Don Quijote, a novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Spain's Golden Age
The Spanish Golden Age
I have written several articles about the great paintings of some of Spain's great master painters, so I cannot ignore Spain's greatest writer and greatest novel, Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Written during Spain's Golden Age, also known as the Spanish Renaissance, it ran from the 15-17th centuries. It was a period of flourishing in the arts and literature in Spain and when Spain came to the forefront and was a great power in Europe. Spain at this time equaled England and France in the world of leaders and became a world power for a brief shining moment in the sun.
Spain's Golden Age coincided with the political rise and fall of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. The Habsburgs, both in Spain and Austria (where they are originally from) were great patrons of arts in their countries and supported the arts in the royal courts in both countries. They found the best painters, sculptors, architects and writers and made sure they were brought to the royal courts and that is how we have the great masters' works to see, view and enjoy today. Some of the great works in Spain became world-wide famous:
- El Escorial - was the great monastery and palace that King Philip II of Spain had built about fifty kilometers outside of Madrid. It was King Philip II who had Spain's capital city moved from Toledo to Madrid, and it is from Madrid that the Royal Families ruled from then on. Toledo remained the religious capital of the country, but Madrid was the political and governmental capital city now.
- El Greco - infused Spanish art with styles of the Italian Renaissance and Post-Byzantine art. Although, originally from the island of Crete, and descended from Greeks, Spain adopted him as their "favorite son" in the arts and El Greco helped create a uniquely Spanish style of painting for his adopted home. He became Spain's first great art master.
- Diego Velazquez - is regarded as one of the most influencial painters of European history and of portraits. He was a greatly respected artist of his own time and world renowned and one of Spain's Old World masters in painting
- Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra - under whom Spanish literature blossomed with his fictitious novel, Don Quijote de la Mancha. Don Quijote has become known as the founding work of modern Western literature and of the fictitious novel and one of the greatest works of fiction ever published.
It was during this great time in Spain that Miguel Cervantes made his great literary offering to the world and established the novel in the literary genre as we know it today. His contribution to the literary world is uncomparable, even to those that came after him and were great writing artists. There were great things happening in all areas of politics, art, and the humanities in Spain at that time and now it is time for Don Quijote and Miguel Cervantes' story to be told
The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quijote of La Mancha
Don Quijote's official title is: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quijote of La Mancha, a novel written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. La Mancha is the central region in Spain where Madrid is located and from where the fictitious Don Quijote lives and has his adventures. The novel follows the adventures of one Alfonso Quijano, the main character, who at the age of fifty or so is semi-retired and who reads too many chivalric novels for his own good. He decides he should set out to revive chivalry under the name of Don Quijote. (Don, being the honorable title given to the Spanish nobility and knights) Sancho Panza is a peasant farmer (and side-kick) that Don Quijote convinces to be his squire (because every knight is attended by a squire). Poor Sancho must deal with Quijote's rhetorical speeches on antiquated knighthood with a unique earthy wit and comedic touch.
In his adventures, Don Quijote is met by the world how it really is (reality) not by how Quijote wishes it to be (illusion). And herein lies the comedy of the novel. The contrast between reality and illusion is what provides the comic relief.
Don Quijote was published in two volumes written ten years apart in 1605 and 1615. It is considered by world-wide scholars to be the most influencial work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and in the entire Spanish literary canon.
The ficticious main character, Alfonso Quijano is a reasonable, rational man living with his niece and housekeeper in the La Mancha region of Spain. He is a great reader of all things knight and chivalry. This reading leads Quijano to a loss of perception and the wavering of his mental faculties as he believes every word in the books to be true. Otherwise, his wits and mind is intact in every other area. Quijano decides to go out as a knight-errant in search of adventures, so he dons an old suit of armour and voila . . . he becomes Don Quijote de La Mancha. He names his skinny horse, Rocinante, and names the neighbor farm girl, Dulcinea and declares she is his lady love, though she is completely unaware of any of this at the time. Quijote convinces his peasant farmer neighbor, Sancho Panza to become his squire and Panza agrees to do so.
