boys became "milk brothers." The rest of the chapter deals with significant events in Diego and Bernardo's lives, and their early formation.
At an early age, Diego and Bernardo share an unusual childhood. They capture a live bear using the sleeping potion from White Owl, once used to amputate a wounded priest, with the assistance of a frightened, bullied, obese boy named Garcia. Together, Diego and Bernardo undergo Indian training, while Alejandro teaches fencing to Diego, who passes it on to Bernardo. When the de la Vega hacienda is attacked by pirates, the boys have their own traumatizing experiences: Diego and his mother attempt to defend the house, but are defeated, and Bernardo, hidden in the servants' room, is forced to watch his mother be brutally raped and murdered by the pirates. This causes Bernardo to be mute, as a sign of mourning. Bernardo is sent to the Indian tribe of Regina to recover, and soon strikes a friendship with Light-in-the-Night, which blossoms into a romance, and Diego is forced to remain at home to recover after suffering a few broken ribs during the attack.
Diego and Bernardo then undergo a test to prove their maturity and to find their spirit guide, a totemic animal which would guide the boys' future. Bernardo's spirit guide is a horse, in the form of Tornado, a motherless colt which Bernardo encounters and cares for. Diego's is a fox ( 'zorro' in his native Spanish ) who saves his life.
After the events in the forest, Alejandro, oblivious to the Indian training Diego has been receiving, receives a letter from Tomas de Romeu, an old friend of Alejandro and currently residing in France – occupied Spain. He invites Alejandro to let Diego go to Barcelona, to receive a more formal schooling, and to learn fencing under the famed maestro Manuel Escalante. Alejandro reluctantly allows Diego to go, and Diego takes Bernardo with him. They leave after their fifteenth birthday, where Regina surprisingly organizes an extravagant party, given her own aversion to parties, and Bernardo has an intimate moment with Light-in-the-Night.
Part Two (Spain, 1810–1812)
Diego and Bernando travel to Spain but first sail to Panama City where they learn to be sailors, magicians, and acrobats by swinging through the ship’s rigging. Upon leaving Panama City, Diego meets a sea captain, Santiago de León, who opens his eyes to new ways of thinking and questions his views on religion, patriotism and justice. Diego spies a golden medallion which the captain wears around his neck but is reluctant to acknowledge to Diego.
Upon arriving in Barcelona, Diego and Bernardo live with Don Tomas de Romeu. De Romeu is a French sympathizer who has two young daughters, the beautiful Juliana and the tomboyish Isabel. Diego is immediately struck by Juliana and decides to pursue her romantically. He also begins to study fencing with Maestro Manuel Escalante. Diego's main adversary for the affections of Juliana is Rafael Moncada, the nephew of Dona Eulalia. Moncada utilizes trickery to gain Juliana's favor which Diego and Bernardo investigate. The rivalry escalates upon Moncada's abuse of Bernardo which Diego takes exception and issues a challenge to a duel. Moncada and Diego arrange to have the duel with pistols and Moncada is allowed to take the first shot which hits Diego in the arm. Diego then fires into the ground with his shot, which frightens Moncada so much that he vomits on himself. Diego is satisfied with the result having humiliated Moncada.
Bernardo and Diego befriend a group of gypsies in Barcelona and Diego begins an affair with a gypsy woman named Amalia. Both boys also perform in a circus act with the gypsies where Diego begins to assemble a costume to disguise himself from the high society people in attendance.
After one of Diego's fencing lessons with Escalante, he learns the secret of La Justicia, a secret organization devoted to justice. Members of La Justicia are identified by the gold medallions which they wear around their necks. Diego recognizes Escalante's medallion as being the same as that of de Leon's. Escalante invites Diego to join La Justicia and they begin to train for his initiation test where Diego is tested physically in his fighting against members of La Justicia. Diego passes the test and joins La Justicia and takes the name Zorro meaning 'fox'.
Diego learns that Amalia has been arrested and is being held prisoner. Diego, dressed as Zorro, sneaks into the palace to convince Le Chavalier Duchamp, Napoleon's emissary to Spain, to release the hostages which he does under threat of his daughter's life.
Part Three (Spain, 1812–1814)
Moncada and Diego continue their pursuit of Juliana with neither gaining ground. One night, Juliana and Isabel are attacked on the street when Moncada appears and defends them so that they can escape. Everyone is relieved and grateful except for Isabel who recognizes the attackers as being employed by Moncada. Diego confirms this when he visits the gypsies. In an effort to expose Moncada, Diego convinces Amalia to reveal Moncada's scheme to Juliana. Sometime later, Diego warns the gypsies that they are in danger of arrest and they flee the city.
