At the conclusion of his marvelous poem “Lepanto,” G.K. Chesterton imagined the great Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes, setting his sword back in his sheath and smiling contentedly after playing his part in the historic victory of the Christian fleet over its Turkish foe at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Chesterton concluded his poem with these lines as a way of showing that the victory was crucial to the survival of Christendom and its cultural fruits, epitomized and symbolized by Cervantes’ classic novel, Don Quixote, about “a lean and foolish knight [who] forever rides in vain.”
Miguel de Cervantes fought heroically at Lepanto, receiving a serious wound to his left hand that he would wear as a badge of honor for the remainder of his life, as well he might. Born in Spain in 1547, he would not attain success as a writer until the publication of the first part of Don Quixote in 1605, when he was fifty-eight years old. The second part would appear ten years later, a year before his death. Cervantes was, therefore, a late bloomer and what might be called a one-hit wonder, his other works being largely unsuccessful during his own lifetime and largely forgotten today.
If, however, Cervantes can only claim one literary classic to his name, as distinct from the dozens of classics written by his great contemporary Shakespeare, he can claim to have written the most successful work of literature in the history of the world, at least in terms of global sales. It is generally accepted that Don Quixote is the all-time bestseller, outselling its nearest rivals, A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens and The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. As for its literary merit, we can trust the view of Maurice Baring, a fine writer who was himself the finest of critics, that “no book has such a good beginning as Don Quixote, and no book has a finer end.”
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So, what makes Don Quixote so special?
First, if not necessarily foremost, it was a first of its kind, arguably the first novel ever written and the progenitor of a whole new literary form. It is full of exciting action and is driven by the unlikely friendship of Don Quixote and his servant and traveling companion, Sancho Panza. The latter’s almost cynical no-nonsense realism serves as an intellectual foil to Quixote’s manically romantic fantasizing. At the novel’s heart is the evident desire of Cervantes to satirize and lampoon the popular books of chivalry, the libros de caballerías, which were the pulp fiction of the day.
This has been seen by some as evidence of a deep-seated cynicism, or at least an anti-romanticism, on Cervantes’ part. Lord Byron, for instance, in his poem, Don Juan, argued that Don Quixote is an iconoclastic attack on civilization itself. Strong words indeed. The great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, regarded Don Quixote as the “most perfect…of all the beautiful individuals in Christian literature,” adding that “he is beautiful only because he is ridiculous.” He then gets to the mystical and mysterious heart of the novel: “Wherever compassion toward ridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader’s sympathy is aroused. The mystery of humor lies in this excitation of compassion.”
Dostoyevsky wrote these words as he was beginning to create the quixotic character of Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of his novel The Idiot, who is clearly inspired by Don Quixote and indeed modelled on him. Prince Myshkin’s transparent goodness, his lack of guile, and his noble simplicity make him an object of ridicule in the eyes of the cynically worldly and yet evoke sympathy in those who admire his virtue and see something akin to wisdom in his innocence. It is for this reason that Sancho Panza, for all his own scepticism and jaded worldliness, is attracted to the “holy foolishness” of his master. Don Quixote “has nothing of the rogue in him,” he says. “[O]n the contrary…he could do no harm to anyone, but good to all, nor has he any malice in him…and it is on account of this simplicity that I love him as I love the cockles of my heart, and I can’t invent a way of leaving him, no matter what piece of foolishness he does.”
It is, therefore, in this light, perhaps, that we should read Don Quixote, seeing its protagonist as a holy fool with whom we should sympathize, even when he is at his most ridiculous. And yet there is a real danger in taking this quixotic foolishness too far. If we are not careful, we begin to see the foolishness as something which is an end in itself, as a divine madness separating faith from reason. This is a perilous path to take, leading to the heresy of fideism. Don Quixote can lead us in this direction, seducing us to sympathize with irrational faith over rational disbelief, or it can lead us in the opposite direction, enticing us to see all faith as madness.
It is clear, however, that Cervantes intends to lead us in neither direction, both of which are inimical to the Catholic insistence on the intrinsic and indissoluble bond of faith and reason (fides et ratio). He leads us, in fact, to Don Quixote’s conversion to the fullness of Catholic realism, philosophically understood, in which goodness is not married to madness, but in which sanctity and sanity are one and indivisible in the holy matrimony of fides with ratio. In short and in sum, Don Quixote is healed of his delusions at the end of the novel, regaining his sanity which finds full and final expression in his reconciliation with Holy Mother Church.
“Blessed be the Almighty for this great benefit He has granted me!” he cries in a loud voice upon awakening from sleep during his final illness. “Infinite are His mercies, and undiminished even by the sins of men.”
“What mercies and what sins of men are you talking about?” asks his niece.
“Mercies,” Don Quixote answers, “that God has just this moment granted to me in spite of all my sins. My judgment is now clear and unfettered, and that dark cloud of ignorance has disappeared, which the continual reading of those detestable books of knight-errantry had cast over my understanding…. I find, dear niece, that my end approaches, but I would have it remembered that though in my life I was reputed a madman, yet in my death this opinion was not confirmed.”
Coming to his senses, he asks for a priest to hear his confession. The priest, after absolving him of his sins, announces that there is no doubt that he is at the point of death, “and there is also no doubt that he is in his entire right mind.”
“I was mad,” Don Quixote says a little later, “but I am now in my senses.”
In sound mind and in a state of grace, “after he had received all the sacraments,” Don Quixote breathes his last.
And so this most enigmatic of novels concludes with the happiest of endings in which the madness of life is healed by the holiest of deaths. Let the final words belong to the words inscribed on Quixote’s tomb:
Here lies the noble fearless knight,
Whose valor rose to such a height;
When Death at last did strike him down,
His was the victory and renown.
He reck’d the world of little prize,
And was a bugbear in men’s eyes;
But had the fortune in his age
To live a fool and die a sage.
On St. George’s Day 1616, Miguel de Cervantes breathed his last, on exactly the same day as the death of William Shakespeare. It was singularly and surely providentially appropriate that the brightest jewels in the golden ages of Spanish and English literature should have taken their respective last bows together. It was also singularly appropriate that these slayers of dragons should have died on the Feast of St. George, true knights as they were, who had wielded their pens like lances in the service of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-second in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image: “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at a crossroad” by Wilhelm Marstrand]