Cervantes & Quixote

January 16: Part I of The History of the Ingenious Knight-Errant Don Quixote was published on this day in 1605, becoming an immediate hit. Within a few years there were reprints, pirated editions and translations selling well throughout Europe, and as early as 1607 there are windmill jokes on the English stage. The twinned figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza became folk heroes, appearing in parades and processions and masquerades even in the Americas.

It is possible to retrace the entire route which Don Quixote traveled, and see the handful of real windmills at which he tilted still standing, one of them a library devoted to preserving editions of Don Quixote in the over sixty languages into which it has been translated — including, the author would smile to know, Braille. Though much is clouded by romantic legend, some remnants of Cervantes’s life have also survived. His family tree seems to have contained genuine knights-errant, though the tradition was already long over even in Spain, regarded as “the cradle of chivalry” by some historians. There are reliable accounts of Cervantes’s valor in Spain’s important victory at the Battle of Lepanto, at which he suffered chest wounds and a crippled left hand. He stayed on in the navy, and several years later was captured by Barbary pirates, who took him to Algiers, the centre of Christian slave traffic in the Muslim world. Four escape attempts in five years of confinement earned him a second reputation for daring and gallantry.

When Cervantes finally got back to Spain, the expected barter of his exploits for a government commission did not materialize. For the next twenty-five years he collected taxes, or the tithes of corn and oil needed to keep the great Armada afloat. The system was so disorganized and corrupt that he was imprisoned twice for not keeping his accounts or his payoffs straight. But the job offered the chance to tour southern Spain, and the time to turn a taxman’s daydreams into what many regard as the first modern novel:

“Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped them ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortune.”

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.

“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, some have them nearly two leagues long.”

“Look, your worship,” said Sancho Panza; “what we see there are not giants but windmills….”

“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures….”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.