Widely regarded as both the world’s first modern novel and a comic masterpiece, the completed version of Don Quixote is celebrating its 400th birthday in 2015. It’s a fairly lengthy book that most educated persons have heard of, but many have not yet read — at least all the way through.
To help celebrate Don Quixote’s significant anniversary, we asked Dr. Paul Larson, professor of Spanish and director of undergraduate studies in Spanish at Baylor, to provide an introduction to the book for those who have never read it, or those who wish to read it again after many years away.
Larson, who counts Don Quixote as one of his favorite books from a lifetime of reading, says he prefers the Edith Grossman translation first released in 2005 as the best English translation of the Spanish masterpiece.
On Don Quixote
By Dr. Paul Larson
Don Quixote, whose original title in Spanish is El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, is a Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes that was first published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615. It is considered one of the most influential works in world literature of the pre-modern era, having been translated into every major language. The novel is, to some extent, a parody of the fantastic knight errant genre that had proliferated during Spain’s 16th century.
The main character, a middle-aged gentleman from central Spain, has always been referred to as Don Quixote, but he is neither a “don” nor a knight errant, even though those are the goals to which he aspires. Some people think his first name is Don, last name Quixote. In reality, “don” is a formal salutation used to designate a Spanish “hidalgo,” which is a low-level noble title, fairly common in Spain’s medieval period and later. Today its general use may be roughly equivalent to “Sir.” So, his first name is not Don.
“Quijote” is not a first name either, and does not belong to any group of first names such as Pedro, Pablo, Jaime, Ignacio or José. The name, which everyone takes for granted, is the longest running joke in the book. I would suggest that the book is a wicked satire of Spanish imperial culture, which debases the figure of the knight and slams the totalitarian policies of a growing Spanish empire and its absolutist monarchy.
The confusion surrounding the protagonist’s real name seems intentional and artful, and it continues to grow more confused by the possibility, but uncertainty, of several different, but similar sounding variants of the name given initially: Quijada, Quesada or Quejana. These names are all comically similar to Quijote and belie the parodic bent of the text, comically connoting odd and whimsical objects: “quijada,” the lower jaw, or “quesada,” a cheese cake, rendering names that would have the English equivalents of Sir Jaw-bone and Sir Cheesecake. This strange naming game serves to undermine the prestige of the knight, debasing and comically criticizing his social status.
Ducking behind a veil of pseudo-scholarship, the not-so-reliable narrator leaves the reader to ponder these possible names without specifying any of them as correct, and finally dismisses the problem as if it were of no importance at all. The narrator gives the impression that there really is some debate over the man’s real name, covering up the real name of the protagonist until much later and diverting the reader’s attention away from the problem of the name until the middle-aged Manchegan has declared himself to be Don Quixote de la Mancha.
The illusion created by this narrative slight-of-hand is the walking, talking, breathing knight, don Quixote de la Mancha. The tag, “de la Mancha,” only adds to the comic and parodic game-playing by indicating not a noble or breathtaking landscape, but a plain, flat and dusty farming area of central Spain, marked by its innumerable vineyards and olive orchards. The name is certainly meant to be a parody of other names, such as Amadís de Gaula or Arthur or Tristan or Lancelot or even the Green Knight. By naming himself and creating a new narrative to go with the name, “don Quijote de la Mancha,” the unnamed Manchegan hidalgo transgresses social boundaries and reinvents himself as a 13th century knight errant — exactly what he is not.
Cervantes felt that although readers had to suspend their disbelief while reading a novel, a writer must also give his readers a place to “hang their hats,” so to speak — that the story had to have its feet on the ground at some point to be believable. If you are writing about a crazy guy who thinks he’s a knight, plays with horses and swords, you must first make him a regular guy who people might meet in the street on any given day, so before you invent Don Quixote, you must first invent Alonso Quijano, the Good.
Alonso Quijano, then, thinks he’s a knight errant out wandering in the world, righting wrongs, protecting damsels, slaying dragons, and dying for the love of his lady, Dulcinea de Toboso (actually a farm hand in a neighboring town) and that is exactly what he attempts to do. The problem, though, is complex because he is a living anachronism, a knight in a time when knights no longer exist, if they ever existed at all.
The problem of the mere existence of Don Quixote is aggravated by the fact that all of Quixote’s information about how knights act has been gleaned from a series of novels about knights and their adventures. The crusades have been over for centuries, and the figure of the knight has been rendered irrelevant by the invention of gunpowder, lead shot and the blunderbuss. By the time Cervantes writes about the ingenious hidalgo in 1605, the era of knight errantry has been over by more than a century. Most of Spain’s professional military was pursuing new adventures in the new world, and central Spain — La Mancha, specifically — had become a social backwater where the locals raised grapes, wheat and olives, and not much else.