The political landscape changes as Napoleon is exiled and Duchamp leaves Spain. Arrests are made including Maestro Escalante, who is held in a local barracks. Diego convinces La Justicia to stage a rescue. Zorro and the other members of La Justicia enter the barracks and rescue Escalante, then their members disband.
Don de Romeu is also arrested as a French sympathizer and is held in the more secure La Ciudadela. Juliana goes to Moncada and asks him to use his influence to release her father. He agrees on the condition that she marry him and she agrees. Several days later, Moncada returns and informs Juliana that he was unable to secure a release. Isabel and Diego approach Eulalia and ask her to intervene. She declines but offers to buy de Romeu's property before it is seized to allow the girls an opportunity to leave the country. Eulalia arranges for a visit to their father. Juliana agrees to the terms. The girls visit their father, who signs the papers and comes to peace with his impending execution. He also reveals that Moncada was the one who denounced him and is responsible for his arrest.
Following the execution, Moncada visits Juliana who agrees to meet him. Moncada offers protection to Juliana in the hope that she will either marry him or become his mistress. She demands that he provide compensation for the loss of her father. He attacks Juliana but Diego intervenes, subduing Moncada.
The girls and Diego decide to leave the city and head for the Americas. They buy gems with the cash given by Eulalia and sew these into their clothing for safekeeping during their journey to California.
Part Four (Spain, late 1814 – early 1815)
Diego and the girls decide to travel on foot dressed as religious pilgrims. They intend to leave from an Atlantic port where they will not be recognized. During their travels, they rely upon the kindness of the local people to provide shelter and food. The journey takes many months.
After several months, Diego meets a band of gypsies, who agree to let Diego and the girls travel with them to the port, as long as they accept their rules. The girls must be strictly separated from the men. Diego, who had viewed the trek as an opportunity to become more intimate with Juliana, is discouraged by these restrictions. They reach the port where Diego met his old shipmates and he is reintroduced to Captain de Leon, who agrees to take them on board.
When the ship reaches Cuba, it is attacked by a pirate crew led by Jean Lafitte. Diego and the girls are taken hostage. Lafitte takes them to his home in Louisiana, where they await a ransom from Alejandro de la Vega to arrive. During this time, Juliana becomes smitten with Lafitte, until she learns that he is married to a Creole woman named Catherine, whom she never sees.
Diego begins gambling in New Orleans in an attempt to win enough money to buy their freedom. The girls use their jewels and gems to buy the freedom of slaves whom Lafitte is selling at auction. Lafitte tells her that the jewels are more than enough for the slaves and would also buy their freedom, which he grants. He returns the jewels back to her, an indication of his love for her. Catherine's mother sees this and takes her to Catherine who is revealed to have died five weeks earlier, unbeknownst to Lafitte. Catherine's mother tells Juliana that Catherine had chosen Juliana to marry Lafitte and raise Catherine's child, Pierre. Juliana agrees to marry Lafitte and Diego and Isabel are freed.
Part Five (Alta California, 1815)
Diego returns to California with Isabella and her chaperone, to find his father in prison and his lands confiscated by his arch-enemy Moncada. It is time for Zorro to ride again. Diego proposes to Bernardo that there should be two masked men, to get more done and to confuse the enemy, creating a fox mystique. Diego frees his father from prison, an older and frailer Don De La Vega, and gives him into the care of white Owl and his wife Regina at the Indian village to convalesce. Diego is captured and arrested, and freed by not one but two Zorro figures. Zorro confronts Moncada and forces him to sign the confession of his guilt and treasons, and forces him to return to Spain holding the document in case he becomes a bother.
Part Six, Epilogue (Alta California, 1840)
Diego clears his father’s name and has the charges dropped by the governor. Diego eventually becomes Don Diego de La Vega, a wealthy gentleman, but at night rides for justice with his two friends, Isabel and Bernardo.
Allende uses a mix of fictional characters borrowed from earlier Zorro works and invented for the novel, along with a smattering of historical characters.
- Diego de la Vega (aka Zorro), the protagonist of the novel. His origins, as well as the origin of Zorro, are shown. The novel explains Diego's dual personalities, as well as his turbulent love life.
- Bernardo was Diego De La Vega's milk brother, because they were nursed by the same woman. He is the second protagonist of the novel. He is the son of Ana, an Native Californian maid who works in the De la Vega Hacienda. After he witnesses the rape and murder of his mother, he acts like a mute. He and Diego still converse through sign language and twin telepathy. The rare instances when he speaks aloud are significant. In the novel, he has a wife, Light-in-the-Night, and a son.
