Tag Archives: Don Quixote

#FineArtFriday: Don Quixote in the Library, by Adolf Schrödter

An area of art I haven’t discussed, but which has often been a primary reason why I buy books, is the illustrations. The artwork that went into many books in the 19th and early 20th centuries was sometimes exquisite. Yet, these illustrators remained unknown for the most part and unsung. Today’s image is from Wikimedia Commons and is by a German artist, Adolf Schrödter.

Little is known about Schrödter other than he was born on June 28, 1805, and died Dec. 9, 1875, and was a genre painter of the Düsseldorf school of painting. According to Wikipedia, the Fount of All Knowledge:

The Düsseldorf School had a significant influence on the Hudson River School in the United States, and many prominent Americans trained at the Düsseldorf Academy and show the influence of the Düsseldorf School, including George Caleb BinghamDavid Edward CroninEastman JohnsonWorthington WhittredgeRichard Caton WoodvilleWilliam Stanley HaseltineJames McDougal HartHelen Searle, and William Morris Hunt, as well as German émigré Emanuel LeutzeAlbert Bierstadt applied but was not accepted. His American friend Worthington Whittredge became his teacher while attending Düsseldorf.

However, some of Schrödter’s art survives in the form of illustrations and a few prints have been sold at auctions.

In today’s image what impresses me is the level of detail. Here we see Alonso Quixano reading, lounging in a room that is clearly a book lover’s sanctuary. He is a descendant of the family of “Gutierre Quijada” by direct lineage and is proud to be part of a long and noble tradition of knights. In the first part of the book, Alonso, later Don Quixote de la Mancha, is a dreamer, preferring to imagine himself as a superhero, living out a knightly story.

Books are strewn everywhere, beautiful, heavy leather-bound tomes. Schrödter shows him in a relaxed pose, deep into a book. The light of the room comes from a large window. He is a very human, ordinary middle-aged man, relaxing in the most cherished place in his universe: his library.

Alonso Quixano, the protagonist of the novel (though he is not named until much later in the book), is a retired country gentleman nearing fifty years of age, living in La Mancha with his niece and housekeeper. Although he is mostly a rational man, his excessive reading of books of chivalry has produced a skewed view of reality and what we might consider dementia. In keeping with the theories of the time, not sleeping adequately—because he was reading—has caused his brain to dry.

I love that notion.

As a result, Alonso is easily given to anger and believes every word of these fictional books of chivalry to be true. Don Quixote’s niece commits, what is to me, the most heinous crime–she and the Parrish curate burn his library, and lie to him, telling him it was the work of an evil magician.

He descends completely into his fantasy world and decides to become a knight-errant in search of adventure. Schrödter has captured the essence of the making of Don Quixote in this painting—the man who loves books is in his element, the one place where he fits. When that is taken from him, the story begins.


Credits and Attributions:

Don Quixote in the Library, by Adolf Schrödter, 1834 PD|100, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia contributors, “Düsseldorf school of painting,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=D%C3%BCsseldorf_school_of_painting&oldid=822264175 (accessed August 3, 2018).

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Literary or Genre Fantasy? #amreading

A question was recently asked in a Facebook authors’ group that centers around literary fiction, “What is literary fantasy?”

The answer is complicated, and many people who are hardcore readers of obscure literary fiction will radically disagree with me: Some work qualifies as literary fantasy because of the way in which the story is delivered. Because of the style in which they’re written, these books appeal to a much broader fan base than work pigeonholed into either the “genre fantasy category” or the “literary fiction category.”

Each story has a life of its own. Authors envision how that tale must be set down, and some stories that take place in a fantasy setting are focused on the characters and their internal journey more than on the external experiences. That focus on the internal rather than the external is a literary trope. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well. Allusive prose, steeped in allegory, is also a literary trope. Place those tropes and your characters in a fantasy setting, and you have literary fantasy.

Consider Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, volume I, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and volume II, The Ingenious Knight,  written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age. As a founding work of modern Western literature, and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published.

