Not a novel in the modern sense, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de La Mancha (published in 1604) is a sequence of episodes following the adventures of a country gentleman in his fifties, whose mind has been addled by romantic tales of chivalry. In a noble gesture, he changes his name to Don Quixote de La Mancha, and sets out on horseback, in rusty armour, to right the wrongs of the world. At his side throughout is Sancho Panza, a shrewd, pot-bellied rustic given to quoting proverbs at every opportunity. During the course of the book, Quixote, an instantly sympathetic hero, charges at windmills and sheep (mistaking them for giants and armies), makes ill-judged attempts to help others and is mocked by all for his efforts. Broken-hearted but wiser, he returns home and, on his deathbed, pronounces: “Let everyone learn from my example … look at the world with common sense and learn to see what is really there.”
Cervantes’ life was almost as colourful as his hero’s. The son of a poor doctor, he fought as a soldier in the sea battle of Lepanto, where he permanently maimed his left hand and was captured by pirates and put to work as a slave in Algiers. Ransomed and sent back to Spain, he spent the rest of his days writing novels and plays in relative poverty, dying ten years after the publication of Don Quixote, “old, a soldier, a gentleman and poor”.
Spanish academics have spent as much time dissecting the work of Cervantes as their English counterparts have Shakespeare’s. Most see Don Quixote as a satire on the popular romances of the day, with the central characters representing two forces in Spain: Quixote the dreaming, impractical nobility, and Sancho the wise and down-to-earth peasantry. There are also those who read in it an ironic tale of a visionary or martyr frustrated in a materialistic world, while others see it as an attack on the Church and establishment. Debates aside, this highly entertaining adventure story is certainly one of the most influential works to have emerged from Spain.