- Lolita Pulido, whom Diego will later court in The Curse of Capistrano, appears as a young girl who falls in love with the disguised Zorro without realizing that he is her childhood friend Diego. She is Zorro's later love interest, replacing Juliana de Romeu.
- Lechuza Blanca ("White Owl") is the maternal grandmother of Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro). She is a shaman and the spiritual leader of an insurgent Californian native tribe, As Diego's spiritual mentor, she leads him into the vision quest through which he discovers that the fox (which in Spanish is "Zorro") acts as his totem or guardian spirit. Her daughter Toypurnia is Diego's mother.
- Toypurnia / Regina de la Vega ("Daughter of Wolf") is the mother of Don Diego de la Vega. Her father was Diego Salazar, a Spanish renegade. She was fostered by wolves briefly during her childhood. She had other names, including Grey Wolf. Toypurnia/Regina figures prominently within the plot of the 2007 serial Zorro: La Espada y la Rosa. The historical Tongva woman Toypurina, a Mission Indian living near the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, when 25 years old plotted against the Spaniards' cultural genocide and invasion of her native homeland, and was a model for the book's character struggling with the California mission clash of cultures.
- Pedro Fages: The famous feud of the California Governor and his wife Eulalia figure into Diego's family background. He is the intercessor of Alejandro de la Vega, bequeathing to him his vast hacienda.
- George Sand: The famed French novelist makes an appearance as a young girl in love with Diego. In the novel, she has an alternate history compared to the real George Sand.
- Jean Lafitte: Diego and his companions are captured by the notorious French pirate of the Louisiana bayous. His all – black attire is the inspiration for Zorro's current suit. He is the lover, and later husband, of Diego's first love Juliana.
- Marie Laveau: The voodoo queen of New Orleans makes a brief appearance, during the time Diego and his companions spend as "guests" of Jean Lafitte. She is the one who attempts to cure Catherine Villars, the sick wife of Jean Lafitte. When Catherine dies, Marie interprets Catherine's wish for Juliana to be the new wife of Jean.
- Estanislao: A Yokuts who led a revolt against the Mission San Jose in 1827.
Zorro contains numerous explicit references to Zorro works created before but taking place after Allende's tale. Most of the novel seems to correlate with most of the original Zorro tales. It even mentions Esperanza, Diego's wife in The Mask of Zorro. The epilogue states that Diego lived to a comfortable old age after Esperanza's death, which The Mask of Zorro clearly contradicts, though this is just a hopeful thought of the future from Isabel during the time she narrated the story. Also, Lolita Pulido meets Zorro well before their previously-established first sexual encounter.
In the 1920 silent film and Disney's television series, Bernardo is Diego's manservant, confidant and co-conspirator, the only person at first to know Diego's secret. Unable to speak, he uses gestures to communicate and pretends to be deaf as well as mute, the better to overhear the plans of Zorro's enemies. He also plays the fool, adopting clownish behavior so as to seem harmless. Although Bernardo is sometimes portrayed as a little silly even when no pretense is required, he is also a capable and invaluable disciple for Zorro and Diego, even wearing the mask himself occasionally when the need arises. This character had appeared in the original stories as both deaf and mute; giving him hearing in this iteration helped to make Bernardo more integral to the series as Zorro's spy. It also helped to advance the plot by giving Diego a partner with whom he could confide feelings, plans, and intended actions, while also communicating these things to the viewers.
In McCulley's work, Diego de la Vega was born in the late 18th century to a Spanish mother whose name is never reported consistently. The 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro lists her name as Isabella and the Disney television series gives her maiden name as de la Cruz. Sometime after her death, the young man left California and was educated in Spain, before returning to don the Zorro mask. A speculative attempt to fuse together these disparate accounts is found in the on-line article Legacy of the Fox.
A young adult novel, Young Zorro: The Iron Brand, was published at around the same time as Allende's novel. It was written by young adult author and illustrator Jan Adkins, a technical advisor for Allende's story. It is the story of how Spanish Alta California, Pueblo de Los Angeles, and the Californio vaquero heritage at the beginning of the 19th century shaped fifteen-year-old Diego de la Vega and his mute brother Bernardo to create their eventual shared identity as el Zorro, advocate and protector of the people.
Allende contributed an essay on the writing of the Zorro novel to Tales of Zorro, the first-ever anthology of original Zorro short fiction edited by Richard Dean Starr and published by Chicago-based Moonstone Books.
- The Legacy of the Fox: A Chronology of Zorro by Matthew Baugh.