Don Quixote: Reading Is Dangerous

Michel de Cervantes, Histoire de l’Admirable Don Quichotte de la Manche.

Translated from Spanish. Several publication years and locations.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Rocinante – everybody knows these names. Miguel de Cervantes’ novel about the adventures of the Spanish knight regularly appears on lists of the best books of all times, and numerous comic duos were created on the model of the two main characters (tall skinny guy, short fat guy). But you know how it is with the classics: one would like to read them, but never has the time for it. And so you don’t really know what the book’s about. We would like to help out, tell you what happens in The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha and talk about the cultural and historical significance of the novel.

The Plot

On the left, we see Don Quixote fighting the infamous windmills. To him they look like dangerous giants.

The protagonist Don Quixote, an impoverished nobleman from La Mancha in central Spain, loves to read chivalric novels very much. A little too much, because at some point the good man completely loses touch with reality and believes himself to be a knight. He saddles his warhorse, puts on his armour, gets himself a squire and goes into battle. There is just one catch: the armour is self-made, the old nag is no warhorse, the simple farmer no squire and Don Quixote no knight. That, however, doesn’t seem to bother him in the slightest because his vivid imagination turns inns into castles, prostitutes into noble damsels and the famous windmills into dangerous giants, whom he fights bravely. This rarely ends well. Usually, the adventurous escapades end with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, his loyal shield-bearer, getting beaten black and blue.

Reading Chivalric Novels: the Guilty Pleasure of Late Medieval Times

A little background information about the time when the novel was written helps to better understand this tragicomic story about the failed knight. The first part of the novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha was published in 1605. This was quite a while after the golden age of chivalry. The stories about the legendary King Arthur and his round table, about Gawain, Lancelot, Guinevere and the quest for the Holy Grail were already famous between the 12th and the 15th century. But as they were extremely popular, many adaptations were written until the later Middle Ages, including Amadis novels, a genre that was widespread in the Spanish-speaking area and was called that way because of its hero Amadis de Gaula. This ‘chivalry popular literature’ became more and more absurd and implausible until someone came and took the mickey out of it – his name was Miguel de Cervantes.

The ‘Pícaro’

However, describing Don Quixote as a parody of chivalry novels isn’t the only possible interpretation. In the 16th century, Spanish literature also created what is known as ‘picaresque novels’. These works follow a roguish hero of low social class as he goes on all sorts of journeys and adventures. And since ‘pícaro’ is the Spanish word for rogue, these works are called picaresque novels. The protagonist gets to know the young and the old, the poor and the rich, and provides the esteemed reader with a colourful overview of the society of his time. This is what happens in the story of Don Quixote, who encounters farmers, innkeepers and prostitutes. So if you want to make a good impression at a cocktail party in the future, you can now easily drop an intelligent remark about Cervantes and the picaresque novel…

Fiction and Reality

I started this article with the fact that this novel is undoubtedly considered a classic of world literature and can be found on many “The 100 Best Books of All Times” lists. One reason why books end up on these lists is that they do not only tell a specific story but that they address the issue of storytelling as such. It’s literature about literature, if you will.

You remember that the hero reads so many chivalric novels that at some point he can no longer tell what is fiction and what is reality. Believe it or not, that was actually a widespread assumption at the time: reading is dangerous. People who read too much will no longer be able to find their way around the real world. This might seem very strange for us because we generally have a high opinion of reading as an uplifting, intellectually stimulating activity – compared to watching TV, for example. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the book was still a rather new medium, at least as an object of entertainment for a wider audience. And just as is the case with any new medium, some scholars were sceptical about it at first.

One has to note that the novel itself does not support this hypothesis – too much imagination does harm to the individual – at all. On the contrary. What makes it such an outstanding literary work is the fact that it fundamentally questions the relation between reality and imagination, between idealism and pragmatism, while allowing for different interpretations.

An Export Hit from Spain

In a way, Don Quixote had something to offer for every reader: a good story, interesting characters from all social classes, something to laugh about and something to think about. The book became an instant success. Only a short time later, several pirated copies were passed around. When Cervantes published the second volume ten years later, another author had even tried to benefit from his success by writing an unofficial sequel.

This cumulative edition of six volumes proves that the novel was also a successful hit in other European countries. The volumes of the MoneyMuseum’s French set aren’t of the same edition, but of three different ones: volume 1 was published in Paris, volumes 2 to 5 in The Hague and volume 6 in Frankfurt. A collector probably wanted to own a complete set from the 18th century and so he collected them one by one. Cervantes’ masterpiece was translated into numerous languages and probably remains the most successful export hit of Spanish literature to this day – something which, in this case, also shows in the book’s collecting history.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Numerous artists transposed Cervantes’ novel into paintings, including Gustave Doré, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. Here you can see Dalí’s illustrations on the website of the Dalí Museum.

Here you can read Cervantes’ entire novel, translated by John Ormsby.

Here you find out why tournaments were so important for chivalry.

For the film lovers among our readers: In 2018, director Terry Gilliam, who is well-known for his irreverent takes on historical material – for example on the Arthurian legend in Monty Python and the Holy Grail or the life of Jesus in Life of Brian – brought the latest adaptation of Cervantes’ material to the big screen. Here you can watch the trailer of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Text bewerten