Yet, it is a fantasy, written about a man who believes he is a superhero.

Don Quixote had a major influence on the literary community, as shown by direct references in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

Among modern work, in my opinion, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairy tale about a young man’s internal journey to manhood, steeped in allegory, and told with beautiful, poetic prose in an unhurried fashion.

Within the burgeoning population of authors who are just learning the craft, opinions regarding style and voice run high and loud. Among readers, those who love  and seek out literary fiction are deemed “snooty” while those who love the sheer entertainment offered by genre fiction are deemed “unschooled.” Readers are just people after all–there are haters on both sides of the literary aisle.

Let’s talk about Stardust. According to those critique groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge, in the very first sentence of chapter one, Gaiman commits the most heinous crime an author can commit: he tells the story with leisurely, poetic prose.

Quote: There once was a young man who wished to gain his heart’s desire. 

Those narcissistic gurus armed with tattered copies of Strunk and White, and limited talent of their own really lose their minds over what he does after that first sentence:

  1. He sets the scene: In a style reminiscent of traditional fairy-tales, he explains how our hero, Tristam, lives in the village of Wall. It’s a tiny town about a night’s drive from London. A giant wall stands next to the town, giving the place its name.
  2. He goes on to explain that there’s only one spot to pass through this huge grey rock wall, and it’s always guarded by two villagers at a time, and they are vigilant at their task.
  3. Gaiman comments that this guarding of the gap is peculiar because all one can see through the break in the wall is meadows and trees. It looks as if nothing frightening or strange could be happening there, and yet no one is allowed to go through the break in the wall.
  4. Only then does he bring us to the point: Once every nine years, always on May Day, a unique, traveling fair comes to the meadow. That is the only day the guards ever take a break from their posts on the gap in the wall.

I can hear the group’s de facto emperor pontificating now. What was Gaiman thinking, starting a fantasy novel with a telling, passive sentence followed by an info dump? Why, everyone knows real authors only use active prose and never, ever, offer information up front.

To that breathless expert, I say “not true, my less-than-widely-read friend.” Lean prose can be leisurely and poetic and still pack a punch. That is what true writing is all about, conveying a story in a style that is crafted and has a voice that is uniquely that of the author.

That is why I consider Stardust literary fantasy.

In Stardust, each character is given a certain amount of importance, and even minor players are clearly drawn. The circumstances and events gradually pick up speed, and in the end, the reader is left pondering what might have happened after the final words on the last page.

If you saw the movie that is loosely based on the book but haven’t read the novel,  you might be surprised at how different the book is from the movie. There are no cross-dressing sky pirates in the book, although Robert De Niro was awesome in that role in the movie. The movie bears little resemblance to the book, and, like The Hobbit movie, should be looked at as a different entity entirely.

In the opening lines of Gaiman’s Stardust, nothing unimportant is mentioned although the prose meanders in a literary way. Yes, he takes the long way, but the journey is the best part of this fairy tale. He never devolves into florid, overblown purple prose, yet it has a poetic feel.

In my opinion, the arrogant perception of “fantasy” as having no literary merit is complete hogwash when you look at the books that make up the western cannon of great literature. ALL of them are fantasies of one sort or another, beginning with Don Quixote and going forward, and all of them were created for the enjoyment of the masses.

True authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.

You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. Read old books and new–but read. When you come across authors whose work deeply moves you, study how they crafted the sentences that moved you. You may find yourself learning from the masters.


Credits and Attributions:

Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

First UK edition cover of Neil Gaiman‘s novel Stardust, Illustrator: Charles Vess, Publisher Avon Books, Publication date: 1 February 1999, via Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use.

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#amwriting: Tolkien, one-star reviews, and our shifting language

the hobbit movie poster 3Tolkien did NOT use too many words in The Hobbit, and the movie was NOT better.

