March 2, 2024

Gabbing Geek

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Geek Lit Classic: Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes classic novel about chivalry and metafiction.

I make it a point every year to read one large work of literature I’ve never read before.  This year, I went with Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.  Originally published in two parts ten years apart (1605 and 1615), Cervantes’ story tells the tale of Don Quixote, a man pushing old age that decides that books of chivalry are really the way to live and sets out as a knight-errant with a neighboring peasant Sancho Panza acting as his squire.

But you know what that makes Don Quixote?  That makes him, perhaps, the world’s first fanboy.

But the really interesting thing here is how Cervantes sets the book up.  He never claims to be the author.  Instead, he claims to be an editor compiling the history of the real Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  A frequently cited Moorish historian is alleged to be the actual author, and the work is allegedly nonfiction.  Obviously it isn’t.  Though the device of obscuring real place names and dates to make a work of fiction seem, well, not, occurs frequently in old books, not many take it to the lengths Cervantes does.

As such, this allows Cervantes to comment frequently on the benefits of literature.  While Don Quixote has been driven a bit insane by his love of books of chivalry, other characters frequently argue the merit of such books, while the priest and learned peoples of Quixote’s home village routinely condemn anything that doesn’t teach morals or tell an absolute truth.  That Don Quixote believes his fantastic stories are actual history, that these fictional knights once roamed the land fighting armies single-handedly or killing giants, is beside the point.  Obviously Don Quixote takes it too far, and often to his own pain and detriment.  And if it isn’t to his own, it is definitely to Sancho Panza’s.  So, while Don Quixote can cite chapter and verse of these fictional knights to justify his behavior (though on any other subject he is eminently rational), Sancho for his part is more pragmatic, to say nothing of inclined to spout off proverbs that don’t really fit the situation he finds himself in.  I suspect I might have enjoyed the book more were I more familiar with the many works Don Quixote rattles off from time to time.

But what is Don Quixote if not a fanboy?  He loves his fiction and even cosplays as a knight with his homemade costume.  If there was such a thing as a knight-errant convention, he’d be fine. And thought many characters give lip service to the lack of benefits to these works, that Cervantes would spend so many pages parodying them gives a clearer idea what he himself may have thought on the subject.  What moral does Don Quixote teach?  None that I can see.

But there were some surprises.  For one, there’s some potty humor in here I wasn’t expecting.  At one point, Sancho reflects that if he is made governor of an island full of black people, he can just sell the inhabitants into slavery.  What a gag.  For another, my copy was based off an eighteenth century English translation by Scottish playwright and novelist Tobias Smollett.  Smollett saw fit to make some changes, some to make it sound better in English, others for some other reason.  The most blatant example is how Smollett gave Sancho’s donkey a name, something Cervantes definitely did not do.  That bugged me a bit and caused me to maybe enjoy the book a little less.  On a final note, it does seem to suggest that playing pranks on people known to be mentally ill is perfectly acceptable, as numerous characters are well-aware Don Quixote isn’t right in the head but play jokes on him for their own amusement.  That may not be too shocking considering what the insane were thought to be back then.  Thomas More–a saint in the Catholic Church–wrote in Utopia almost a century earlier how insane people are there for the entertainment purposes of other people.

The second part of the book, after Cervantes blasts an unauthorized sequel, ends with Don Quixote dying as himself and in his own right mind, condemning his former reading habit.  But does that mean Don Quixote is dead?  Maybe not.  Part Two shows the knight as a famous figure throughout Spain as a result of Part One, and he’ll live on as that alone, riding on his skeletal horse with his bumbling sidekick Sancho.  Legends don’t really die.  Nine out of ten attacks on things that aren’t giants.