Tag Archives: Don Quixote

The synopsis #amwriting

On Monday, we covered the query and cover letter. Today we are going over the synopsis, which is a short summary of your story or book. Indies will occasionally have to write a synopsis if they submit their longer work to contests, agents, or publishers.

When a contest or publisher asks for a synopsis, they don’t want a book blurb, which is a “this is why you should buy my book” teaser. They do want a short description filled with all the spoilers so that the work goes to the right editor or (in the case of a contest) reader.

Most submissions are electronic. I’ve mentioned before how important naming your files is. You want your work to be easily found, so don’t label your synopsis file “synopsis.doc.” Be specific and include the book title: Don_Quixote_Synopsis.doc

Try to be brief. For an average 300 – 400 page novel of less than 100,000 words, 500 to 800 words is good and won’t frighten off your intended editor/publisher. Length can vary—some agents and editors will want a longer synopsis, so be sure to check their website for their guidelines.

For a short story, a paragraph or so in the cover letter is usually all that is required for your synopsis.

Why do agents and editors want a synopsis when they can have the whole manuscript? They will ask for the first two or three chapters but are subject to time constraints. They don’t have time to read and judge an entire novel, so if they are interested at that point, they turn to the synopsis.

The synopsis, with its recounting of the events, will tell them if the rest of the book will keep the reader hooked. If they like the way the plot evolves, they will ask for the entire manuscript.

Your synopsis is not intended to entertain the editor. Your first few chapters should have done that. It is meant to be a brief, dry recounting of the who, what, where, when, and why of your entire novel.

If we are boiling a 350 page novel down to 500 – 800 words (which is only around one page), what do we include in our synopsis?

Harry Bingham of the UK’s largest literary consultancy, Jericho Writers, says:

A synopsis is a 500-800 word summary of your book that forms part of your agent submission pack. It should outline your plot in neutral non-salesy language and demonstrate a clear story arc. Every major plot twist, character, and any big turning point or climactic scene should get a mention. [1]

In other words:

  • Summarize your novel and include all the twists.
  • Don’t give it the hard sell.
  • Start at the beginning and hit the high points of the plot all the way to the end.

In this, as in most things, the internet is your friend. For a great article that includes both an excellent example of a synopsis, a good template, and many more details of how to write a synopsis, go to https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/.

The following synopsis is of a book published in 1605, and which is 1,072 pages long. A book of this length would require a 2,000 word synopsis to cover the high points.

400-word Synopsis of the first 10 chapters of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is a metafictional account of the mid-life crisis and adventures of a nobleman (hidalgo) from La Mancha named Alonso Quixano. The first chapters are taken from “the archives of La Mancha,” and the rest is translated from an Arabic text by the Moorish author Cide Hamete Benengeli.

Nearing 50 years of age and living in an unnamed section of La Mancha with his niece and housekeeper, Quixano is usually a rational man. He is obsessed with reading tales of chivalry and knights-errant. However, by not sleeping adequately because he was reading, Quixano is easily given to anger. He believes every word of his fictional books of chivalry to be true.

While he is asleep in his bed, his niece, the housekeeper, the parish curate, and the local barber burn most of his chivalric and other books. The priest must decide which books are bad for morality, so he can know them well enough to describe every naughty scene.

After the books are burned, the niece and priest seal up the room which contained the library, later telling Quixano that it was the action of a wizard.

The loss of his books causes him to lose his mind. Quixano decides to become a knight-errant. He will revive chivalry and serve his nation, under the name Don Quixote de la Mancha.

After a short period of feigning health, Don Quixote requests his neighbor, Sancho Panza, to be his squire, promising him a governorship. Sancho is a poor and simple farmer but is far more practical than Don Quixote. He agrees to the offer, sneaking away with Don Quixote in the early dawn.

They begin their quest to revive chivalry, starting with Don Quixote’s attack on windmills that he believes to be ferocious giants.

The two next encounter two Benedictine friars traveling on the road ahead of a lady in a carriage. The friars are not traveling with the lady but happen to be on the same road. Don Quixote believes the friars are enchanters who hold the lady captive. He knocks a friar from his horse and is challenged by an armed Basque traveling with the company.

As he has no shield, the Basque uses a pillow from the carriage to protect himself, which saves him when Don Quixote strikes him. The combat ends with the lady leaving her carriage and commanding those traveling with her to “surrender” to Don Quixote. [2]

I do recommend you go to the Jericho Writers site and follow their guidelines if you are asked for a synopsis. The article there is one of the most comprehensive and useful ones I’ve read anywhere. Again, that article can be found at https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] How To Write A Novel Synopsis: Includes Template & Example, © 2019  by Harry Bingham, https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/ (Accessed 03 Mar 2020).

[2] 400 word Synopsis of the first 10 chapters of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, condensed from Wikipedia.  Wikipedia contributors, “Don Quixote,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Don_Quixote&oldid=943081150 (accessed 10 Mar 2020).

