In a certain village in La Mancha, which I do not wish to name, there lived not long ago a gentleman—one of those who have always a lance in the rack, an ancient shield, a lean hack and a greyhound for coursing.
trans. J.M. Cohen
Books which are printed by royal licence and with the approval of those to whom they are submitted, and which are read with universal delight and applause by great and small, poor and rich, learned and ignorant, plebeians and gentlefolk—in short, by all kinds of persons of every quality and condition—could they be lies and at the same time appear so much like the truth?
Fear is sharp-sighted, and can see things under ground, and much more in the skies.
The world as nothing he did prize,
For as a scarecrow in men's eyes
He lived, and was their bugbear too;
And had the luck, with much ado,
To live a fool, and yet die wise.
For my sole object has been to arouse men's contempt for all fabulous and absurd stories of knight errantry, whose credit this tale of my genuine Don Quixote has already shaken, and which will, without a doubt, soon tumble to the ground. Farewell.
Hard slog through earthy classic
It hardly seems fair for someone in the twenty-first century, who does not know Spanish, nor know much about Spanish culture, and has read this book only once, to write about Don Quixote.
But at least I can give the impression of such a reader to this most classic of all modern novels—modern being defined as since the Renaissance.
First, get refined ideas of "classic" out of your mind when you approach Don Quixote. For, as with virtually all the greatest works of prose literature, this is a lively, earthy story of real people. Sure, the central character is a bit of a kook whose very name has become synonymous with fighting imagined evils (literally tilting at windmills) and has given rise to an adjective—quixotic—having to do with the pursuit of impractical ideals. And sure he thinks his broken-down nag is a noble steed, the slovenly peasant Sancho Panza is his squire, and a whore is a virtuous lady to be saved.
But we the readers are shown the world realistically, and the people in it as they really are—including the deluded main character.
In the prologue to the first part of Don Quixote, Cervantes says he aims to destroy through ridicule the influence on people of his time from the romances of chivalry. The elderly Don Quixote has supposedly gone mad from reading too many such tales and sets about to emulate the adventures of chivalric knights, with ridiculous and pathetic results. The comic chapters showing his misadventures are indeed quite entertaining, and these are the bits that have entered popular culture, windmills and all.
But those bits are strung out over way too many pages of subplots and digressions into other tales that don't hold the interest, at least not the interest of a modern reader who does not recognize half the targets of satire. Too much poetry recited by lovesick shepherds and goatherds. It's a very long, hard slog to get through Part One.
Part Two, written by Cervantes ten years later, picks up the pace somewhat and actually makes the central character and his loyal servant much more interesting. Don Quixote and Sancho become less figures to make fun of than fully fleshed and endearing human beings. The story becomes more than Cervantes originally intended.
This is a book that cries out for someone to produce an abridged version for the modern reader. It has so much to offer, but a thousand-plus pages of four-hundred-year-old satire is more than most of us are willing to accept.
But, in whatever form, Don Quixote is worth it for the serious student of reading. The book has had a tremendous affect on our culture, not just in creating the novel form and setting the template for several of the early types of modern writing, as well as for both the romantic and anti-romantic modern attitudes toward literature. But, like Shakespeare Cervantes has provided even many of the very words and phrases we still use today.
Among the dozens of expressions Don Quixote originated or popularized are, in Englsh translation, "Can we ever have too much of a good thing?", "plain as the nose on a man’s face", "with the seat of my brow", "out of the frying pan into the fire", "murder will out", "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" and "Faint heart never won fair lady".
Online you can find all kinds of ringing quotes attributed to Don Quixote, about trying to reach unreachable stars and about sanity consisting of seeing the world as it should be. But these inspirational messages are actually from plays, movies or songs only loosely based on the novel. Cervantes's original words are much clearer eyed and sharper.
I suspect a lot of students over the years have written essays based on those other cheerier works rather than work through Don Quixote's prose.
I can't blame them but—their loss.