“Idle reader: thou may believe me without any oath that I would this book, as it is the child of my brain, were the fairest, gayest, and cleverest that could be imagined.” So begins Don Quixote, written by Miquel Cervantes. He continues: “Tranquility, a cheerful retreat, pleasant fields, bright skies, murmuring brooks, peace of mind, these are the things that go far to make even the most barren muses fertile, and bring into the world births that fill it with wonder and delight.”
Don Quixote is from the La Mancha region in Spain. He is obsessed with the chivalrous ideals in the books he reads and decides to take up his lance and sword to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked. He persuades a befuddled laborer, Sancho Panza, to accompany him on his quest.
Panza plays the straight man to Quixote, trying his best to correct his master’s outlandish fantasies and schemes. On his horse, Rocinante, Quixote rides the roads of Spain in search of glory and grand adventure. He goes out to fight foes, real and imagined in the name of his ladylove Dulcinea del Toboso, a peasant girl who he believes is a princess.
Quixote is often deluded but to the end is an idealist seeing things through his own bright glasses. He fights impossible symbolic battles while the rest of the world says it can’t be done and mocks him for trying. His unhinged character has survived the centuries by showing readers the “right way” to live and therein is so much of his universal appeal.
The book invites multiple interpretations. Part a hero’s quest, part comedy, and part tragedy, all the while dissecting the human condition and the state of the world. The stories are escapades and the dialogue between Quixote and Pancha are richly layered narratives, a treat to read. It contains explorations on love, often expressed in a poem.
Love’s glory’s dear: that’s fair, and only as it should be: honest trade:
For there’s no gift as rare as one that has been properly assayed.
What easy joy is prized? What’s cheaply bought is soon despised.
But Love will persevere and sometimes do what never can be done,
And though I often fear I’m striving for the stars and for the sun,
My hope is still to rise impossibly from earth to gain the skies.
Originally published in Spanish about 400 years ago, it is considered by many to be the first modern novel as the nuances in the dialogue and characterization separate the book from preceding books.
Cervantes himself was a colorful character. He started writing the book while in jail. As a tax collector for the Spanish government his mathematical calculations were just too "creative" and he ended up in the slammer, not once but twice.
He spent five years as a slave in Algiers attempting to escape on more than one occasion. From this experience comes a special sensitivity as reflected in Don Quixote’s chivalry towards the downtrodden.
Don Quixote has been translated into more than 50 languages and some estimate that it has sold more than 500 million copies making it the most popular novel in history.
Despite the immediate popularity of the book at publication, Cervantes made little money from the book as it was common at the time for publishers to pay writers a small once-off fee with no royalties.
On my bookshelf is a copy of The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. A formidable tomb. From time to time I take it from the shelf to read, to regale in and to learn from. On each reading I am reminded of what Cervantes said:
“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams - this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness - and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be.”