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

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

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Wilhelm Marstrand, Don Quixote og Sancho Panza ved en skillevej, uden datering (efter 1847), 0119NMK, Nivaagaards Malerisamling.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Wilhelm_Marstrand,_Don_Quixote_og_Sancho_Panza_ved_en_skillevej,_uden_datering_(efter_1847),_0119NMK,_Nivaagaards_Malerisamling.jpg&oldid=376321256 (accessed March 10, 2020).

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What I’ve learned from Miguel Cervantes #amreading

In the book we know familiarly as Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes wrote a brilliant, enduring story, one that has survived intact since it was first published in 1605.

Cervantes himself had a fantastic history, a story which could have been written as a novel.

Born in 1547 to an impoverished Spanish doctor, Miguel was better educated than many of his time, although exactly where he was educated is not known. He joined the army at twenty-one.

In 1575, pirates kidnapped Cervantes and his brother and sold them as slaves to the Moors. Originally from Morocco, the Moors were Muslims and were the longtime adversaries of Catholic Spain, which they had once conquered.

History says Cervantes was taken to Algiers. His three or four attempts to escape his slavery were unsuccessful, but finally, he was ransomed in 1580 and returned to Spain.

Upon gaining his freedom, he worked in many clerical capacities, notably as a purchasing agent for the Spanish navy (i.e., the Spanish King). His unfortunate trust in an Andalucían banker with whom he had deposited Crown funds led to his imprisonment for a few months in Seville, after said banker went bankrupt.

It was during his stay in prison that the story of Don Quixote was born. All his life, Cervantes had to work a day job to support himself, writing at night and whenever he had the chance. Prison offered him the chance to spend his entire day writing.

In Don Quixote, Cervantes took many risks with vocabulary. He had as immense an effect on the Spanish language as William Shakespeare did English.

Sayings you might hear every day 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.

Only in the final ten years of his life did Cervantes achieve literary success, and even then, he struggled to support himself.

Cervantes divided Don Quixote into three sections, each with a different perspective:

In the first section of the First Part, which covered Don Quixote’s first expedition, he wrote a parody of contemporary romance tales. Cervantes tells this section in a straightforward style.

The second section (comprising the rest of the First Part) is written as if it were a historical account. Here, Cervantes tells us he’s merely translating the manuscript of Cide Hamete Benengeli. He often breaks the fourth wall, interrupting the narrative to mention Benengeli. He remarks on the “internal inconsistencies” in Benengeli’s manuscript. It is broken into chapters at intervals, and Cervantes records the events of each of Don Quixote’s days.

The third section (which covers the Second Part of the novel) is different. It was written as a traditional novel might be. Emotions, large themes, and strong character development are features of this section. Here, Cervantes has gotten a grip on the story arc and the characters.

It is in this third section that Cervantes himself enters the novel as a character. He casts himself as a synthesis of the fictional Benengeli and Cervantes the author.

This is a morality tale. The character Don Quixote strives to be an example, becoming a knight-errant as a way to force his contemporaries to face their failures. In his eyes, they have abandoned the traditions of morality and the chivalric code.

This conflict between tradition and modern values becomes a stalemate. No one understands Don Quixote, and he understands no one.

Only Sancho, his good-hearted, loyal friend can intercede between Don Quixote and the rest of the world. Yet, Sancho, a modern man of the peasant class (and with his own agenda) has a basic understanding of morality. He alone is able to interpret for Don Quixote, acting as a mediator. Sancho quite often agrees with the morals of his day but then surprises us by supporting Don Quixote’s outdated ethics and chivalry.

Toward the end is where it gets a bit out of hand. The characters are aware of the books that have been written about them. They try to alter the content of subsequent editions. This complicates things mightily. At times, we readers feel as disoriented as the mad knight, unable to tell which plotlines are internal to the story and which are factual.

I believe that disorientation was intentional on the author’s part.

I’ve learned several things from Cervantes’s wonderful story of the mad knight, Don Quixote, but I will explore only two.

First, its clear that minor flaws will be ignored by the reader if the story is compelling enough. It was so wildly popular in its day that it inspired publication of an unauthorized continuation, a true fan fiction written by an unknown writer who masqueraded under the name of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda.

It’s unclear if Cervantes knew the true identity of the superfan. But he wasn’t amused; indeed, he went to great lengths to write “the true continuation of the story,” mocking and poking fun at the fanfiction in many places in his work.

Second, my belief that charismatic characters and epic conflicts of morality make a great story was reinforced.

Cervantes challenged the notion that social class and worth were entwined. He shows that Nobility of Birth does not necessarily confer wisdom or kindness. In the Duke and Duchess, he gives us thoughtless cruelty, casually delivered purely for its entertainment value. In the peasant, Sancho, he shows us a wise, kind, and thoughtful man. In the shepherds, he gives us philosophers.

I’m not suggesting you have to read modern translations of classic Spanish literature. I do suggest you read something new every day, though. Reading a variety of genres opens our eyes to new ideas and widens our minds.

Reading makes us better writers.

It was this laying bare of the disparity between social class and human worth that made Don Quixote such a revolutionary work in its time. This is also why it endures today as one of the foundations of the Western Literary Canon.

I highly recommend Edith Grossman’s modern translation, which was published in 2003. For those of you who feel you’re too impatient to read literary fiction, this wonderful version is available as an audio book.


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#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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