What intelligent things you say sometimes! One would think you had studied.
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, from Don Quixote
What intelligent things you say sometimes! One would think you had studied.
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, from Don Quixote
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing. An olla of rather more beef than mutton, a salad on most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so extra on Sundays, made away with three-quarters of his income. The rest of it went in a doublet of fine cloth and velvet breeches and shoes to match for holidays, while on week-days he made a brave figure in his best homespun.
He had in his house a housekeeper past forty, a niece under twenty, and a lad for the field and market-place, who used to saddle the hack as well as handle the bill-hook. The age of this gentleman of ours was bordering on fifty; he was of a hardy habit, spare, gaunt-featured, a very early riser and a great sportsman. They will have it his surname was Quixada or Quesada (for here there is some difference of opinion among the authors who write on the subject), although from reasonable conjectures it seems plain that he was called Quexana. This, however, is of but little importance to our tale; it will be enough not to stray a hair’s breadth from the truth in the telling of it.
You must know, then, that the above-named gentleman whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry with such ardour and avidity that he almost entirely neglected the pursuit of his field-sports, and even the management of his property; and to such a pitch did his eagerness and infatuation go that he sold many an acre of tillageland to buy books of chivalry to read, and brought home as many of them as he could get.
But of all there were none he liked so well as those of the famous Feliciano de Silva’s composition, for their lucidity of style and complicated conceits were as pearls in his sight, particularly when in his reading he came upon courtships and cartels, where he often found passages like “the reason of the unreason with which my reason is afflicted so weakens my reason that with reason I murmur at your beauty;” or again, “the high heavens, that of your divinity divinely fortify you with the stars, render you deserving of the desert your greatness deserves.”
Over conceits of this sort the poor gentleman lost his wits, and used to lie awake striving to understand them and worm the meaning out of them; what Aristotle himself could not have made out or extracted had he come to life again for that special purpose. He was not at all easy about the wounds which Don Belianis gave and took, because it seemed to him that, great as were the surgeons who had cured him, he must have had his face and body covered all over with seams and scars. He commended, however, the author’s way of ending his book with the promise of that interminable adventure, and many a time was he tempted to take up his pen and finish it properly as is there proposed, which no doubt he would have done, and made a successful piece of work of it too, had not greater and more absorbing thoughts prevented him.
Don Quixote is frequently described as “the first modern novel” and that is true in many ways. Here we find both the structural bones of contemporary fiction and the gateway to modernity. It is certainly much more than that. Author Glynn Young wrote a terrific feature piece about Don Quixote some time ago for Literary Life (see it HERE) in which he said the following:
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.
As John Mark Reynolds said in his book The Great Books Reader:
Perhaps the alternative to modernity is not postmodernity but an Age of Cervantes.
Cervantes fought and bled in one of history’s great conflicts, the Battle of Lepanto, to defend Christendom against conquest by Islam. He justly was proud of his wounds and of the victory he and many like him had secured for his faith. As he mocks his culture and his church, it’s important to remember that this is the mockery of a man who loved the Catholic faith enough to bleed for it. He lived in a world less parochial and more international than our own, one where the Pope could lead a multinational coalition whose relative power the U.N. could never muster.
Cervantes is witty, first of all. Laugh with him before becoming too serious about his knight. After all, it is absurd to tilt at windmills, and his knight does just that. And yet Don Quixote is more likable than the sane people around him.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra’s “Sorrowful Knight” strikes us, at the outset, as a buffoon, a loveable fool who’s easy to scorn.
He’s a hidalgo, the equivalent of what might be known in England as a country squire, which means, as the second or third son of nobility, he cannot inherit his father’s title, but he can’t engage in business either, so he runs his estate (at least, what’s left of it) while selling several of its parcels in order to buy books on knight-errantry.
Then he leaves the care of his estate in order to pursue foolish fantasies, all culled from silly books. After reading Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and other tales, he’s convinced that the world of knight-errantry is the best way to lead one’s life, and he decides to do something about it. He sallies forth in search of “adventures,” seeing giants and castles that turn out to be merely windmills and taverns.
As his sidekick, or, shall we say, his squire, we have Sancho Panza, who believes promises of a governorship of distant islands and castles. The plain facts of the matter, however, are plain to Sancho as he constantly tries to remind Don Quixote that the objects he’s charging toward are actually common structures.
Don Quixote, undaunted, continues in his insistence that these are indeed giants and that they must be slain. When the matter is made clear to the Sorrowful Knight after a round with the windmills—which ends with him on his back—he blames his delusion on “enchantment” and continues his noble quest.