Now, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza are ready to go out into the world in search of adventures in the knight-errant and chivalric codes of honor from the medieval times. Don Quijote and Sancho Panza's most famous and best known adventure of all is the one in which Don Quijote attacts the five windmills on a ridge in La Mancha thinking they are giants he must slay, in the name of his lady love, Dulcinea. Before Sancho Panza can alert Don Quijote of his mistake, Don Quijote spears one of the windmills and becomes entangled in it. Of course, it is Sancho Panza that must untangle Quijote from the windmills, take care of his injuries, and get him to a nearby inn so Quijote may recuperate from his broken bones. Each adventure the two encounter is comical and written tongue-in-cheek. Quijote continues messing up each adventure and Panza must clean up the mess both are involved in.
While Volume I is mostly comical, Volume II is more serious and philosophial and centered around the theme of deception. People that Quijote meets along the way deceive him for entertainment and set forth a string of imagined adventures by Quijote that are really practical jokes. These people put Quijote's sense of chivalry and devotion to Dulcinea through many tests. Even Sancho Panza deceives him when he presents three peasant girls dressed in rags to Quijote as Dulcinea and her ladies in waiting. By the end of Volume II Quijote has slowly changed for the better and reluctantly sways toward sanity - an inn is just an inn not the castle of his imaginings.
The adventures finally come to a close and Quijote returns home when he "loses" his battle against the Knight of the White Moon. Quijote is conquered and bound by the rules of chivalry, must lay down his arms and return home for one year. Quijote returns home to his bed with a deadly illness brought on by his melancholy over his defeat and humiliation. One day, Quijote awakes from a dream having fully recovered his sanity. He dictates his will and includes a provision that his niece cannot inherit anything from him if she chooses to marry a man who reads novels of chivalry. Then, Alfonso Quijano does peacefully at the end of the novel.
Volume II is regarded as the birth of modern literature because it explores the concept of a character understanding that he is being written about. This is the same theme that is much explored in 20th century writings.
The use of theme in Don Quijote
Cervantes structured his novel in the episodic form with a picaresco style. The picaresque novel at this time is described as prose fiction usually satirical and depicts in realistic and humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. This style of novel originated in Spain and flourished in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The original title of Don Quijote, "ingenioso" (Spanish) means "quick with inventiveness" and marks the transition of modern literature from a dramatic to a thematic unity. The contasts between the tall, thin, idealistic Quijote and the fat, squat, world-weary, realistic Panza is a literary motif, invented by Cervantes, that has been used ever since the book's publication.
Don Quijote's grand imaginings are the butt of outrageous and cruel practical jokes by the people he meets along the way in the novel. Cervantes helped to move literature beyond the narrow literary conventions of chivalry romance which he parodied and made fun of in his novel. Cervantes characterizations in his novel were ground breaking from the shepards to the inn keepers to Quijote and his side-kick, Panza. Before this, the novels of chivalric romance produced only cliched characters with little exploration of their inner life. Now, the modern novel would focus on the psychological evolution of the characters.
Soon after the publication of Don Quijote, the term "quixotic" was coined as a new word in our vocabulary meaning idealistic and illusionary. Also, the phrase "tilting at windmills" was coined meaning the act of attacking imaginary enemies. Now, Cervantes had reached the elevated level of literature we attribute to William Shakespeare in England. Both changed modern literature for the better and forever. Their writings and characters have been described as universal and timeless and have remained popular throughout the changing times.
When Don Quijote was first published in Spain, the novel was seen as a comedy. After the French
Revolution the theme of the novel was seen as the individual can be right while society is wrong and seen as disenchanting and not comic at all. By the 19th century and up to today, the novel is seen as a social commentary and viewed as a story of tragedy. Don Quijote's innate idealism and nobility are viewed by the world as insane and is defeated and rendered useless by common reality.
This novel is also one of the longest novels written within world literature. During the middle of his life, Cervantes fell on financial problems and was thrown into debtors prison in the Crown Jail of Sevilla for about three years. It is believed Cervantes began writing Don Quijote while in jail. It was finished years later after he had left the prison. We are fortunate Cervantes had the time, while sitting in jail, to begin the greatest novel written in Western literature. We are all the better for it.
Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved
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