by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)
The three greatest books/literary works of all time have been said by many scholars to be the Authorized English Bible, Shakespeare-complete, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Interestingly, all, including the King James’ version of the Bible, were written almost simultaneously, circa 1600. Yet, in 2002, 100 famous writers from 54 countries voted DQ “the best work of fiction in the world,” but most of us have little or no recollection of it; it was among those classics that we read (or didn’t) at the speed of light the night before a test and never thought about it again. So, what did you/we miss? A slice of literary heaven!
Don Quixote was published in 1605, when Cervantes was 58 and was the author’s first published work. Generally considered “the first modern novel”, its techniques have been emulated by Dickens, Joyce, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Proust et al to the present. Cervantes and his contemporary, Shakespeare, are considered the central Western authors, with only Dickens thereafter being generally held to be in the same league. Cervantes, like Shakespeare, is known for his stimulating dialogue; Shakespeare taught us how to talk to ourselves (“To be or not to be…”), while Cervantes taught us how to talk to each other (via the intellectual exchanges between DQ and his inimitable squire, Sancho Panza). If Cicero was right (that “The purpose of drama is to teach and delight”), then the 1,000-page epic DQ is a Gothic success, as it is filled with the elevated prose that characterized the early Renaissance, well laced with instructive, timeless apothegms, proverbs and original admonitions (with literally hundreds of sayings that survive today), all interwoven in story lines (peppered with poems) that rivet the reader, and, amazingly, amuse on virtually every page. While superbly comic, like Shakespeare, DQ is no more a comedy than is Hamlet.
Cervantes wrote in his native Spanish tongue, but the translations are brilliant. The spelling of “Quijote” was changed by a translator to “Quixote” to capitalize on the analogy to the word quixotic, which word has grown to become synonymous with the Cervantes’ hero. Also known as “The Knight of La Mancha” and as “The Knight of The Sorrowful Face” (as he lost his front teeth in a ludicrous battle), the delusion-possessed but imperious and eloquent Quixote was a “knight errant” (i.e., a knight roving in search of adventure), who effectively knighted himself (after becoming “mad” reading endless books about chivalry and King Arthur’s Court). Quixote’s “lady fair” (Dulcina of Toboso) was not the dispossessed princess whom DQ imagined but, rather, a bar maid! Quixote devoted his life to chivalrous deeds in the mostly knightly (and humorously insane) tradition.
Accompanied by his faithful squire, Sancho Panza (an illiterate farmer who articulated some of the most profound dialogue in all of fiction), Quixote rode his literarily famous “nag of skin and bones”, Rocinante, whom DQ fancied to be a steed of great size and value, while Squire-Panza rode a comically lethargic donkey, when not on foot. Quixote lacked the funds to buy proper armor; so, he wore garments that made everyone laugh at the site of him; his original helmet was held together with rope; so, he didn’t take it off until it was destroyed; the guard over his mouth was so heavy and rusted that the maids had to hold it up while he ate; his subsequent helmet was barber’s “basin”, which Quixote insisted was a full-fledged helmet of great value, “although lacking a visor”. Quixote’s hilarious delusions have no bounds; for example, he mistakes a flock of sheep and its shepherds for a group of peasants being mistreated by some bullies; he attacks the shepherds and “frees” the sheep, but at no small cost to his and Panza’s health.
In one adventure after another, the manically fearless Quixote and squire-Panza attempt to save maidens in distress, prisoners in chains, unpaid laborers, etc., but they are thrashed, often almost to death, by those whom they accost. The visual images of Quixote and Panza and the dialogue are priceless. The prose and vocabulary are intimidating, brilliant, elegant, elevated, flowing, flowery and profound – the pinnacle of post-Chaucer Renaissance prose. The one-liners coin unforgettable concepts: “Fear has many eyes.” “The one who hurts you is the one who loves you.” “No speech is pleasing if it is long.” “Don’t ask a favor for what you can take by force.” “Misfortunes always pursue the talented.” “Doing good for the low born is like throwing water into the sea.” “Love, in young men, is nothing but appetite…which ends when it has achieved its ultimate goal, pleasure.” “Self-praise is self-debasement.” “Continued and extraordinary difficulties take away the memory of the one who suffers them.” “There is no bad time for a gift.” “The man without honor is worse than dead.” “If the impossible you demand, for you the possible is banned.” “Each man is the child of his actions.” “The one who insults is close to forgiving.” “All praise sits well, no matter how hyperbolic.” Cervantes’ poetic metaphors and similes have few peers: e.g., referring to his “lady fair” as “…day of my night, glory of my grief, star of my good fortune…”
In the end, Quixote, after being imprisoned for a time, suffers a major defeat that ends his days as a knight. Nearing his deathbed, he overcomes his madness and eschews chivalry, recognizing its absurdities and deceptions; he renames himself “Alonso Quixano, the Good”, and he realizes that the goal of life is not to conquer others but to conquer oneself. Quixote’s gentle disposition to kindness and his noble intentions made him dearly loved by all who knew him, even those who laughed at his insanity.
What do we know about Cervantes (1547-1616)? Like so many great writers, who were exiled, imprisoned or worse by their governments (e.g., Voltaire, Bacon, Marlowe, Ben Johnson, O’Henry), Cervantes was captured by pirates and enslaved for years in Algiers; he later served Spain as a spy, but he was convicted and imprisoned twice, first for taking a bribe while serving as a tax collector and later for some other offense. He wrote some 20 plays but none was ever performed or published. He began writing DQ in jail and completed and published Part I in record time, but he was fleeced of all royalties by his publisher, and would have died in abject poverty save for the largess of a patron who admired his work. Cervantes likely never knew of the very prosperous Shakespeare (who was a part owner of The Globe Theater), but the latter had read translations of DQ. These giants died almost simultaneously, Cervantes at 69, Shakespeare at 52, leaving terrestrial holes through which vacuous winds still blow.
Don Quixote, a vintage 1500 knight errant, strived to revive the glories of fading feudalism, which was perishing in the “future shock” of an emerging Renaissance-Industrial Era. He was the last of kind. While Hamlet cared only for himself, Quixote was a singularity who cared for all who needed help. At the touching end of this literary masterpiece, the reader loves Don Quixote and his inimitable squire, Sancho Panza, immensely. Good Samaritans are really “too good to be true”, but these two were the real McCoy. Some degree of madness may be required to support such a pure heart? Cervantes (who some say “was Quixote”, due to the biographical parallels) makes us hate to release his altruistic heroes, and, when we do, as we must, we may recall the lines of Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night”, the magical musical-slide-show tribute to Vincent Vangogh:
“I could have told you, Vincent, This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
An attribution equally deserved by Cervantes and his Knight Errant, Don Quixote.