The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is known today as Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. If you are a regular here at Life in the Realm of Fantasy, you may know I am a Don Quixote fangirl.
The main character, Alonso Quijano, is possessed of a mighty imagination. In search of chivalric adventure, he becomes Don Quixote, the great knight of La Mancha.
I believe my early exposure to this book was the subconscious inspiration for the Achilles heel of my own great knight, Julian Lackland. Both men believe in the chivalric code, and both are a wee bit insane. However, the plots and narratives have no other commonalities.
I first came into contact with Don Quixote when I was given a children’s illustrated version of the novel for my eighth birthday. I read that book, cover to cover until it fell apart.
The summer I turned ten, I was scavenging the house for something to read and discovered my father’s personal library. He had the entire collection of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. To my surprise, volume 29 was Don Quixote as translated by John Ormsby.
Several years ago, I bought Edith Grossman‘s modern translation, published in 2003. I think her translation is the best of all that I have read. This excellent version is available as an audiobook for those too impatient to read literary fiction. It does require a bit of perseverance.
Cervantes wrote a brilliant, enduring story that has survived intact since it was first published in 1605. He took many risks with the vocabulary of his native language. He had as immense an effect on the Spanish language as William Shakespeare did on English.
The themes in Don Quixote’s story are timeless, as are his quirks and flaws.
The conflict between the modern world and outmoded values – No one understands Don Quixote, and he understands no one. Sancho, a modern man of the peasant class (and with his own agenda), has a basic understanding of morality that is rooted in common sense. Sancho often agrees with the morals of his day but then surprises us by supporting Don Quixote’s outdated ethics and chivalry.
Knightly virtues – This is a morality tale. Don Quixote strives to present himself as an example, becoming a knight-errant as a way to force his contemporaries to face their failures. In his eyes, noble society has abandoned honor. They have turned their backs on the traditions of morality and the chivalric code. His duty is to show them the way back to righteousness.
The nature of reality – Don Quixote doesn’t understand the priest’s rational view of the world or his objectives. Conversely, Quixote’s belief in enchantment is ludicrous to the priest, but it is real to him. Only Sancho, his good-hearted, loyal friend, can mediate between Don Quixote and society. He interprets for Quixote, a buffer who translates his philosophies to the world, and in turn, explains the world to him.
The Distinction between Class and Worth – Cervantes gives us philosophers in the walk-on characters, the shepherds. He challenges the notion that social class and worth are entwined. Cervantes demonstrates that Nobility of Birth does not necessarily confer wisdom or kindness. In the characters of the Duke and Duchess, he gives us thoughtless cruelty, casually delivered purely for its entertainment value.
These themes share equally in supporting Don Quixote’s narrative. The plot may wander, and so does the protagonist, but the themes keep the narrative glued together.
Quixote’s insanity is gentle and easy to sympathize with—he can’t understand the harshness of the people around him. He is a man of action and a champion of the oppressed.
And being a man of action, Don Quixote’s efforts frequently are not appreciated by those victims he steps up to help.
“For the love of God, sir knight errant, if you ever meet me again, please, even if you see me being cut into little pieces, don’t rush to my aid or try to help me, but just let me be miserable, because no matter what they’re doing to me it couldn’t be worse than what will happen if your grace helps, so may God curse you and every knight errant who’s ever been born in the world.”
~Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, 1605 
The life of Miguel de Cervantes was worthy of a novel in its own right. In 1575, pirates kidnapped Cervantes and his brother and sold them as slaves to the Moors. Originally from Morocco, the Moors were the longtime adversaries of Catholic Spain, which they had once conquered.
Cervantes was taken to Algiers. His three or four attempts to escape his slavery were unsuccessful. Finally, he was ransomed in 1580 and returned to Spain.
He was a true indie author, a genius who never earned much from his writing and didn’t expect to. He just wanted to write.
After gaining his freedom from the Moors, he worked in many clerical capacities, notably as a purchasing agent for the Spanish navy (i.e., the Spanish King). His ill-placed trust in Simon Freire, an Andalusian banker with whom he had deposited Crown funds, led to his imprisonment for a few months in Seville after Freire went bankrupt. 
Here are a few sayings you might hear every day in one form or another that were coined by Cervantes:
- By a small sample we may judge of the whole piece.
- Can we ever have too much of a good thing?
- No limits but the sky.
- Why do you lead me a wild-goose chase?
- Thank you for nothing.
- Let every man mind his own business.
- The pot calls the kettle black.
- Tilting at windmills.
Don Quixote’s story of insane genius and chivalric mayhem was born when Cervantes went to prison. All his life, Cervantes had to work a day job to support himself, writing at night and whenever he had the chance. Although he was wrongfully incarcerated, prison allowed him to spend his entire day writing.
Credits and Attributions:
 Quote: Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, 1605 PD\100.
 Information Source:
Royal provision of the judge of the Degrees of Seville, Bernardo de Olmedilla, to collect the assets of Simón Freire de Lima, amount that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra had given him. Date 1595-08-07. Cervantes Universe (universocervantes.com)
Image: Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.