BOOK (1605-15)


Rewind, book: 'Don Quixote' by Miguel de Cervantes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 5:57pm

Don Quixote
by Miguel de Cervantes
Juan de la Cuesta

William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra were both writing at the same time and both left a body of work considered the foundation of modern Western literature. Cervantes is less familiar to many, but his literary creation is known the world over: Don Quixote has had a phenomenal impact on culture, from fiction to film, ballet and opera.

Before The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, long fiction had always been written in verse. Think of the epic Greek poem The Iliad or the medieval romances. Cervantes also created a character quite unlike the other protagonists of the day.

Alonso Quijana, a Spanish nobleman, is obsessed with the old stories about brave knights and decides to set out on an adventure of his own, adopting the name Don Quixote. Unlike heroes of the past - young knights in shining armour - Quixote is old and poor.

In breaking away from literary convention by casting aside verse for narrative and embracing an anti-hero, Cervantes created the first modern European novel.

The Don, lost in his fantasy world, becomes convinced he is a heroic knight from the novels. He persuades a simple, uneducated farmer called Sancho Panza to be his squire. The Don isn't feigning madness, he's really quite gone - at one point he tries to fight a windmill believing it's a wild beast.

He and his sidekick, Sancho, are the original comic duo. We see the Don and his madness all the more clearly through Sancho's eyes, and the vast gulf between Quixote's dreamy idealism and Sancho's earthy wit and realism allow for plenty of laughs and insight.

Don Quixote's influence on literature cannot be understated. In the centuries since it was published - the first volume in 1605, the second a decade later - playwrights, novelists, musicians and film directors have all been inspired by, parodied or reinterpreted the charismatic anti-hero. The Don influenced Fyodor Dostoevsky ( The Idiot), Charles Dickens ( The Pickwick Papers), Alexander Dumas ( The Three Musketeers) and Mark Twain ( Huckleberry Finn).

Cervantes and Shakespeare died just a day apart: the impoverished Spaniard on April 22, 1616, and the wealthy Bard on April 23.

But both left enduring legacies, especially in Don Quixote, who spawned an adjective: quixotic, meaning exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic and impractical.

Kate Whitehead


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