Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote wasn't the first novel, but it was the first modern novel. Specifically, it was the first novel to incorporate everyday language into character dialogue. Before Cervantes, there were rigorous rules which authors were expected to follow: good writing was valued more for its artistry than its realism, and characters made lofty speeches that ordinary humans would never deliver ad lib.
In Don Quixote, characters speak more like normal people. That doesn't mean they don't ever launch into lofty soliloquies, or even that their everyday language isn't unfamiliar to those of us with modern ears, but to the audience of Cervantes' day, Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Dulcinea, and the rest sounded the way early 17th-century Spaniards like themselves sounded. At least in terms of dialogue—one of the funniest things about the deluded man of La Mancha is how old-fashioned he is.
Of course he's old fashioned, you'll say, he lived four hundred years ago! But all literature must be read as much in the context in which it was written as possible, and at the time Don Quixote de La Mancha was old fashioned. What was the time? Just on the heels of the Renaissance with its rejection of Middle Ages authoritarian philosophy and religion, Europe was only beginning to move into the modern world, which itself was just beginning to rise from the ruins of the past it destroyed.
Medieval Europe was a land of hierarchies. In the church, the lay congregant was ruled by the priest, who was ruled by the bishop, who was ruled by the cardinal, who was ruled by the pope. The feudal political system was similar: Kings leased land to barons, barons leased land to knights, and knights leased land to peasants, who were basically slaves. Philosophy, warfare, theology, politics, and everyday life were all organized by the principle of hierarchy.
Notably, the common man was at the bottom every time. He was like an unheroic Atlas who trudged along with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but utterly unrecognized and downtrodden for his pains. Those standing on his back lived more comfortably (though often, just barely), not because they worked harder for it, but literally because they deserved it. All this was predicated on a worldview that understood all things to have a place in the "Great Chain of Being," and no one questioned any of it.
That is, until the Renaissance. While the ideas introduced during the so-called "Re-birth of Europe" wouldn't come to complete fruition until the Enlightenment, they took enough root that people began to wonder if the hierarchical model was entirely accurate. They didn't reject it altogether by any means, but the seeds of doubt had been planted, and mankind came to be seen more as a universal brotherhood than as a graduated ladder of subjects and rulers.
The Reformation in the late 16th century was the perfect balance between complete hierarchy and complete individualism, but between 1605 and 1615 (when Don Quixote was published), it hadn't taken root in Roman Catholic Spain. In fact, the hierarchy of feudalism and Romanism were both still securely in place on the Iberian Peninsula, even as the rest of Europe was fanning the flames of humanism and rationalism.
Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in this context, and it wasn't a nice joke. Not only was he mocking the backwardness of the Middle Ages and those who still clung to them, he was challenging the very rules of his art by mocking past convention while establishing his own rules. It's supremely ironic that he did both of these things in the heart of one of Europe's last strongholds of the old ideology.
So much for the context. The novel itself is about a deluded landowner named Don Quixote ("don" meaning "sir") who has lived so much in the romances of the past that for him everyday objects have become fantastic elements and characters in his own feverish imagination. Quixote's squire is a lecherous peasant; his true love is a prostitute; his most dread enemies are sheep and windmills, which he attacks sheathed in armor and wielding lance, sword, and shield.
Like all early satire (think Gulliver's Travels), Cervantes' novel includes plenty of off-color humor. But don't just think "naughty"; a more appropriate adjective would be "earthy." Sancho Panza and others belch, leer, and drink their way through the varied and zany adventures, but Cervantes doesn't throw this in just to make his audience giggle behind their hands—his goal is to show his readers how ridiculous the old philosophies and social structures were, and how conducive to keeping the majority of the population in disorganized ignorance.
Understanding this context makes reading Don Quixote much more rewarding, though it's fun in its own right. The adventures of the landowner who fancies himself a knight when the rest of the world has moved on (though representing Spain and the rest of Europe) is filled with rambunctious commoners, insane adventures, and absurd situations. If you want to read something really funny that doesn't take itself too seriously yet is still a classic, we recommend you start here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
We carry four translations of Don Quixote here at Exodus, and were able to look at a fifth translation published by Barnes & Noble (this did not cite the translator's name). Click here to view and exclusive comparison chart featuring five sections from the story.
One interesting fact: after completing part one of Don Quixote, Cervantes realized that another writer had churned out a sequel to his work. Cervante's reply to this unfortunate event is witty and amusing, and when writing about it here counts the story of a mad man who used to wander around town dropping big rocks on the village dogs. One day he approached the haberdasher's dog, but the haberdasher ran out and proceeded to beat the half-wit: "Why did you hurt my hound? Didn't you see, cruel man, that my dog was a hound?" After this incident the madman was still seen approaching dogs in a stupified haze, but he was too afraid to drop rocks on them. "This is a hound," he would tell himself, "watch out!"
