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Don Quixote Part II

Dear Readers,

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Honoré Daumier, 1855, bringing out the comic aspect of Cervantes's work

In Part II of my intro to Don Quixote, I will cover some of the themes and “illusions” that make the novel so unique.  The historical context within which the work takes place is significant in understanding that appearances cannot be trusted.  Even the novel itself suffers from an unreliable authorship as I will explain.  So, since things are not as they appear, the key is attempting to look beyond the surface to what is really happening.  For instance, the Edict of Exile of 1492 banished from Spain all Jews unwilling to convert to Catholicism and the Edict of 1499 effectually did the same to Muslims.  Thus, both Jews and Muslims who chose to remain in Spain, did so only as conversos or Morenos.  In reality, most of them kept faith with the religion of their fathers, but in public appeared as Catholics.  This made for confusing cultural dynamics which Cervantes alludes to in humorous ways.

In regards to the authorship of Don Quixote, (Part I, Chapters 8-9) Cervantes sets up a complex literary conceit by claiming that the story of DQ ends abruptly and that he is at a loss as to where to find the “rest of the story.”  But as he was walking one day “on the exchange of Toledo” he runs across a boy selling old papers with Arabic writing on them.  Now this is significant, since during the Inquisition of Ferdinand and Isabella, both Hebrew and Arabic were outlawed.  Books in these languages were burned (thus the scene of the book burning which opens the novel), and though Arabic had been the lingua franca during the Golden Age of Spain, it had now been outlawed for nearly a century and no one spoke it openly any longer.  So while Cervantes knows the Arabic script, he is unable to read it.  He therefore finds a “Moorish rabbi to read them” and low and behold, this is the very story of Don Quixote of La Mancha!

There are so many things going on in this scene that it is difficult to cover them all.  First of all, Toledo was the center of the intellectual renaissance in Spain.  It was there, that Brother Raymund de Sauvetot began his school of translation in the 12th century that brought together Arabic, Jewish, and Christian scholars to translate the classic works of Greek antiquity into Latin, Hebrew and Arabic from the original Greek.  The Arab scholars brought the works of Persian authors in mathematics, science and medicine to be translated from Arabic into Latin.  These three Abrahamic faiths worked side by side in tolerance and mutual respect. Now in the scene depicted by Cervantes,  Toledo is nearly bereft of anyone who even speaks Arabic and the Golden Era of Spain is at an end.  Not only that, but many of the texts painstakingly translated during this Golden Era were systematically burned on Inquisitional fires.

In the novel when the “Moorish rabbi” begins to read the text, he bursts out laughing because of notes written upon the margin.  Cervantes questions him and he says, “This Dulcinea del Toboso [DQ’s lady love], so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand at salting pork of any woman in La Mancha” (68).   The reason the Arab is laughing is because Dulcinea must have been a secret Jew, as Jews were forever trying to prove their authenticity as conversos by their willingness to handle pork, and become quite skilled at it.

Also, Cervantes ascribes authorship of Don Quixote of La Manchato an Arab historiographer–Cid Hamet Ben Engeli.  But

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Having a Rest under a Tree by Honoré Daumier

as Cervantes notes, “if any objection lies against the truth of this history, it can only be, that the author was an Arab, those of that nation being not a little addicted to lying” (69).  So even while he lays out the complex way in which the story of DQ comes to light, (by way of proving its veracity) at the same time he calls into question the reliability of the text by virtue of the fact that Arabs are somewhat known for their lack of honesty.

By using these complex conceits of reality vs. illusion, truth vs. honesty, and fact vs. fiction, Cervantes sets up a world where nothing is just as it seems. In this world, what DQ wants is the restoration of a better, more virtuous, kinder, and just world. Ironically, though, what Don Quixote imagines to be true he often inadvertently brings about.  As Harold Bloom notes in his Modern Critical Interpretations: Cervantes’s Don Quixote,

Miguel de Unamuno says of Don Quixote’s loss of his wits: “He lost them for our sake, for our benefit, so as to leave us an eternal example of spiritual generosity”.  That is to say, Don Quixote goes mad as a vicarious atonement for our drabness, our ungenerous dearth of imagination” (Bloom 150).

