As a founding work of modern Western literature, and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published, such as the Bokklubben World Library ( a series of classical books, mostly novels, published by the Norwegian Book Club since 2002) collection which cites Don Quixote as authors’ choice for the “best literary work ever written.” It is also said that the two parts of this masterpiece have been translated into more languages than any book other than the Bible.
What is a canonical novel?
Wikipedia says: “The use of the word “canon” in reference to a set of texts derives from Biblical canon, the set of books regarded as scripture, as contrasted with non-canonical Apocrypha. The term was first used by analogy in the context of fiction to refer to the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ronald Knox used the term in a 1911 essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” to distinguish Doyle’s works from subsequent pastiches by other authors.” (Unlike parody, a pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates).
Alonso Quixano, the protagonist of the novel (though he is not named until much later in the book), is a retired country gentleman nearing fifty years of age, living in La Mancha with his niece and housekeeper. Although he is–mostly–a rational man, his excessive love for books of chivalry has produced a skewed view of reality. He suffers from what we might consider dementia. In keeping with the theories of the time Cervantes wrote this novel, not sleeping adequately–because he was reading–has caused Quixano’s brain to dry. (I LOVE that!) As a result, he is easily given to anger and believes every word of these fictional books of chivalry to be true.
Don Quixote’s niece commits, what is to me, the most heinous crime–she and the Parrish curate burn his library, and lie to him, telling him it was the work of an evil magician. Criminal!!!
He decides to become a knight-errant in search of adventure. To these ends, he dons an ancient suit of armor, renames himself “Don Quixote”, and renames his poor old horse “Rocinante.”
Cervantes was a genius when he penned the horse–Rocinante is not only Don Quixote’s horse, but is a reflection of Don Quixote himself, ungraceful, past his prime, and in way over his head.
Don Quixote asks his neighbor, Sancho Panza, to be his squire, promising to make him governor of an island. Sancho agrees, and the pair sneak off in the early dawn. At this point their adventures begin, starting with Don Quixote’s attack on the windmills.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra created a wonderful, hilarious masterpiece when he penned Don Quixote. Even in today’s society the plot is relevant and and the characters leap off the pages. The extremes of the human condition are all laid out in glorious prose that was beautifully translated to English in 2003 by Edith Grossman. The New York Times called Grossman’s translation a “major literary achievement” and as a fan of all things Quixote, I wholeheartedly agree.
In the original version of Don Quixote as penned by Cervantes, there are basically two different types of Castilian Spanish: Old Castilian is spoken only by Don Quixote, while the rest of the roles speak a modern version of Spanish. The Old Castilian of Don Quixote is for comic relief – he copies the language spoken in the chivalric books that made him crazy. Many times, when he talks nobody is able to understand him because his language is too old, and that just adds to the hilarity. This comedic effect translates well to Modern English when the translator has Don Quixote use Shakespearean English phrases.
When you look at the books that make up the western cannon of great literary fiction you can see that all fiction is fantasy of one sort or another, beginning with the first true novel, Don Quixote, and going forward. All of these wonderful stories were created for the enjoyment of the masses, and despite my love of genre fantasy, the classics still resonate with me.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.