The book is one thing, and the movies are something else completely. The movies, while they are awesome, exciting, and great fun, do bear some relation to the actual book. The basic plot, some of the high points, and various characters are all taken from the book. However, the movie most certainly does not chronicle the tale as Tolkien originally wrote it.

In the book (for starters) while elves are long lived and it is accepted that he must have been alive at the time, Legolas was not a character. Therefore, he did not have a love interest featured in the book. So, no– Tauriel did not exist in the book, The Hobbit. But she did in the movie, The Desolation of Smaug, and she was a great character there. In reality, no female elves are featured in the original book, The Hobbit, in more than passing, so that pretty much scotched any chance of romance for Kili in the novel.

If you read the credits at the end of the movies, you will see it clearly says “BASED ON” the book, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Now, let me address the concept of “too many words,” a direct quote from one of the many one-star reviews of the book,  The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, and posted on Amazon several years ago:

J.R.R. Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. That tells us he was educated, but he was writing stories for his children when he wrote The Hobbit and developed the world of Middle Earth. Because of that connection to his children, we know he was writing at a level they could understand. A master of languages, he invented the elfin language. We should assume he had a moderately good grasp of the English language as well.

What modern readers may not realize is this: Tolkien was writing in the early part of the twentieth century. He served in the British army during the First World War, the notorious War To End All Wars. That war was fought one hundred years ago.  Things were different then, he wrote in the literary style of his time.

The problem with the book is not in Tolkien’s writing. It is in the eye of the modern beholder who has no appreciation for the literary style of that era. That is a fair consideration, as reading the literature of this era takes time and persistence, and many readers don’t have the patience. No reader should feel guilty for not enjoying a book their friends loved. It happens to me all the time.

the hobbit movie posterThe Hobbit remains a classic of modern literature because it details that intrinsic thing all great novels consider, the search for self. That quest to discover who we are and what we are capable of is what drives Bilbo to keep going, even in the face of terrible events. Underneath the trappings of fantasy, the elves and goblins represent humanity in all its many imperfections, as does the hobbit himself.

Writers of modern fantasy might try to read what the early masters of the genre wrote, and discover what made their work classics. It will be difficult because the gap between the style and usages of today’s English versus the English of even one hundred years ago is widening with each passing year.

Readers must be patient and set aside their knowledge of what works in today’s literature. In other words, stop looking AT the words as disparate parts that you could write better, and read them in context. You might be surprised at what you will find.

Writers are always readers, and Tolkien often discussed his fondness for the work of William Morris (b.1834 – d.1896). Morris was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and English Arts and Crafts Movement. Tolkien and many of his contemporaries loved Morris’s prose- and poetry-romances.

Tolkien himself said his own work followed the general style and approach of Morris’s work. The Desolation of Smaug portrays dragons as detrimental to landscape, a motif borrowed directly from Morris. Tolkien had what he considered an accepted canon for how dragons should behave to work from.

But exactly what does “canon” mean in the context of a literary genre?

Wikipedia says, “In fictioncanon is the material accepted as officially part of the story in an individual universe of that story. It is often contrasted with, or used as the basis for, works of fan fiction. The alternative terms mythologytimeline, and continuity are often used, with the former being especially to refer to a richly detailed fictional canon requiring a large degree of suspension of disbelief (e.g. an entire imaginary world and history), while the latter two typically refer to a single arc where all events are directly connected chronologically. Other times, the word can mean “to be acknowledged by the creator(s).”

The modern image and mythology of the elf as he is written into most of today’s fantasy has been directly modeled on the elves of Tolkien’s Rivendell, whether the author knows it or not. Even the elves we find in the onslaught of modern urban-fantasy-romances are created in Tolkien’s image—close to the earth, immortal, and somehow nobler and more clever than we mere humans.

