In our search, we did uncover an interesting literary tradition that held great significance to Spain: The “Libros de Caballerias”, or “Books of Chivalry”. Unlike later “chivalric novel”, which dealt with the deeds and biographical material of actual Knights, these books were full of monsters and fantastical realms, heroes of superhuman strength & prowess.
Specifically, they were utterly fictional. We might simply have done the series on this alone-and maybe we will. But there’s already a very famous work of satire that deals with these stories in a far more… intimate fashion than we ever could. If you’ve ever taken a class on world literature (or even looked at a top-ten must-read list), you probably already know that we’re talking about the famous novel Don Quixote, by “Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra”.
For those who aren’t familiar, “Don Quixote” is actually the tale of man who becomes so obsessed with these romantic “books of chivalry” that he falls under the delusion that he himself is a knight-errant. The novel’s first part details his first and second Sallies into his new chivalric world. He finds for himself a “steed”, a “squire”, and a “princess” to complete the illusion. And then embarks on the quest to do… very little.
At first, he mostly makes a fool of himself, engaging in small, imaginary skirmishes. He acquires the mythical “helm of Mambrino”, which is actually just a basin he wears on his head; he gets into a number of losing battles with random travelers, mistaking them for rogues. And most famously, he charges at a windmill thinking it’s a giant and gets knocked from his horse by one of its sails. Despite all of this, he involves enough people & his fantasies to create some actual results.
Climax in “Don Quixote”
The climax of the 1st part hardly involves Quixote’s blunders at all, focusing on the group of lovers who are able to reunite. Because his delusions brought them together. In the second part, we rejoin Don Quixote after a month-long hiatus. He embarks on his third and final Sally, but this time things have… changed. This time around, Quixote doesn’t cause nearly so much mischief. Instead, over and over, he finds himself butt of the jokes & cruelties. The people on this story have read the 1st installment of it. And Quixote has to turn out to be somewhat renowned as a madman. He’s invited to the court of a Duke and Duchess, to find no end of pleasure in playing with his madness; he’s paraded throughout the streets of Barcelona as, he thinks, a hero; and finally, he’s defeated by a false Knight.
All throughout, we feel his chivalric spirit fading away. Slowly, the role of leader drifts from him to his squire, Sancho Panza, who transforms from a bumbling peasant into something competent and eloquent. By the story’s end, Quixote is so weak and disillusioned that he falls ill, renouncing his knighthood altogether. But before he dies, his friends the priest, the barber, and the false Knight Sampson Carrasco, who had all been trying since the story’s starts to get him to abandon his quest beg him not to. Regrettably, it’s too late, and this is where his story ends. Of course, this is the thoroughly abridged synopsis of story.
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There is lots more to this novel beyond the plot and even the characters themselves. We said before that Don Quixote is known for being a “satire”. It means that it employs irony, exaggeration, ridicule, or humor to provide a criticism of something. But it’s not a satire only: it’s two competing Satires in the same story. It’s an example of what we sound a “frame story”. That is, the story told within the diegetic framework of another story. We have the major story Don Quixote, his exploits and how they affect the people around him. And then is sort of encompassing “super” story on top of it.
“Miguel de Cervantes” tries to enforce the idea that the story is actual history by narrating through the voice of a fictional Moorish translator: Cide Hamete Benengeli. Who is supposedly reading them from Arabic parchments. Not only that but in the author’s preface, Cervantes interrupts himself to insert a quote from a likely-fictional “friend” of his. Both characters (and apparently Cervantes himself) carry an overwhelmingly negative opinion of the romantic literary traditions of Spain, specifically those “books of chivalry” we mentioned earlier.
In the words of Cervantes’s “friend”, the author’s purpose in writing this story was: the fall and destruction of that monstrous heap of ill-contrived romances, which, though detested by many, has so weirdly infatuated a bigger part of mankind.
Looking at the hyper-vitriolic language Cervantes uses to describe romantic literature, it’s easy to assume that Don Quixote is a satire of those books of chivalry. But if you closely pay attention, you begin to notice a contradiction. There’s a disparity among authorial input and the subtext of story itself. The character of Don Quixote is Cervantes’s representation of Spain’s romantic traditions. That is embodied by his mimicry of the Libros de caballerias. Though he appears to be inept, ineffectual, in some cases minorly harmful, the final result of his adventures is positive.
He brings lovers together, provides simple joint entertainment to many people. Even helps his closest and most involved friend his squire, Sancho Panza to discover himself and embrace his place in world. Quixote becomes a genuinely sympathetic character by the novel’s end and the cruelty of his audience represented by the Duke & Duchess become a subject of criticism. So, it’s a framed story, whose nested tales are actually two layers of competing for satire.
The super story Cervantes and his fictional translator provides the very forthright criticism of the negative qualities of romantic literature. The main story, conversely, shows us how positive the effect of romance can be and ironically provides a criticism of its critics. It might look like the strange juxtaposition obviously we’re big fans of romantic literature here. But it makes lots of sense for the historical context of story.
Cervantes wrote this well after the “Spanish Renaissance”, during the time when the country was decaying under Habsburg rule. They were entering a literary “baroque” period, where cynicism and pessimism reigned. Whether Cervantes embraced this shift away from Romantic literature or resented it is a matter for discussion. But his masterpiece Don Quixote provides us with an excellent ground for discussion by satirizing both perspectives.
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