by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Before publication of The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote, written circa 1600 and still in print, novels tended to be dreamy fairy tales of knights in shining armor rescuing princesses held captive in ivory towers. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra challenged that convention as well as notions of romance and chivalry with his multi-layered story of the world’s most famous knight-errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha. While we can’t know for sure, it also seems that Cervantes’ book was a secretly subversive critique of the ruling classes, the Spanish Inquisition, and possibly even the Bible itself. At close to 1,000 pages, Don Quixote is neither a slow, nor an easy read. It is, however, enormously entertaining and thought-provoking, and well worth the time and effort required.
Don Quixote is one of those books which almost everyone has heard about – thanks to the Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha” – but few have read. Dale Wasserman’s play won several Tony Awards and has enjoyed numerous revivals both on and off Broadway in the decades since its debut in 1965. The script, based loosely on the life of Miguel de Cervantes and his classic tale of Don Quixote introduced many to the book which scholars say is the first modern novel in Western literature. While little documentation exists on the life of Miguel de Cervantes, his experiences as a prisoner of war, soldier, and victim of the Spanish Inquisition certainly inspired many of the stories and themes of Don Quixote. Within the many pages of this novel are the famous tales of the ridiculous Don Quixote on his skeletal stallion, and Sancho Panza on his donkey, fighting windmills, attacking sheep, and spilling gallons of wine in the name of slaying giants, defending helpless damsels, and freeing innocent prisoners. These tales not only paint a lively historical portrait of Spain, but also point out the varieties of human weakness, such as greed, jealousy, and delusions of grandeur. “Man of La Mancha” features only a handful of the stories told by Miguel de Cervantes but, to a greater extent than the book, illuminates the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.
Before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand sent Christopher Columbus on a quest to find a better route to the Orient, in 1492, they set about converting all of Spain to Christianity. To do this, they declared a holy war on the Muslim Kingdom of Granada in southern Spain, the last frontier of the Crusades. The Spanish Inquisition was established to test the strength of the Catholic faith of any Muslims and Jews who chose to convert rather than live in exile. Much feared during this time was the so-called “Christian Brotherhood” whose members travelled Spain in search of infidels. In the century following the removal of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, the Inquisition continued to be the judicial arm of the monarchy. Miguel de Cervantes ran afoul of the Christian Brotherhood, himself, and spent five years in prison. He is thought to have penned the first book of Don Quixote during this time. Following its publication in 1604, Cervantes became famous and earned enough money to lift himself out of poverty.
The tales of Don Quixote became so popular that an imposter decided to write a sequel in which he insults and belittles Miguel de Cervantes. This was before the time of copyrights and the notion of intellectual property, so Cervantes opens Book Two by disavowing the false sequel and challenging the integrity and morality of its author. After the tragi-comical adventures of Book One, Book Two is more thoughtful and more subtly subversive. In it, Cervantes develops the characters and ethical values of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and others, questioning many assumptions about society in the process.
Don Quixote is portrayed as delusional, Sancho as a self-interested sycophant, noblemen as cruel, and clergymen as parasitic. Cervantes could easily have found himself before the Inquisition for a second time had the story not been as convoluted as he made it. Don Quixote, the madman, insulted the clergy and questioned their value to society, something Cervantes himself could not do. Cervantes put responsibility for the creation of Don Quixote on an old Moorish document, authored by one Cid Hamet Benengeli, which he claimed to have purchased at a market in southern Spain and then had translated by a converted Muslim. This clever device enabled Cervantes to explore a number of controversial ideas and observations while reducing his risk of torture, execution, or both, at the hands of the Christian Brotherhood.
Literary scholars for the most part interpret Don Quixote as a parody of popular books about heroic knights, and indeed it was, as well as a light-hearted social commentary on nobility and the merchant classes. On a deeper level, however, Don Quixote questioned ideology, blind faith, and the tyranny of the Catholic Church. Don Quixote, an elderly gentleman who follows books on Chivalry as if they were the word of God, goes on a quest to right the wrongs of the world as he sees them, like a Crusader blindly killing in the name of Christianity. Sancho Panza, for his part, exhibits the kind of unquestioning faith required for belief in things that defy rational thinking but are accepted as fact, “knowing” he will be rewarded in the end. He is considered by many to be a fool, and yet when given responsibility for governing, his judicial decisions are fair, intelligent, and just. Cervantes keeps the reader off balance with his parody of the ruling classes, personified in the characters of the Duke and Duchess of an unnamed province, who entertain themselves royally at the expense of delusional Don Quixote and gullible Sancho Panza. Finally, Cervantes shows how the Inquisition was the equivalent of a repressive regime, which everyone feared and no one dared question. He got away with this by using the insanity defense on the part of the main character, who was the creation of a long dead infidel.
It is clear that Miguel de Cervantes was highly educated in the classics, most likely while in exile in Italy as a youth. He fluidly quotes the works of ancient Greek poets, scientists, and historians throughout Don Quixote. He includes numerous poems and sonnets in the many stories within the story of Don Quixote, all of which attest to the author’s literary gifts. One theme that Cervantes explores is how social values in Spain had not kept pace with the rapidly changing world. Spain’s discovery of the Americas gave rise to an era of exploration and scholarship at the height of the Renaissance. Superstitious beliefs fell in the face of scientific discoveries and a merchant class arose enabling those of humble origins to become wealthy. Cervantes recognized that many people clung to archaic world views which limited their prospects and kept them mired in ignorance, as evinced by the popularity of books on chivalry.
Whatever Cervantes’ motives for writing The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote, he produced a book which, like the works of William Shakespeare, changed the way we use and enjoy language. With Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes used a book to make fun of books, questioned adherence to blind faith and outdated social conventions, and made readers puzzle over who was more insane: Don Quixote or everyone else. I think the man of La Mancha was crazy like a fox.