Enjoy this novel for the ways in which it can deliver us from our lack of imagination, our spiritual drabness and selfishness, and be inspired, like Don Quixote (as crazy as it may seem) to live life with joy, inspiration, imagination, and even a bit of foolishness.

Don’t forget to check out The Man of La Mancha with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren.  Please preview before watching as a family. A number of artists have depicted Cervantes’s work with beautiful imagination.  Don’t miss the woodcut etchings of Gustave Doré (featured in my last post) and also the oil paintings of Honoré Daumier.  Also check online for images of the memorial sculpture in Madrid that honors Cervantes and his immortal characters from Don Quixote.

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Studying Don Quixote by Cervantes

Dear Readers,

I have been thoroughly enjoying reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the first time.  I am fairly dismayed and shocked that while I was earning my degree in English I was never introduced to this amazing work since it is considered the very first modern novel.  Consider what a few of the brightest literary critics say about this remarkable work:

Don Quixote is to the Spanish language what Shakespeare is to English, Dante to Italian, and Goethe to German:  the glory of that particular vernacular.  Perhaps Cervantes’s masterwork is the central book of the last half-millennium, since all the greater novelists are as much Don Quixote’s children as they are Shakespeare’s. –Harold Bloom

Don Quixote in his library reading works of chivalry.–Gustave Doré

We state his achievement somewhat more concretely when we say that he created a new form by criticizing the old forms” (Harry Levin, Cervantes’s Don Quixote).

As much as we may mediate on Don Quixote, as the Greeks meditated on the Homeric poems, or the English on the dramas of Shakespeare, we cannot consume all the marrow of the wisdom that it contains.  –Miguel de Unamuno

In losing myself in this remarkable work, I have to agree wholeheartedly with the above sentiments.  Don Quixote is a treasure trove of wisdom on every aspect of life–so much so that while I am a habitual marker of texts (I highlight, post-it note, and underline continually), I have had to stop. The reason is that the text is so rich, so ironic, so satirical, so funny, so full of double-meanings and real-life wisdom that I would literally have the entire work underlined.  Now, in studying this with your student, here is the caveat.  Most translations for children are mainly plot driven.  They follow the humorous and hilarious antics of this crazy knight-errant and his loveable squire Sancho Panza, but with little of the philosophy included.  This diminishes the text considerably and can make the text somewhat frustrating as students will begin to wonder what the point of DQ’s and Sancho Panza’s continual beatings is anyway.  So here are a few suggestions to help make the text more meaningful when using an abridged and edited version:

Gustave Doré’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

1.  Don Quixote turns the notion of the archetypal hero on its head.  In other words, the heroic figure we are used to is strong, handsome, young, brave, (think Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus) and has a beautiful maiden for whom he performs his deeds of honor, courage and valor. DQ is the antithesis is many ways because he is (like his horse Rosinante) rather broken-down, old, not much to look at, and crazy.  Despite all of this, he is determined to perform valorous deeds and all he does is basically wreak havoc wherever he goes.

2.  Due to DQ’s distorted perceptions of reality, he causes trouble in countless situations.  This results in continual beatings, deprivations, and humiliating calamities to himself and Sancho Panza. Ironically, the very fact that they are being continually beaten further verifies in DQ’s mind the intrinsic veracity of his knight-errantry. So, one way to make this clearer to your students is to read passages from the original that will particularly strike your funny bone and make sense of the text.  Free texts can be found online at a number of sites.

