Tag Archives: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

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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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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