January 16, 2018

Cervantes' Foot in Don Quixote's Stirrup

    "Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped them ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortune."
    "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...."
They are a half-millenium old, but a handful of the real windmills at which Don Quixote tilted still stand in La Mancha. Some work, some are tourist boutiques, one is a library devoted to preserving editions of The History of the Ingenious Knight-Errant Don Quixote in the over sixty languages into which it has been translated -- including, Cervantes would smile to know, braille. It is possible to retrace the entire route which Don Quixote traveled -- in his pasteboard helmet, on his farm horse, for his never-met Dulcinea. Those who do, report that the landscape and small towns retain something of the seventeenth century.

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.

Image: Ship of Fools
When Part I of Don Quixote came out in 1605 it was an immediate hit. Within a few years there were reprints and pirated editions and translations selling well throughout Europe; as early as 1607 there are windmill jokes on the English stage. The twinned figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza became folk heroes, appearing in parades and processions and masquerades even in the Americas. Today scholars call Don Quixote "the first modern novel" for its mixture of realities and ambiguities. They say, too, that the 17th century did not see it this way, that they looked upon Don Quixote as only a clown, rather than the philosopher-fool he has come to be.

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:
    "God bless me!" said Sancho, "did I not tell your worship to mind what you were about, that they were only windmills?....straighten yourself a little, for you seem all on one side, perhaps from the shake of your fall." "That is the truth," said Don Quixote, "and if I make no complaint of the pain it is because knights-errant are not permitted to complain of any wound, even though their bowels be coming out through it."
Cervantes died on April 23 (perhaps the day before), 1616. "With my foot now in the stirrup," he wrote two days earlier, "and the hour of death at hand... yet I cling to life." Records show the cause of death to be a diabetes-related illness, one that caused considerable pain, and an unquenchable thirst.

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