Don Quixote at 400

Whether it is the greatest of literary masterpieces or the most mis-categorized and over-sold, Don Quixote (on its 400th birthday) is my prime example of the open-source novel. The tale — itself a patchwork of picaresque and pastoral narratives — has been infinitely cannibalized and copied, retold in the forms of painting (Picasso) and film, the symphonic score (Richard Strauss) and the Broadway musical, not to mention many million cartoons of knight and squire.

Dubya and Dick? Jim and Huck? Lewis and Clark? Crosby and Hope?

Beyond the versions of itself, Don Quixote is the template of more “road” adventures and “guy” books than any classic since the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The baseball version in my youth was the Boston Red Sox pennant drive of 1967: Carl Yastrzemski as Don Quixote, Rico Petrocelli as the dogged Sancho Panza, to the tune, of course, of “The Impossible Dream” from the Dale Wasserman-Joe Darion-Mitch Leigh Man from LaMancha.

The word “quixotic” is a movable fixture of the language. In true open-source style, “quixotic” serves a multitude of meanings (valiant, vain, visionary, self-sacrificing, insane…) depending on each new user’s intention. Yet invariably every mention of the word pays homage to the original Don and the genius Cervantes who invented him.

From 17th Century Castille, Don Quixote’s tale delivers many a timely sting today, as Richard Eder observed in his New York Times review of Edith Grossman’s fresh translation. “Reading Cervantes,” Eder wrote, “we keep stumbling against ourselves: Iraq, of course, when the knight frees a group of prisoners only to have them stone him. Suddenly the giants of our day shimmer in a haze of windmills.”

And still the jury is out on Don Quixote — and ever will be. Is it more grotesque than humanistic? more barbaric than funny?

Vladimir Nabokov, in the astonishing Lectures on Don Quixote, stood himself at both intelligent extremes of critical opinion. It’s a “crude and cruel old book,” Nabokov decided, about a “lion-hearted lunatic.” And still he concludes:

Don Quixote is greater today than he was in Cervantes’s womb. He has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought–and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.

Vladimir Nabokov

Harold Bloom adds sagely that what Cervantes crafted is “a mirror held up not to nature but to the reader.”

There’s your invitation to a wide-open conversation on Don Quixote. How shall we go about it?

James Iffland

Professor of Spanish at Boston University

Diana de Armas Wilson

Professor Emerita of English and Renaissance Studies at the University of Denver

Author, Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World

Bud Parr

Lit blogger, Chekhov’s Mistress and 400 Windmills

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