[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot details from Don Quixote.]
I’m very selective about the writers I like. For those who truly move me, I perform a special ritual in return. I visit their resting place. I can count on one hand the number writers’ graves I have visited (five in total). Cervantes is one of them. Why? Because after 400 years, his prose remains fresh, vital and vibrant.
I mean think about it. What other writer resonates across 400 years like Cervantes???Oh! Right! That English guy…What’s his name? Will? Bill? That’s it! Bill Shakespeare! Now don’t get me wrong, the Bard is great. His plays still dominate theater. His turns of phrase have been adopted into modern English so deeply we don’t even notice them anymore. But with all apologies, the plays and sonnets seem old. It’s not that the characters and action aren’t fresh, they are. But when I go to a night of Shakespeare, I have to mentally prepare myself for the archaic language, the ponderous soliloquies and so on and so forth. Not so with Cervantes. His pacing is slower than modern tastes like and some of the language is musty. But the ideas, themes and humor strike me as much more modern than those of the Bard.
It’s not just me. Don Quixote’s hold on writers, if anything, has only grown over the years:
Don Quixote would become perhaps the most published work of literature in history. Its influence on writers has been unparalleled. When the Norwegian Nobel Institute polled 100 leading authors in 2002 to name the single most important literary work, Don Quixote was a handsome winner; no other book came close.
I can’t really tell you exactly why that is, but below I have a few ideas on why Cervantes and his works continue to cast a spell.
1. His attitude toward fan fiction.
This is a rich vein to mine. First, you could say that Don Quixote itself is simply fan fiction. The character Don Quixote is motivated to go adventuring by reading too many chivalric adventures.
As Quixote is escorted home after his first ill-fated outing, his housekeeper cries at the top of her voice: “Woe is me! Now I know, and it’s true as the death I owe God, that those accursed books of chivalry he’s always reading have driven him crazy.”
And, no doubt, the author was motivated to write the piece by reading too many of the same books. He as much as hints in that in his preface.
And before Cervantes had a chance to complete this second part of his work, a certain Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda beat him to the punch and wrote his own version of part 2. Cervantes was upset, but instead of the modern remedy of litigation or the older method of restoring one’s honor through a duel, he simply decided to mock Avellaneda in introduction to part 2 of the real Don Quixote:
Thou wouldst have me call him ass, fool, and malapert, but I have no such intention; let his offence be his punishment, with his bread let him eat it, and there’s an end of it.
2. Comedy with a deeper purpose.
There’s something about the Quixote that is not comic. Like the best humor ever written, whether it’s Gogol or Monty Python or Leslie Jones, there’s a deeper point. The comic writer lulls you into a false sense of security, then they slip in a slight serious reference and a moment later it’s gone. But it makes you chuckle—and think.
Don Quixote is full of those moments. Don Quixote seems perpetually balanced between comedy and tragedy. At any given moment you don’t know which way it will head next. There’s no relief. He keeps you on a knife edge between tears and laughter.
There’s deep poignancy in the story: Don Quixote is, after all, insane. Right? But Cervantes takes a light tone with it, so it becomes comedic. Or does it? He meets others who decide to play along, not least his servant, Sancho. But they often seem to be doing so out of pity more than anything else. It becomes almost a general revolt against mundane reality. But there’s great humor too: from simple gags like fart jokes and ribald tales to more complex allegories like tilting at windmills. It’s an incredibly taut, controlled narrative in its way.
3. A master of stories and the novel.
It’s not easy to master the novel. And it’s even harder to master the short story. It’s damn near impossible to master both. But damn him, this guy did it.
You can look at Don Quixote, a very long novel, and he pulls it off. You can look at his Exemplary Tales, one of which I’ve discussed here, and he pulls that off as well. In fact, similar to medieval storytelling, Don Quixote can be seen as a string of shorter stories strung together in a larger narrative. It’s as if he’s writing stories within the longer narrative structure of a novel. And somehow, he makes it all work. Short stories, long novels, in prose Cervantes did it all.
4. The man who became myth.
I warned you about spoilers, so here it is. At the end of the novel, Don Quixote gives up chivalry, admits his madness, renounces knight errantry and dies. I’ll let you unpack what Cervantes meant by that on your own. But for me, it’s clear. Give up your dreams, your madness and you mine as well die. It’s a lovely way to end the book. [There’s that tragedy again.]
And it’s not so different from the life of the man, Cervantes. He lived life to the fullest. Was a soldier, a prisoner, a slave in Algiers, and an accountant. He did time in prison for fraud. He was always with the people, not in an academic or cloistered environment. He probably lived and heard more stories than almost any man. He wrote until the very end and when he ceased to write, to dream, just like his greatest creation, he passed away.
Over time he’s been memorialized by a literary prize, uncounted books, stories and poems. My favorite of these is by another master of the Spanish tongue, Borges. I quote it here because it’s so outstanding.
Defeated by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. He was survived only briefly by Miguel de Cervantes.
For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed, the tissue of that whole plot consisted in the contraposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.
Little did they suspect that the years would end by wearing away the disharmony. Little did they suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s frail figure would be, for the future, no less poetic than Sinbad’s haunts or Ariosto’s vast geographies.
For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.
The myth of Cervantes has only begun and will continue for a very long time. Viva Cervantes!
See you next time,