3.  Since the novel itself turns the notion of knighthood and chivalry on its head, it subtly exposes the fallacies of so much of what we take for granted regarding chivalry, knighthood, and medieval notions of virtue and honor. Don Quixote exposes the ways in which chivalrous works (think Beowulf, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, El Cid etc.) neglects essential aspects of life in view of painting a picture of chivalry so ethereal and inspiring that it is virtually unattainable by mortals.  Here are a number of aspects inherent in the works of Medieval chivalry that Cervantes (through the character of DQ) exposes using satire and irony:

Don Quixote brought home in a cage.–Gustave Doré
Don Quixote brought home in a cage.–Gustave Doré

1.  Knights never carry money: “Don Quixote replied, he had not a farthing, having never read in the histories of knights-errant, that they carried any.
2.  Knights never complain of pain: “If I do not complain of pain, it is because knights-errant are not allowed to complain of any wound whatever, though their entrails come out of it.”
3. Knights are never accused of a crime or brought to justice, no matter how many people they kill: “Peace,’ quoth Don Quixote, ‘for where have you ever seen or read of a knight-errant’s being brought before a court of justice, let him have committed ever so many homicides?”
4.  Knights never eat: “If you had read as many histories as I have, you would have known this; for though I have perused a great many, I never yet found any account given in them, that ever knights-errant did eat, unless it were by chance, and at certain sumptuous banquets made on purpose for them.”

Cervantes applies this same kind of irony and satire to not only chivalry, but also to the many foibles of life and human nature as well.  As you begin to recognize these, your appreciation for this marvelous work will only increase.  In the meantime, for those wishing to study this work with their youngest readers, Margaret Hodges work is probably the best.  For middle and upper readers the latest edition by Martin Jenkins, and illustrated by Chris Riddell will provide not only a well-written abridgement, but also a visual feast. Also, don’t miss the marvelous etchings of  Gustave Doré, a few of which I’ve included here and can also be found online.  Jennie Ruzicka also provides a book of them in her Gustave Doré Illustrations to Don Quixote.    

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Dahlias: Elegance and Dignity

No idle wish

To rival her compeers;

Of her own passing loveliness, e’er stirs

Her tranquil soul.  She brightly shines

Amid the lesser lights that round her beam,

Eclipsing all with her effulgent rays.


This will be an unusual post from me, and since I am no photographer, and not a highly skilled gardener either, the results will be questionable!  But I had to share my joy with all of my readers as I have recently begun a new love affair.  No, I’m still happily married to my darling husband Russ, but in May I began a quest for dahlias.  This was in view of my dear son Josh’s upcoming wedding, as the reception was to be held in our backyard.  His lovely fiancée Grace, had decided upon an unusual color–hot chocolate roses, with which I wanted to try to coordinate the garden flower beds.  So dahlia’s seemed the logical choice to give some whimsy and vibrant color to the event.  I ordered 25 different varieties in the red and coral genre and planted away.  When the tubers arrived, I was struck by the unpromising (and downright hideous) aspect of a dahlia tuber as it stands in remarkable contrast to what its unassuming seed state portends.  Brown, shriveled and humble, this tuber has something to say about the nature of transformation.

And transform they did!  The glorious color, variety, and shapes of dahlias astound and thrill me every time I return to the garden to fertilize, trim and deadhead.  Not to say that getting them to this point didn’t take heroic efforts.  It did.  I have gone from being an organically green fundamentalist to a free-wheeling chemical and pesticide nazi.  I mean all of this figuratively, of course.  While I have always maintained a strict pesticide and chemical free garden ethos, my dahlias forced me into denying everything I have hitherto maintained about being green.  Dahlias are high maintenance flowers and at least this summer (which was unusually cool on the central coast of California), are subject to every pest and disease known to the botanical world.  So I sprayed, fertilized, dusted, and sprayed some more.  I did seriously doubt my own sanity when I found myself on successive mornings literally scrubbing powdery mildew off of my dahlia leaves with a toothbrush.  Oh, the lengths we (well, I ) will go to have a nice garden for a wedding!  But now, my hard work is paying off and so I am delighted to share some dahlia pictures I took this morning.  By the way, the wedding was beautiful and the dahlias were eclipsed into the background of all the other lovelinesses, especially the bride herself!

