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Don Quijote (Part 1--1605, Part 2--1615) () Top 100 Books of the Millenium

Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes must surely be one of the most transcendent failures in all of human history.  A failure because it was his stated intent to parody the chivalric romances of his day by ridiculing Alonso Quijano, a middle age man who falls prey to bibliomania and sets out to become a knight errant; luminous because the Don instead emerged as one of the most beloved heroes in all of literature.

The set up of the novel (which was written in two parts) is fairly simple.  Don Quijote, a previously respectable country gentleman, has gone insane from continually reading books of chivalry:

    This gentleman in the times when he had nothing to do-as was the case for most of the year-gave
    himself to the reading of books of knight errantry; which he loved and enjoyed so much that he
    almost entirely forgot his hunting, and even the care of his estate. So odd and foolish, indeed, did
    he grow on this subject that he sold many acres of cornland to buy these books of chivalry to read.
    ... [In the end], he so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till
    daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain
    dried up and he lost his wits.

Unable to distinguish fiction from reality, he sets out to become a knight and to earn the love of his lady Dulcinea, accompanied by a somewhat greedy Sancho Panza who pretends to be his squire.  He suffers a long series of misadventures, the most famous of which is the battle with the windmills:

    At this point they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that are on that plain.

    "Fortune," said Don Quixote to his squire, as soon as he had seen them, "is arranging matters for us
    better than we could have hoped. Look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous
    giants rise up, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall
    begin to make our fortunes. For this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so
    evil a breed from off the face of the earth."

    "What giants?" said Sancho Panza.

    "Those you see there," answered his master, "with the long arms, and some have them nearly two
    leagues long."

    "Look, your worship,' said Sancho. "What we see there are not giants but windmills, and what
    seem to be their arms are the vanes that turned by the wind make the millstone go."

    "It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that you are not used to this business of adventures. Those
    are giants, and if you are afraid, away with you out of here and betake yourself to prayer, while I
    engage them in fierce and unequal combat."

    So saying, he gave the spur to his steed Rocinante, heedless of the cries his squire Sancho sent after
    him, warning him that most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to attack.
    He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor
    perceived, near as he was, what they were.

    "Fly not, cowards and vile beings," he shouted, "for a single knight attacks you."

    A slight breeze at this moment sprang up, and the great vanes began to move.

    "Though ye flourish more arms than the giant Briareus, ye have to reckon with me!" exclaimed
    Don Quixote, when he saw this.

    So saying, he commended himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, imploring her to support
    him in such a peril. With lance braced and covered by his shield, he charged at Rocinante's fullest
    gallop and attacked the first mill that stood in front of him. But as he drove his lance-point into the
    sail, the wind whirled it around with such force that it shivered the lance to pieces. It swept away
    with it horse and rider, and they were sent rolling over the plain, in sad condition indeed.

    Sancho hastened to his assistance as fast as the ass could go. When he came up and found Don
    Quixote unable to move, with such an impact had Rocinante fallen with him.

    "God Bless me!," said Sancho, "did I not tell your worship to watch what you were doing, because
    they were only windmills? No one could have made any mistake about it unless he had something
    of the same kind in his head."

    "Silence, friend Sancho," replied Don Quixote. "The fortunes of war more than any other are liable
    to frequent fluctuations. Moreover I think, and it is the truth, that the same sage Frestón who
    carried off my study and books, has turned these giants into mills in order to rob me of the glory of
    vanquishing them, such is the enmity he bears me. But in the end his wicked arts will avail but little
    against my good sword."

This is the pattern for the tale: the Don misperceives threats in the innocent and mundane events of every day life; Sancho Panza tries to disabuse him of these notions but loyally supports him after failing to do so; the Don does battle, often suffering ignominious defeat; whereupon he claims that sorcery has intervened.  Throughout, Cervantes has great fun at the Don's expense.  He is a figure of ridicule and scorn, not of mere amusement.  But in the end, when Don Quijote is finally returning home after losing a battle with the Knight of the White Moon, Don Antonio Moreno speaks for all of us when he implores one of Quijote's friends who has come to fetch him:

    Ah, sir, may God forgive you for the damage you've done to the whole rest of the world, in trying
    to cure the wittiest lunatic ever seen!  Don't you see, my dear sir, that whatever utility there might
    be in curing him, it could never match the pleasure he gives with his madness?  But I suspect that,
    despite all your cleverness, sir, you cannot possibly cure a man so far gone in madness, and, if
    charity did not restrain me, I would say that Don Quijote ought never to be rendered sane, because
    if he were he would lose, not only his witticisms, but those of Sancho Panza, his squire, any one of
    which has the power to turn melancholy into happiness.

