Today is the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, which is a remarkable piece of seventeenth century meta-fiction. He was born (probably) on this day in 1547 possibly in Alcalá de Henares, a little north east of Madrid. We can’t know for sure, it was a very long time ago. Nor do we know much about his early life. His family seem to have been fairly nomadic and he once fell in love with a barmaid who he was deemed not to be good enough for. At some point he left Spain and travelled to Italy, we don’t know why. Perhaps he was a student, perhaps he was on the run. In any case he steeped himself in the art and literature of the Italian Renaissance.
In 1570, he joined the Spanish navy and was involved in a battle in which he was shot three times, twice in the chest. As a result of his wounds, he lost the use of his left hand. In 1575 his ship was attacked by pirates, the captain was killed and he and other crew members were kidnapped and sold into slavery in Algiers. Cervantes was enslaved for five years and during that time he led four unsuccessful escape attempts. He was eventually freed and returned to Spain where he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada and later as a tax collector. During this time he was imprisoned at least twice for irregularities in his accounts. In 1584, at the age of 37, he married an eighteen year old called Catalina. It seems not to have been a particularly happy marriage. They didn’t spend much time together. But her uncle may have been the inspiration for the character of Don Quixote.
Stories of chivalry were quite popular in Spain in the early seventeenth century. Their themes of adventure and romance were large but didn’t really ever tell us what the people in the stories were really like. Cervantes wanted to write a his chivalric story in a contemporary setting with real people, not just idealised versions of a knight or a lady. What he did was shrink the whole world of medieval chivalry so that it fitted inside the head of a single mad man. His hero has become mad through reading too many stories about chivalry and imagines himself to be a knight errant. He declares a neighbouring farm girl to be his lady love and renames her Dulcinea del Toboso. She has no idea of this fact and never makes a personal appearance in the story. Don Quixote sets off on a series of adventures with his decrepit horse Rocinante and later his ‘squire’ Sancho Panza, a local farm labourer. He imagines himself to be battling all sorts of imaginary foes. What actually happens is that he leaves chaos, or at the very least, bemusement, in his wake and usually gets beaten up. A fact that he generally puts down to the fact that he was fighting an ‘enchanted Moor’. Cervantes presents his story as a retelling of a tale from a much earlier manuscript. He even breaks off half way through a battle to declare that the source of his stories end here. He then continues to describe how he came across a second manuscript at a market which was written in Arabic and which he has had translated. He continues his story, adding that if it is wrong we must blame the translator.
Don Quixote was published in 1605 and became very popular. it was quickly translated into several languages. In 1614 another author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, wrote a sequel to the novel. Cervantes was probably already working on his own sequel at the time, which was published the following year. In it he has Don Quixote meet with Avellaneda and is outraged because the spurious author has declared him to be no longer in love with Dulcinea. He also decides not to go to joust in Zaragosa because it was something that happened in Avellaneda’s novel. He also meets with one of Avellaneda’s characters and has him swear that they never met before.
Throughout the second part, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet with people who know who they are because they have all read Don Quixote part one. This makes them vulnerable and the other characters use what they know about the pair to play a series of tricks of them. Cervantes ends his second novel in a way that makes it absolutely clear that Don Quixote’s adventures are at an end and that any further published stories about him would be a lie.
These two massive novels are far from being the only things that Cervantes wrote. His first book, La Galatea, is a pastoral romance which is mentioned in Don Quixote as one of the books in his library. He also wrote several plays and a series of twelve novellas, some of which seem to draw on his own life experiences. There is one about a man who marries a woman much younger than himself. Worried he will lose her, he keeps her imprisoned in a house that has no windows facing the street. Despite his efforts, she meets a young man and one day he comes home to find his wife in the arms of her lover. Literary tradition at the time would demand the death of the adulterers, but her husband forgives them because he realizes that he was also at fault for trying to isolate her. He dies of grief.
In another story he has his hero travel all over Italy enjoying the art and culture as Cervantes himself had done. But then the young man is given a love potion which poisons him and afterwards he believes he is made of glass. We mentioned this story in an earlier post when we wrote about the glass delusion. The man in quite sane in all other respects but fear that he will break leads him to wrap himself in thick clothing and to travel in a pannier packed with straw. Rather in the same way that Don Quixote can appear perfectly sane – until anyone mentions chivalry.