Finally, since this is in reality a blog devoted to children’s literature, I must have a tie-in to some aspect of children’s lit.  So, I’m happy to share that Monet too, loved dahlias and Renoir painted Monet in his garden painting dahlias.  Here it is!  Which brings to mind that there is a wonderful children’s book on the topic of Monet’s garden entitled Linnea in Monet’s Garden.  Check it out!

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The Tempest Part II

In my last post, I introduced some of my favorite children’s works for studying Shakespeare’s The Tempest with young students.  For the older elementary and high school student, the full text is the most appropriate choice, and there are numerous editions which will make this play a bit more approachable.  First of all, no one should ever feel embarrassed to read a simple child’s edition as an introduction to any of the Bard’s works, and this holds true for The Tempest as well.

In college (as most English majors do) I purchased the Riverside Shakespeare and today, despite its very weighty and bulky mass, I love it.  Mine is highlighted and marked through many of the works, and it is always a joy to return to those old notes and remember inspired lectures by beloved professors. The wide margins and onion skin feather-light paper speak of importance and an almost scripture-like quality. The annotations and definitions are very helpful as are the textual notes before and after each play.

The Tempest contains a number of themes but this brief introduction will concentrate on three: reality and illusion, natural man vs. civilized man, and most importantly,vengeance vs. forgiveness. The plot involves Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, his daughter, Miranda, and a native islander named Caliban.  These three are the only inhabitants of a magical island home until a fateful storm (thus The Tempest), brings upon the island Prospero’s brother Antonio, (who usurped the Dukedom), his co-conspirator Sebastian, Alonso–the King of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and a few other minor players.

Set on an indeterminate island, The Tempest is Shakespeare’s play that comes closest to having an early colonial connection, as the island setting draws upon descriptions of Bermuda (Bermoothes) brought back to England after one of the early Virginia expeditions was shipwrecked on this beautiful and habitable isle.  Subsequent pamphlets published describing Bermuda are the likely source of Shakespeare’s “mixing the atmosphere of a Mediterranean island with that of a New World discovery” (Riverside, 1657).  Also, the colonial connection relates to Prospero and Caliban.  Prospero (along with his daughter, Miranda) essentially “colonizes” the island, and attempts to civilize the native Caliban by teaching him English, while Caliban opens to Prospero the secrets of the island. But the relationship sours and the surly Caliban complains to Prospero, “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,/ Which thou tak’st from me” (I. ii. 331-332).  But Prospero defends the “kindness” and “human care” he showed Caliban until Caliban sought to “violate the honor of [his] child [Miranda]” (I. ii. 347-349).  The theme of natural man represented by Caliban, and civilized man, represented by Prospero, continues throughout the play and becomes more complex as Caliban mistakes two drunken sailors for gods, and as Prospero confronts the murderous and savage behavior of his civilized brother Antonio.  When King Alonso and the good Gonzalo are visited by strange-shaped creatures of Prospero’s magic, the two believe they are natives of the island and the astonished Gonzalo notes that “Though they are of monstrous shape, yet note/ Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of/ Our human generation” and Prospero remarks aside, “Honest lord/ Thou hast said well; for some of you there present/ Are worse than devils” (III. iii. 31-35).

