Sunday, March 19, 2006

Don Quixote, Book I by Miguel de Cervantes

When it comes to literature, there are certain books that everyone should strive to read. These are works that have withstood the test of time and have had an immeasurable impact not only on other literary pieces but also on our very culture itself. Of course not many titles in the literary canon can make such a claim, but Don Quixote de la Mancha is certainly one of them. In fact, Don Quixote is often ranked among the very books in the entire world, and in 2003, appeared at the very top of the list of the "100 greatest novels of all time" as compiled by The Observer.

Don Quixote was published in 1605, and has been read and enjoyed by countless millions since then. The main character in the book is, of course, Don Quixote. He is an older man, and everyone in the village of La Mancha pretty much agrees that he has lost his wits. Spurred on by the fanciful tales he has read about in his library, Don Quixote believes himself to be a knight errant. He dresses up in armor, finds a trusty steed, and heads out in search of adventures. The only problem is, Quixote's "armor" is really nothing more than pieces of garbage that he has fastened together, his "trusty steed" Rocinante is really a broken down old horse that pretty much moves at a snail's pace, and there are no adventures to be had in La Mancha.

Nevertheless, Don Quixote is not to be deterred. He sets out and rides beyond the borders of La Mancha to see what he can find. Whenever he encounters someone, he talks as if he really were a knight errant, which just confuses, annoys, and sometimes even entertains the people that he meets. Those who weren't sure about Don Quixote's state of mind before, were now wholly convinced that the man had gone off the deep end.

On Don Quixote's first ride, he comes across a peasant woman. Although she is plain in appearance (or even ugly, if you want to go that far), to Don Quixote's warped mind, she is a beautiful and elegant lady. He calls her Dulcinea, and vows everlasting love and devotion on the spot, saying that everything he does from that point forward will be to honor her name.

The would-be knight errant probably wouldn't have gone very far in his adventures if everyone he met came together to tell him that he was crazy. However, some people felt sorry for the old man and saw nothing wrong with humoring him. For example, Don Quixote goes to an inn that he views as a castle. Instead of the innkeeper shooing him out and telling him to go home, the innkeeper plays along and knights Don Quixote in what the latter perceives to be a solemn ceremony. From that point forward, nothing anyone can say or do will convince him that he is an ordinary man.

Eventually, Don Quixote decides to return to La Mancha in order to pick up some supplies for an even longer journey. When he gets home, his niece and housekeeper, who have been worried sick at his absence, come up with a plan to try to keep him at home. They decide first and foremost to burn Don Quixote's books because they believe them to be the root cause of the old man's distress.

Unfortunately for them, the plan fails to bring about the desired effect. Instead of convincing Don Quixote that he is mad, the two women succeed in solidifying his resolve to go out in search of adventures. This is because Don Quixote thinks a wizard has removed his books due to a long-standing feud Don Quixote has with one of the wizard's knights. So Don Quixote is soon back on the road.

On his next journey, Don Quixote meets another peasant whom he convinces to become his squire. This man is Sancho Panza, who has himself become one of the most famous characters in all of literature. Don Quixote explains that he is a knight, which Sancho doubts very much. But when Don Quixote convinces him that there will be bountiful treasures to be had for his service, Sancho readily agrees to join him.

The first book of Don Quixote de la Mancha follows these two men on their various journeys and adventures as they wander rather aimlessly around the countryside. Sancho has a hard time keeping his master in line, but eventually learns a few tricks about how to appease the old man. Although Sancho starts out by believing that Don Quixote is totally crazy, the reader gets the feeling that he starts to relent a little as he spends more and more time with his master.

It took me a couple of days to really get into this novel. It started out rather slowly for my tastes, and Cervantes' style, in which he mixes opinions and commentary about things that were really happening in his life at the time right in there with the narrative of the story had me confused -- particularly since I didn't know the circumstances under which Don Quixote was written. But once I got into it, I found it to be very easy reading, and the story of the knight-errant and his faithful servant was very engrossing, holding my interest throughout most of the volume.

Because this is a major work of literature, there are of course many things to be said about its characters and themes. It's not my intention to give an all-out analysis of every element in the book, but suffice it to say there are plenty of metaphors, symbols, and messages in there if you like to dissect books for that sort of thing!

Most of the time, I've found that reading a classic, especially one that ranks as highly as Don Quixote is often a disappointing experience. But that wasn't the case at all with Cervantes' work. After finishing the first volume of Don Quixote, I could really understand why the book is regarded as such a masterpiece and why Cervantes himself holds such an esteemed place in the minds of literature lovers around the world. The bottom line is that Don Quixote de la Mancha, Book I lives up to the high praise it has earned over the last four centuries, and went way beyond all of my expectations. There are some classics that you read because you have to, but this is one that you'll read because you want to. The story is superb, and you'll come to enjoy spending time with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by the time you reach the end of this volume.

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