It’s easy to write off Don Quixote as a deranged nutcase, but as we read through the novel, something begins to evolve. We laugh in the beginning, but then we gradually become caught up in his world; we begin to see it from his eyes, and we end up enjoying it.
We grieve with Sancho for his death, for the vision of a world where he is more than a worthless ne’er-do-well—an important governor and lord—will die with him. The barmaid weeps, and we weep with her, for in Don Quixote’s eyes, she’s more than a mere barmaid; she’s a noble lady named Dulcinea.
What’s happened? How is it that we chuckle at him at the onset but now are caught up in his “madness”?
But this is where Cervantes has caught us in our own folly. Is it madness?
In the course of the tale, we begin with a self-assured notion that the world Don Quixote imagines makes him unable to live in the true milieu of “reality,” yet increasingly our own assumptions about the nature of that reality come under question.
In Part II we’re moved by statements like these:
All I aim at is, to convince the world of its error in not reviving those happy times [of chivalry], in which the order of the knight-errant flourished. . . . But nowadays, sloth triumphs over diligence, idleness over labour, vice over virtue, arrogance over bravery, the theory over the practice of arms, which only lived and flourished in those golden ages, and in those knights-errant. (From the Oxford World’s Classics, 528.)
One can hear the quintessential Christ-like question coming through in the following passage:
In the meantime, tell me, friend Sancho, what do folks say of me about this town? What opinion has the common people of me? What think the gentlemen, and what the cavaliers? What is said of my prowess, what of my exploits, and what of my courtesy? What discourse is there of the design I have engaged in, to revive and restore to the world the long-forgotten order of chivalry? (ibid., 535)
Sancho’s answer is quite expected: “The common people take your worship for a downright madman” (ibid.). But what can be said of Don Quixote’s stated desire to “revive and restore” the chivalric order?
Reality is a complex phenomenon, filled with dimensions, not the least of which are two that Christians affirm and understand: the physical and the spiritual. We are invited by Cervantes to enter into Don Quixote’s imaginary world and reflect on these layers.
We’re to ignore no points of view: neither the idealism of Don Quixote nor the realism/literalism of Sancho Panza. The point that comes across is this: We must not have a reductionist attitude toward reality.
While we must not fall into the gnosticizing trap of seeing the world as only ideal, without any reference to the physical and tangible universe we inhabit, neither should we commit to a crass literalism devoid of imagination and poetry.
Poetry in the soul ennobles the insignificant. Something in us does yearn for the ideal Don Quixote envisions, and yet his failed efforts to actualize it should give us pause, for however noble his vision, it cannot be established here and now without any reference to the needs of the here and now.
Cervantes’ masterpiece, then, cautions the literalist/materialist against a world (and a future) devoid of enchantment, just as it challenges the idealist who gazes toward heaven to remember that the coming reality is “not yet.”
Laugh at the beginning, if you will. In the end, the Sorrowful Knight has the last laugh.
Robert Llizo, PhD, is a lecturer in Medieval History at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).
I’ve come to consider used book stores and antique stores as depositories of our literary and social history. You can find just about anything you’re looking for on Amazon, but until you spend some time perusing and holding old books important in their day but largely forgotten now can you see a glimpse of American literary heritage.
I’ve found an old edition of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a 1918 edition of Love Songs by Sara Teasdale (for a dollar!), The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke (1926), The Speeches of Daniel Webster (1854), Ida Tarbell’s Life of Lincoln (1907), and more.
We’ve lived in Kirkwood, our suburb of St. Louis, for more than 30 years. When we moved here, an antique shop in the downtown area had been in operation for a long time. It was called Dappled Gray Antiques, and it was filled with the valuable and the not-so-valuable.
In the back were the bookshelves, to which I was inevitably drawn. The store owner had excellent taste in books, and the price ranges reflected the range of prices of the antiques themselves. You could find old children’s books, sets, 19th century, 20th century, popular editions and rare book editions. The jumble of discovery was part of the fun.
Over the years, I likely bought more than I should have, but four finds hold a special place.
Theodore Mommsen (1817-1903) was a German historian who specialized in Roman history. I first made his acquaintance in a seminar I took for my master’s degree. He was one of the preeminent historians of the 19th century, and the first three volumes of his classic History of Rome was published in 1854. By 1868, the date for the edition I bought, a fourth volume had been added. For four books that are 150 years old this year, they’re in outstanding condition.
The Complete Memoirs of Ulyssess S. Grant was published in two volumes in 1885 by Mark Twain’s publishing company, Charles Webster. Grant was dying as he completed the works. He was essentially broke and he needed to provide for his wife Julia. Twain took this publishing project on as a personal effort, and the success of the books ensured resources for Mrs. Grant.