Cervantes compares the writer to the madman, dryly observing: "Perhaps something similar may happen to this storyteller, who will not dare ever again to set his great talent loose among books, which, when they are bad, are harder than boulders."
Cervantes eventually completed his own "part two," and now readers can enjoy hearing about the soothsaying monkey, the journey to see Dulcinea, the Countess Trifaldi, and Quixote's terrible experience with cats.
The most recent translation we carry was published in 2003 by Edith Grossman, one of the most important translators of Latin American fiction in the past century. In a 2003 PEN Tribute speech she gave, Grossman commented on her translation philosophy:
Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation. Let me insist on the obvious: Languages trail immense, individual histories behind them, and no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. They can be linked by translation, as a photograph can link movement and stasis, but it is disingenuous to assume that either translation or photography, or acting for that matter, are representational in any narrow sense of the term. Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.
Grossman's translation contains an introduction by Howard Bloom and has deckled pages (irregular in outline with decreased thickness, making the edges appear torn.)
We carry Walter Starkie's 1957 translation from Signet Classics, both unabridged and abridged. It contains an introduction by Edward H. Friedman of Vanderbilt University. Starkie is considered on of the top hispanists of the 20th century, and taught comparative literature at the University of Madrid before teaching at five American universities. His translation includes a satirical introduction and prefatory verses written by Cervantes, as well as his own cultural commentary in the footnotes. A long bibliography is included, helpful for students who need source materials for research.
John Rutherford's 2000 translation includes Cervante's prefatory material, a chronology of his life, an introduction by Roberto Gozalez Echevarria, and extensive notes in the back.We carry this version in the Penguin Classics paperback. Rutherford's approach to translating Quixote reflects a modern attitude held by many of the best translators today: "The translator of Quixote has no option but to deck the book in his own colours and make the author speak after a set manner, and it is better if he first decides what kind of Quixote he wants to write...his choices should be governened by his vision of the whole." Rutherford cricizes the choice of many past translators to sacrifice the wit and earthiness of Quixote for cleaner, more elegant English Prose. "If my Quixote and my Sancho were to speak with living voices they had to use the varieties of contemporary spoken English that men of their age and background would use today, except where for purposes of parody, Cervantes wrote a Spanish that was already archaic at the beginning of the seventeenth century."
The "Jarvis Translation" is actually by the painter Charles Jervas (who painted a portrait of Jonathan Swift), which was first published posthumously in 1742; it was attributed to Charles "Jarvis" because of a printer's error. Although his was the third English translation, Jervas was first to provide an introduction to the novel including a critical analysis of previous translations of Don Quixote. It has been highly praised as the most accurate translation of the novel up to that time, but also strongly criticised for being stiff and humourless, although it went through many printings during the 19th century. We carry the Oxford World's Classics edition of the Jarvis Translation, which includes a wealth of supplementary information as well as minor amendments of Jarvis's more obvious mistakes.
Although not in print, we want to recommend a hardback picture book adapted and illustrated by Marcia Williams. Williams, a former interior designer, cloth sculpture artist and nursery school teacher knows how to engage both young children and their parents with genuinely interesting text and stimulating illustrations. This book is very unique in style: William's pen and watercolor illustrations are arranged in little comic-book-style strips and boxes, but a narrative also runs through the book, making it perfect for read-aloud time. It's difficult to preserve Cervante's wit when you have to pare down a 900 page novel to 2nd grade level. Williams manages to do this with the speech bubbles she assigns characters, preserving some humor which would have otherwise been lost. Colorful geometric designs fill the page margins, adding to the slapstick nature and fast-moving pace of the original.
Just like adults, kids benefit from reading a wide variety of books. We've recommended many wonderful picture books over the years that have very simple storylines and are not based on the classics, but we think adding a few adaptions to your kid's library is a really good idea. You'll give them a taste for the literature they can enjoy later in high school, and you'll enjoy some added depth to storytime.
If you hoping to find a version for older kids, we carry Stories of Don Quixote in paperback, adapted by 19th century author and textbook editor James Baldwin. It's roughly 230 pages, recommended for ages 10 and up. Balwin claims that this is "not so much an abridgement of the great book by Cervantes as a rewriting of some of its most interesting parts." This edition is full of pen and ink drawings, and includes the famous tales of the windmills and sheep.
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