Whether don Quixote read too many old adventure novels and has gone crazy, or if something else was motivating his actions, may be irrelevant. What is important are his actions while he purposefully reorganizes his identity, rebuilds his armor, changes his name, and sallies out on a new adventure, knowing full well that there are no knights anymore. He is older, in his 50s, perhaps has a little too much free time, has no clear career or life objectives, and is clearly suffering from a mid-life existential crisis — if he doesn’t do something now, he never will. Instead of being young and virile, tough and toned, he’s skinny, got poor muscle tone, and is running on good intentions only. The question, though, is exactly that: are good intentions enough in the rough and tumble world of 1605, the cusp of modernity, to be a successful knight errant?
As the novel begins, Don Quijote, or Alonso Quijano, the character’s real name, is rather unhappy with his boring life as comfortable landed gentry in central Spain. He basically collects rents, reads lots of books, and gets older. He decides at some point in his mid-life crisis that he wants more — more adventure, more danger, more sword fights, more intrigue, more women. So he decides to play a knight errant. The only problem is that nobody else is in on his game. Larping (live-action role playing), dressing up as an historical figure and reenacting historical events, hadn’t been invented at the beginning of the seventeenth century, so the people that Quijano/Quijote ran into were rather uncooperative regarding his fantasy world of giants, damsels, knights and magicians.
A social fiasco ensues, windmills and all, but it’s a rather humorous fiasco with a very high entertainment factor. Quijano sets out to be a knight, putting on his great-grandfather’s old rotting putrid armor, because in real life he is socially awkward, a little alienated from society, a natural loner, but he is also someone who really does not control his own destiny. He is stuck being boring Alonso Quijano with no real objectives or goals in his life.
Live action role-playing is very attractive because for a moment Alonso Quijano can step out of character, be someone heroic and valiant, dream the impossible dream, and save the day. He larps, and part of that larping is a pre-arranged bout with insanity, fighting a windmill, attacking some sheep, making friends with some prostitutes, performing a vigil while some pigs sleep. It’s complicated.
To make a long story short, he feels like, for first time in his life, he is in control of something. Is that really any different than what any of us wants out of life? Ironically, the hidalgo is more “Caballero del Triste Figura,” defeated and failed, than he ever was “Don Quixote,” heroic righter of wrongs and dashing lady’s man. The name “Don Quixote” is a part of a heroic narrative constructed by the middle-aged hidalgo to justify to himself and others who he is. In fact, unless one stops referring to him as “Don Quixote” and starts calling him Alonso Quijano, the illusion created by the narrative never stops functioning. If he is Don Quixote, then the possibility of being a knight is always viable.
It is the reader who naively allows Cervantes to construct the knight errant at the beginning of the first part by not questioning the naming game played by the narrator. It is also true that it is the reader who sadly deconstructs the old hidalgo at the end of the second part, when the naming game is no longer any fun — the comic buffoon of the first part of the novel has been replaced by a dying tragic figure. Since the fun of watching Don Quixote being thrown from Rocinante or seeing his squire Sancho Panza being tossed in a blanket is over, readers no longer need to continue the literary charade. The joke is over. They lose their willingness to participate in the game, dropping their suspension of disbelief and returning Don Quixote to a less literary and more mundane existence as an ordinary man — Alonso Quijano.
In the closing moments of the novel when the protagonist finally declares his sanity, he recovers his original name and epithet, linking the recovery of his name, Alonso Quijano, the Good, with his recently recovered sanity.
So, idle reader, how does one approach the reading of a book with more than a thousand pages? Some have read abridged versions, but then you don’t understand the spirit of the book. My suggestion for reading Don Quixote is very different: don’t plan on sitting down and reading the whole thing in a week. Since the book is very episodic, give yourself a break and read it episodically. Plan to spend a few months reading Don Quixote. In fact, don’t obsess about ever finishing it at all. The book is made up of episodes that break up the storyline into nice, digestible pieces. It will be perfectly obvious when you should quit or continue.
The arc of the story, Don Quixote’s adventures, is the real thread that holds the novel together, but it is the breaks that Cervantes builds into the text which give readers a moment to breathe, set the book aside, and do something else. There is no moral imperative to ever finish the book — it will always be there, and readers will always be ready to pick up Don Quixote off of the ground, dust him off, and put him on his horse again.