William Prescott (1796-1859) is considered the first American scientific historian. He focused on Spain and Spanish America, writing histories of the conquest of Mexico and Peru. His The History of Ferdinand and Isabella was first published in 1837; at Dappled Gray Antiques, I found a leather-bound 1841 edition in three volumes. They’re beautiful books and the pages look almost brand new.
My oldest books weren’t found at the antique store but at one of the annual St. Louis Book Fairs, held every April and considered one of the big used book events in the United States. I’ve found a number of gems at bargain prices, including a set that wasn’t in very good shape but that I couldn’t resist – a four-volume edition of Plutarch’s Lives published in 1821, for which I paid all of $5. The binding on two was slightly separated; the pages have some yellowing. But I hope I’m in as good shape when I’m almost 200 years old.
Something about these books makes me hopeful. They may not be well remembered today, but these old books are survivors. They’ve been in civil war, estate sales, and family upheavals. They’ve been transported all over the country, and a few from Europe. They’ve patiently sat on shelves and occasionally read. They’ve been prized and mistreated, valued and tossed out. They’ve been handed off to strangers and forgotten. They’ve lasted longer than the places I found them, like Dappled Gray Antiques, long closed and now a retail clothing shop.
And yet the books sit, waiting, lovingly touched and examined, reminders of the literary legacy we take for granted. They don’t seem to mind.
The Complete Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885)
Mommsen’s History of Rome (1868)
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1882)
The History of Ferdinand and Isabella by William Prescott
It’s the fall of 1985. I’m sitting in a classroom at Washington University in St. Louis, participating in a seminar for my master’s degree. This particular seminar is simply entitled “The Nature of Story.”
Of all the novels on the syllabus, the only one I’ve previously read is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The syllabus includes The Sound of the Fury by William Faulkner, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, and about eight other novels. As it so happens, the first novel we’re reading for the course is One Hundred Years of Solitude. I first read it in college when it was relatively new and all the rage, about the same time as The Lord of the Rings. I’ve dutifully read it again, and it’s a completely different experience from my first reading. This time, it almost seems like personal history.
The professor leading the seminar asks, in a casual, offhand way, “So, what did you think?” A short silence follows, until one student says, “It’s a ridiculous book. All this business about flying carpets and children sprouting pigs’ tails, well, it’s simply ludicrous. This is what they call magic realism?”
It seems most of the class agrees. We’re an unusual group; I’m the youngest of about 15 people; the oldest is the CEO of the local gas utility. No one had previously read the book except for me.
The discussion becomes a critical pile-on. Finally, the professor asks, “Did anyone actually enjoy it?”
I raise my hand and nod. “I grew up in a place and culture like Macondo,” I say. “It doesn’t seem alien or ludicrous at all. My grandmother and aunts and uncles told stories like this. I know we had flying carpets. And I’m sure there must have been a few kids in my neighborhood who had pigs’ tails.”
I look around the seminar table, and I see some surprise and even astonishment.
“Where did you grow up?” the professor asks.
“New Orleans,” I say.
“Ah,” he says, nodding, “the northern edge of the Caribbean culture. That makes sense. It’s Garcia Marquez’s culture, too.”
Part of what we learn that semester about the nature of story is that story speaks to us very differently than history or sociology or economics or political science. Inherent in the idea of story is something fundamental to our understanding of who we are, where we come from, how we grow up, what we experience, and what we accept as true. A myth can be just as true as a historical fact. In fact, a myth may be more powerful than a historical fact. Story and myth are the building materials of our worldviews, and they shape us in both known and subtle ways.
I’ve read novels since I was seven years old. And now I’m writing them. When I’m asked where the idea for a novel comes from, I can usually pinpoint a moment, an event, something someone said, or even a song (a song was the inspiration for my first novel).
But none of these things explains where the story comes from. The answer to that question is far more complex. It likely goes back to that big green book of fairy tales my mother read to me. It was that ninth-grade English teacher who taught us Great Expectations and made me fall in love with Dickens. It was my grandmother who worked in a cotton factory when she was five years old. Or my other grandmother who scrubbed floors in the big movie theaters in downtown New Orleans to keep her family fed. It was my great-grandfather who was a messenger boy for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. It was Inez the Crazy Woman who roamed the streets of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and was every mother’s threat for misbehaving children. It was the list of births and deaths in the family Bible published in 1801, and all those names like Octavia, Cora Belle, and Jarvis.
And it was those flying carpets and children with pigs’ tails.
That’s the nature, and the power, of story.