It is said that the novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes should be read three times – youth, middle age, and old age. I first read it at 17, in English literature class my senior year of high school. Our teacher, who dearly loved the book but knew better than to force the unabridged version on a class of 35 teenaged boys, gave us the option of reading the abridged or unabridged version. The difference was 600 pages, so you can imagine the results.
Two of us chose the unabridged version, and we had to read it in the same amount of time that the rest of the class was reading the unabridged. Neither of us regretted our decision, but we both had to carry that book everywhere we went, reading in any spare moment. The assignment was both a paper and an oral presentation in class.
Perhaps it was the determination to finish a novel of almost 1,000 (in two parts), but I fell in love with the story. The crazy old man roaming around Andalusia in Spain on a broken-down nag, seeing giants instead of windmills, mistaking prostitutes for fair maidens, and joyfully wearing a bedpan as his “golden helmet of Mambrino” was sheer delight. And as every knight has a squire, so Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, who kept the story from tripping into the ridiculous by keeping his mind clear and eye sharp, the counterpoint to Don Quixote’s point.
In my early 40s, Don Quixote accompanied me to the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. And there, on the sand each day under a beach umbrella, I reread the favorite novel of my youth.
It had lost none of its charm and appeal. But it had gained something I didn’t notice the first time. Or perhaps I had gained something in the intervening years.
Don Quixote, crazed by his constant reading of medieval romances, comes to believe he is living in medieval times. And he sees everything through medieval eyes. Those windmills really were giants. Aldonza, the prostitute, really was Dulcinea the beautiful and noble lady. That ramshackle inn really was a castle.
Don Quixote had moved from a belief in the texts he was reading to applying what he had learned to the world. He didn’t see a fallen world; he saw the world as God created it and as he, Don Quixote, was called to redeem it. And no matter what happens or what impossible situations he finds himself in, he remains true to his mission and calling. It is only when he is tricked into seeing reality by his family that he “regains his sanity.”
Had the novel ended like that, it would have been a funny book but also disappointing. But it didn’t end like that.
Don Quixote isn’t only the first “modern” novel and one of the world’s great works of literature. It is also a great work about a fallen world and the crazy people who are called to redeem it, who are ridiculed, often physically attacked, bullied, and persecuted, but who nonetheless joyfully persevere in what they’ve been called to do.
And sometime soon I will read Don Quixote for the third time, and see what else I have to learn.
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
D I G D E E P E R
Miguel de Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) was a native of Castile in Spain, the son of a barber-surgeon who had married an impoverished noblewoman. Not much is known about his early years; in fact, not much is known about most of his life. What is known is that he joined the army in 1570, was wounded in the great naval battle of Lepanto, and later was captured by Ottoman pirates and spent five years in captivity in Algiers.
After being ransomed and returning to Spain, Cervantes began to write poetry, plays, and pastoral novels like La Galatea. But he was working other jobs, including as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada and as a government tax collector (serving a couple of terms in jail for discrepancies in his accounts). In 1605, Don Quixote was published and was a remarkable success in Spain and Europe. Part II was published in 1615. Cervantes died in 1616, one day before William Shakespeare’s death.
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