Prospero represents the quintessential Renaissance man–deeply devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, “the liberal arts”, and this knowledge enables him to harness the powers of magic to serve his ends in bringing Antonio and Sebastian to justice.  Prospero’s magic is actually an “art which he has learned after laborious study” and in which “he uses some secret powers of nature” (Riverside 1656).  This is where the theme of illusion and reality comes in and Prospero has created a magical island world for all of us.  Like Shakespeare himself, each play is his created illusion of reality, and we the spectators.  This is a theme that Shakespeare uses often, and like Hamlet, we find “the play’s the thing” that opens up our understanding of reality.  In anticipation of Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding, Prospero provides entertainment for his island guests.  But when he suddenly interrupts the play his explanation is thus:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.” (IV. i. 148-157)

Prospero reminds us that all of life is a grand play with its gorgeous palaces, towers, solemn temples, the great globe itself (and here of course his double-meaning–the Globe Theater, and the earth) is clear.  The material world to which we are so devoted, will one day vanish into “thin air” and we will not leave a “rack” (a wisp of cloud) behind.  Our life is rounded with a sleep–the sleep of night’s rest, but also the eternal rest of death.  Prospero’s transcendent perspective also informs what it seems to me is the strongest theme of the play: his forgiveness of his enemies.

Prospero demonstrates what is a repeating theme of Shakespeare’s works–the forgiveness of those who have deeply wronged us.  Betrayed by his brother, and put out to sea and an almost certain death, nonetheless, Prospero chooses mercy.  “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,/ Yet, with my nobler reason, ‘gainst my fury/ Do I take part.  The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeance” (V. i. 24-28).  And later to his brother he says, “And you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother/ Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive/ Thy rankest fault–all of them” (V.i. 130-132). And even the malicious Caliban who conspires to murder Prospero, receives mercy from his intended victim, which inspires him to reform his ways promising “I’ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace” (V. 1. 295-296).  And so, The Tempest begins with treachery and betrayal and ends, as often Shakespeare does, with grace.  Enjoy this delightful play with your students!

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Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Dear Reader,

Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be a delightful experience for those wanting to incorporate a bit more of the Bard into their studies of the Reformation and Renaissance era. The themes are not difficult in this play and unlike many of Shakespeare’s other works, the plot sequence is rather simple and easy-to-follow, even for young students. For the youngest reader there are two delightful approaches to take which should make this an enjoyable experience for all!  Marcia Williams in her Tales from Shakespeare has done an adaptation that will provide a worthy introduction; her detailed and colorful illustrations will hold the attention of the youngest reader.  Her well-selected passages retain the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.  Those introducing The Tempest to the youngest readers will be delighted to learn that the BBC produced an animated edition (though an abbreviated 30 minutes–it is well worth watching) which covers the main plot and themes for the youngest student of the Bard.  Though it isn’t readily available for purchase, it can be watched on YouTube in 3 ten minute parts. You can access Part 1 here.

For middle readers, Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb remains the classic revision of the Bard’s most beloved tales, and while it was originally published in 1906, it is still popular today.  Charles Lamb, a nineteenth-century essayist and his sister Mary, understood the importance of retaining the intricate twists and turns of the play’s plot while retaining the beauty of Shakespeare’s language as often as possible.  For any reader who needs an introduction, or even a refresher, these delightful re-tellings will not disappoint.  Many editions of this title include the illustrations of Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliot.  I am partial to the work of nineteenth-century children’s illustrator Arthur Rackham, who did some of the earliest illustrations for the Lamb’s edition.  At left, note his delightful depiction from The Tempest of Ariel teasing Caliban.  When Prospero relates to his daughter Miranda the story of her birth and upbringing,  she recalls a time when she had nursemaids to care for her (see at right).   And below, Rackham depicts Miranda’s lovely lines to Ferdinand, “Alas, now, work not so hard, I pray you.”

Another of my favorite nineteenth century illustrators is Edmund Dulac.  You can see here two of his illustrations from The Tempest.  His vision of Miranda and Ferdinand is stunning and his fairies conjure up all the mystery of this fantastical work.  Hunting down either of these extraordinary artists will enhance and enrich your literary experience with some of the finest art ever produced for children.  In my next post, I will provide a simple overview of the plot, themes, and fun historical facts that will, hopefully, make studying this delightful work even more enjoyable!  So, good night, and as good Prospero says,

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on;

And our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”