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
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:
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:
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.