January 16, 2018
Cervantes' Foot in Don Quixote's Stirrup
"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.
"Those thou seest there," answered his master, "with the long arms, some have them nearly two leagues long."
"Look, your worship," said Sancho Panza; "what we see there are not giants but windmills...."
"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that thou art not used to this business of adventures...."
There are fewer remnants of the author's personal history. Still, even setting aside the romantic legends, enough is known to suggest a life that approaches comparison to his hero's. The family tree seems to have contained genuine knights-errant, though the chivalric tradition was long over by Cervantes' day. There are reliable accounts of his valor in Spain's important victory at the Battle of Lepanto: when the Turkish ships attacked, Cervantes insisted on rising from his sick-bed, apparently saying that he preferred to die for God and country, and receiving the chest wounds and crippled left hand to prove it. Several years later, Barbary pirates overtook his boat and took him to Algiers, the centre of Christian slave traffic in the Muslim world. Four escape attempts In five years of confinement earned him a second reputation for daring and courage.
When he finally got back to Spain, the expected barter of these exploits for a government commission did not materialize. For the next twenty-five years Cervantes collected taxes, or the tithes of corn and oil needed to keep the great Armada afloat. The system was so disorganized and corrupt that he was imprisoned twice for not keeping his tax records straight -- or perhaps crooked -- enough. But there were two benefits to the job: the time to write, and the chance to tour southern Spain. A taxman's daydreams while traveling the roads and villages of La Mancha and wider Andalusia would become, at the age of fifty-eight, Cervantes' most famous novel.
Perhaps this is our misreading of the 17th century, rather than its misreading of the book's bittersweet humour. The great Armada had just been sunk; the Spanish Empire would not be long after. Cervantes was not the only Spaniard with knights-errant in his ancestry, nor the only one to know that windmills were first brought to La Mancha by such knights, on their centuries-long retreat from their own Crusades. It is hard to imagine the 17th century reader not getting the life-joke that Cervantes did, nor accepting it with the stoic smile of his hero:
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