The Ingenious Madman — and His Proverbial Squire


 The reason for the unreason to which my reason turns so weakens my reason that with reason I complain of thy beauty … With these words and phrases the poor gentleman lost his mind, and spent sleepless nights trying to understand them and extract their meaning.

Don Quixote [KEY-ho-tee] (fully titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha) by Miguel de Cervantes, is personally the funniest book I have read thus far. It’s a monstrous book at 900 pages, but it’s a worthwhile read nonetheless. Chronicled into two parts by fictional Moorish author Cide Hamete Benengeli, it takes place in sixteenth-century Spain. A word of caution: this isn’t the typical picaresque medieval romance about valorous knights who rescue damsels in distress, battle monsters and wizards, reside in castles, and serve royal families. Instead, this story is more of a satirical exploit on the insanity of knights. Cervantes penned this novel, at least from what my understanding can ascertain, for the purpose of humor.

The story centers around a middle-aged man from the Spanish village of La Mancha who enjoys reading books of chivalry. He usually suffered from sleep deprivation due to his constant reading of those books, eventually causing his brain to dry and malfunction. Hence, he takes those chivalric stories to be true and becomes inspired to be a knight-errant. He finds some armor, dubs himself “Don Quixote”, designates a local peasant woman as his lady-love Dulcinea of Toboso, recruits a local peasant, Sancho Panza (who also happens to be a proverb machine), as his squire, and, on his scrawny and weak horse Rocinante [ROCK-ee-nun-tae], begins to wander in search of adventures.

It is obvious that Cervantes believes knights are madmen who become knights because they read too many books of chivalry, and Don Quixote’s adventures fully justify that. For example, Don Quixote attacks a windmill thinking it was a giant, which, unfortunately for him, badly injures himself. Another example would be Don Quixote’s constant accusation of enchanters, supposedly omnipresent beings devoted to distorting reality, for the cause of his misadventures. Sancho, on the other hand has no knowledge of knight-errantry and, like Cervantes, believes it’s absolute madness based on his master’s misadventures and thereby earnestly endeavors, in vain, to dissuade him from committing such follies.

Don Quixote also has several historical allusions, especially of Moors and pagans. The Moors were North African Muslims who conquered and ruled Spain from the 12th – 16th centuries. As the story takes place during the 16th century — the final century of the Moorish rule — there will be scenes in which Muslims (even from Don Quixote’s and Sancho’s village) are fleeing to North Africa to avoid Christian conversion, or if circumstances were disobliging, exile or even execution. Furthermore, in many chivalric romances, knights are portrayed as fighting pagans and non-Christians in order to Christianize them. Either interpretation of the Moorish and pagan allusions, in my opinion, suffice.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves classic world literature, humor, and adventure. I read the HarperCollins edition translated by Edith Grossman. As I haven’t read any other translation of Don Quixote, I cannot say if this edition is the best. In my opinion, though, this book is translated well and contains comprehensive and straightforward footnotes. There are some instances where Cervantes’s wordplay and colloquialisms become almost untranslatable, but Grossman makes a footnote about that. Another plus is a substantive introduction written by Harold Bloom, which can enlighten readers of the book. All in all, I believe this edition captures Cervantes’s raw perspective of chivalry very well, and I can now see how Don Quixote became quite influential.

Click here to buy this hilarious satire.


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