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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.    

8 thoughts on “Studying Don Quixote by Cervantes

  1. Hi Rea,

    Will add this book to the list as i have not read it either. Thanks for the review!

  2. Hello, I know it’s been a while since you posted about this but I follow your blog and was thinking about this book. I’m a homeschooling Charlotte Mason mom and was wondering which specific Don Quixote book version you would recommend for my 16 year old son. (I have not read this either and would really like to.)
    Thanks, DW in Tennessee

    1. Hi DW,
      Thanks for responding. There are only two really clear options, the actual unabridged text, or a recent edition by Martin Jenkins, with lavish illustrations by Chris Riddell.
      Now the problem with doing the abridged and edited edition is that the irony and absolute satire of Cervantes’ work is lost. So I would recommend doing any of the unabridged
      ones (Oxford World Classics, Norton Critical Edition etc.) and I think you’ll be happier. With the blog postings I’ve done and with notes provided in the texts mentioned, you
      should be good to go! Just for fun I’d check out Riddell’s illustrations as they are really quite true to the text. Do be sure to see Dore’s as well. I hope you enjoy the book,
      it is really pure genius!

      1. Thank you so very much!

  3. You’re welcome and do post back if you have any questions as you get into the text. Happy reading!

  4. I have just started to follow your blog and love your reviews. I am Italian and somehow concerned about translations because I have read some books poorly translated and didn’t enjoyed them as much as I could have, had the translation been done well. Been said the above, I am interested in unabridged versions of some of the books you mentioned in your review of the Don Quixote (i.e. Beowulf, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood). I did some research myself but saw that we came out with different opinions on which translation to offer on the Don Quixote. (I read that a recent translation by Edith Grossman was well reviewed). Also are the pictures, so relevant that it’s better to buy a copy with them? Even for an adult reader? For King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood do you suggest Howard Pyle’s version of the tales? I read that he somehow changed them to make them more suitable for a younger audience but lost somehow historical accuracy. What about Beowulf, which version do you recommend, Heaney’s?

    1. Hi Elsa,
      Thank for commenting. My specialty is children’s literature, so in most cases I’m posting toward that end. That said, I am passionate about all literature, and always choose an unabridged edition whenever possible. I’m doing the Oxford edition of Don Quixote and really enjoying that, but I’m sure the Norton Critical edition would be wonderful as well. As far as the illustrations, the classic ones done by Gustave Dore just shouldn’t be missed as they are so rich and so expressive of Cervantes’s work that they are the perfect marriage of lit and art. Most critical editions don’t have illustrations with them, but the Dore woodcuts can be purchased (or borrowed from a library) in a book all by themselves.
      As for King Arthur, I do love the Howard Pyle edition, and yes, he made them more accessible to American youth as much of the language of Sir Thomas Malory would have been archaic. Would love to hear back from you regarding your reading journeys! Cheers!

      1. Thank you for your comments. I normally read unabridged versions of books to my children as I read once an adaptation of the The three Musketeers and Captains Courageous and didn’t enjoy them at all.

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