And finally, when Don Quijote lies on his death bed, fully sane and renouncing his own deeds, even Sancho Panza begs him not to abandon their chivalric quests.  Ultimately, though reality has been imposed upon the Don, his romantic vision has inspired those around him.

In truth, regardless of Cervantes' original intention, it is hard to imagine that he did not realize that readers would identify with the luminous idealism of Don Quijote.  For who among us would prefer the dictates of mundane reality to the romantic vision of the Man of La Mancha?  If it was not Cervantes' intent that Don Quijote's dreams inspire us, that has nonetheless been the effect for nearly four hundred years now.  This novel is the wellspring of Western fiction and, though it won't hurt anyone to read an abridged version, unquestionably one of the greatest novels ever written.  Whatever you do, be sure to read it in the great recent Burton Raffel translation; his vibrant prose renders the text totally accessible and it is a true joy to read.


Grade: (A+)


Miquel Cervantes Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Miguel de Cervantes
    -ENTRY: Miguel de Cervantes (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -ESSAY: The Enchantment of Don Quixote: Disturbance and wonder transform ordinary life in the work of Miguel de Cervantes. (Noël M. Valis, April 12, 2024, Modern Age)
    -ESSAY: Don Quixote, the Hidden Knight (Robert Lazu Kmita , 10/03/23, European Conservative)
    -PODCAST: On the Storied Life of Miguel de Cervantes and His Greatest Creation, Don Quixote: This Week on the History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson (History of Literature, June 7, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Don Quixote Tells Us How the Star Wars Franchise Ends: We can predict what will happen to Disney brand franchises by studying how past pop culture narratives collapsed (Ted Gioia, 11/09/22, Honest Broker)
    -ESSAY: What Don Quixote Reveals About an Empire At Its Peak: Giles Tremlett on the Baroque Decadence of Spain’s Golden Age (Giles Tremlett, 9/27/22, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Don Quixote: Saintly Knight (Brittany Guzman, January 15th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Don Quixote in a Nutshell (JOSEPH PEARCE, 1/01/22, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: You Must Read This: Declan Toohey on Don Quixote, the classic tale almost lost in translation (Declan Toohey, March 11 2023 , Independent ie)
-REVIEW: The knight in the mirror: Don Quixote - the first modern novel - remains the finest. As a new translation of the Spanish classic is published, Harold Bloom argues that only Shakespeare comes close to Cervantes' genius (Harold Bloom, December 13, 2003, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:

    -VIDEO: HOLY FOOLS & UNHOLY FALLS: Joseph Pearce provides insight into Cervantes' “Don Quixote,” Milton's “Paradise Lost” and Manzoni's “The Betrothed” in this examination of literature’s holy fools and unholy falls that have graced Catholic civilization. (EWTN: Great Books Every Catholic Should Know)
-ESSAY: Romance versus realism: The origins of the novel (Min Wild, 7/10/20, TLS)     -The Cervantes Society of America
    -Don Quixote Web Page
    -H-Cervantes, a member of H-Net Humanities & Social Sciences OnLine: network for scholars and professionals active in studies related to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.
    -Cervantes International Online Bibliography and Anuario Bibliográfico Cervantino
    -Cervantes in Cyberspain
    -The Don Quixote Exhibit: digital exhibit of translations and illustrations of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's novel Don Quixote de la Mancha. The exhibit features the holdings of the George Peabody Library
    -Don Quijote de la Mancha
    -LINKS: Cervantes-related World Wide Web Links
    -ETEXTS: Works of Miguel de Cervantes
    -ETEXT: 1615 DON QUIXOTE by Miguel de Cervantes Translated by John Ormsby
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (SparkNote by Brian Phillips)
    -ESSAY: Simon Leys: The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY: Don Quijote with Roque Guinart: The Case for an Ironic Reading (ALISON WEBER, Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America)
    -ESSAY: Style and Genre in Don Quijote: The Pastoral   (JOHN J. ALLEN, Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America)
    -REVIEW: of CERVANTES By Jean Canavaggio. Translated by J. R. Jones (Frederick Luciani, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: V.S. Pritchett: The Supreme Fairy Tale, NY Review of Books
        Lectures on Don Quixote by Vladimir Nabokov

    -REVIEW: of TIRANT LO BLANC   By Joanot Martorell and Marti Joan de Galba (Harry Sieber, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: THE WORLD’S FIRST NOVEL IS OLDER THAN YOU THINK (Anna Gooding-Call Sep 2, 2020, Book Riot)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Anything Can Happen : Notions of authorship, creator, and creatures, as well as of love, folly, and imagination, dominate Salman Rushdie’s and Ariel Dorfman’s retellings of Don Quixote. (Charles Glass, October 21, 2021, NY Review of Books)