The love of a beautifully crafted tale will always endure. While future generations may have to learn to read and understand English as we speak it today, a true appreciation of Tolkien’s influence on modern epic fantasy literature will live on.

hobbit-battle-five-armies-bilbo-posterWhen I decided to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their original form, I had to take a college class. In that class we learned to read and understand Middle English, and then wrote our own modern translations. It was a lot of fun, but many great modern translations are out there if you don’t have the patience to read the original.

In the future, modern translations of Tolkien’s work will be published, and new fans of his work will emerge, just as in the case of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a novel fully titled The history of the valorous and wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha. It was written in early modern Spanish (the equivalent of Shakespearean English) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. New translations are published every few decades.

So, Tolkien didn’t use too many words, and the movies were not better than his books. They were good, but they were different stories, one based on the other, but not following it.


Wikipedia contributors, “Canon (fiction),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Canon_(fiction)&oldid=760595154  (accessed January 17, 2017).

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Don Quixote

Don Quixote in the library Adolf Schrödter 1834

Don Quixote in the library by Adolf Schrödter 1834

Lately I have been on a Don Quixote binge. Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, volume I, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and volume II, The Ingenious Knight,  written by by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedrais considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the entire Spanish literary canon (a body of books traditionally accepted by scholars as the most important and influential in shaping culture.)

As a founding work of modern Western literature,and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published, such as the Bokklubben World Library ( a series of classical books, mostly novels, published by the Norwegian Book Club since 2002) collection which cites Don Quixote as authors’ choice for the “best literary work ever written.” It is also said that the two parts of this masterpiece have been  translated into more languages than any book other than the Bible. 

Don Quixote had major influence on the literary community, as shown by direct references in Alexandre DumasThe Three Musketeers (1844) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

The Story:

Alonso Quixano, the protagonist of the novel (though he is not named until much later in the book), is a retired country gentleman nearing fifty years of age, living in La Mancha with his niece and housekeeper. Although he is mostly a rational man, his excessive reading of books of chivalry has produced a skewed view of reality and what we might consider dementia. In keeping with the theories of the time, not sleeping adequately–because he was reading–has caused his brain to dry. (I LOVE that!) As a result, he is easily given to anger and believes every word of these fictional books of chivalry to be true.

Don Quixote’s niece commits, what is to me, the most heinous crime–she and the Parrish curate burn his library, and lie to him, telling him it was the work of an evil magician. Criminal!!!

He decides to become a knight-errant in search of adventure. To these ends, he dons an old suit of armor, renames himself “Don Quixote”,  and renames his poor old horse “Rocinante.” Cervantes was a genius when he penned the horse–Rocinante is not only Don Quixote’s horse, but is a reflection of Don Quixote himself, ungraceful, past his prime, and in way over his head.

Don Quixote asks his neighbor, Sancho Panza, to be his squire, promising to make him governor of an island. Sancho agrees, and the pair sneak off in the early dawn. At this point their adventures begin, starting with Don Quixote’s attack on the windmills.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra created a wonderful, hilarious masterpiece when he penned Don Quixote. Even in today’s society the plot is relevant and and the characters leap off the pages. The extremes of the human condition are all laid out in glorious prose that has been beautifully translated to English in 2003 by Edith Grossman. The New York Times called Grossman’s translation a “major literary achievement.”

In the original version of Don Quixote there are basically two different types of Castilian Spanish: Old Castilian is spoken only by Don Quixote, while the rest of the roles speak a modern version of Spanish. The Old Castilian of Don Quixote is for comic relief – he copies the language spoken in the chivalric books that made him crazy; and many times, when he talks nobody is able to understand him because his language is too old. This comedic effect translates well to Modern English when the translator has Don Quixote use  Shakespearean English phrases.

I write fantasy, and I read widely. But to those purists who decry the work of genre fiction writers as being “created for the masses,” I would like to say this: it is quite clear that the modern perception of “fantasy” as having no literary merit is complete hogwash when you look at the books that make up the western cannon of great literature. ALL of them are fantasies of one sort or another, beginning with Don Quixote and going forward, and all of them were created for the enjoyment of the masses.

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