Harvard Classics, Volume 14: Don Quixote

As the Harvard Classics transitions from the ancient to the merely old, Don Quixote stands out as a work of fiction that occupies a similar place as the Canterbury Tales, laying the foundations for modern fiction while being something quite different from it.

The first parts of Don Quixote are the most modern and the most famous. The ’tilting at windmills’ scene happens in the first bit of the book. The story of Don Quixote and his two knightly journeys spans the whole of the book, but an approximatly equal portion of the pages are dedicated to the stories of people they meet along the way.

The main purpose of the work is to satirize Spainish society in its various aspects. Don Quixote, most obviously, is a satire of the still-stereotypical medieval knight, going on adventures and protecting the innocent. That Don Quixote can only find adventure through his own imagination and that his chivalrous pretnesions immediately clash with everyone around him is the main focus of the story. One can’t help but place this in the cultural context of the era, in which Spain was 100 years removed from the end of the 800-year-long Reconquista. The clash of civilizations, the warring kingdoms and emirates and the general uncertainty that made the medieval knight the stuff of legends was over, and had been replaced with the Hapsburgs.

The other stories paint tales of the lives of Don Quixote’s contemporaries, including the upper class, city dwellers, goatherds, and slaves. Each story speaks to the humanity of people at all levels of society. Ironically, the lowest person has had the farthest flung and most daring adventure, participating in naval battles, visiting exotic places and escaping home.

As a part of any worthwhile discussion of a translated work, I should mention that I read the original English translation, only several years after the book was written. I’m not quite sure whether the old style of writing was balanced by the benefit of a contemporary translation. I think a more modern translation would have been more enjoyable to read, because Don Quixote is supposed to be a book where the story delivers the message, and not the minute qualities of each line.

Up next are some English novels that come a bit after Don Quixote: The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Life of Donne, and The Life of Herbert. Following these are Arabian Nights and the triumvirate of Western fabluists: Aesop, The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.

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