The Real Don Quixote

Sally Prue

Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece in his Anniversary Year

I know, said someone at UNESCO in the early 1990s, let’s have a yearly celebration of books and writers. We can call it World Book and Copyright Day. Ooh, and look, three gigantic geniuses –  Shakespeare, De la Vega and Cervantes – all died on the 23rd April so that will be the ideal date for the celebration.

Fortunately, however, it is quite possible that UNESCO’s celebrations are on the wrong day. The four hundredth anniversary of Cervantes’ death is likely to be April 22nd; Inca Garcilaso de la Vega might well have died on 21st; and Shakespeare, though he did die on the 23rd April, was working on the Julian calendar at the time, so it wasn’t even in the same week.

Anyway, poor Cervantes. Not only has his death become a matter of celebration, but very few of us have read his masterpiece (and arguably the world’s first novel) Don Quixote. In Maurice Ravel’s song cycle Don Quichotte á Dulcinée, for instance, Don Quixote spends most of his time praying or drinking, even though the Don Quixote of the book does really remarkably little of either. Even the writers of the Don Quixote Spark Notes believe that Dapple is the name of Sancho’s donkey (Dapple is actually a goat).

Francis Carr, of the Shakespeare Authorship Information Centre, doesn’t even believe that Don Quixote was written by Cervantes…

Anyway, here are ten things you won’t know about Don Quixote unless you’ve actually read the book.

  1. It’s a comedy. (Even if English readers have read the book, they probably need to have read a fairly new translation to know this. The older English translations tend to be romantic and serious and some deliberately leave out the jokes.)
  2. Don Quixote’s name is neither Don nor Quixote.
  3. The tilting-at-windmills thing happens at the beginning of the book and takes up about half a page; so if that’s what people mention when they talk about Don Quixote it’s almost certainly because they haven’t read the rest.
  4. Don Quixote is actually two books published ten years apart.
  5. As Cervantes was writing his second book an anonymous author brought out a sequel of his own.
  6. Cervantes reacted to this disaster by having loads of characters in his own second book say stuff like I liked the first book about your adventures, Don Quixote, but the second one was awful. This was both very clever and ridiculously post-modern.
  7. Anyone who knows Don Quixote’s real name has read at least the very beginning or the very end of the book.
  8. Don Quixote is a kind, clever, good and honest man. Though he is, admittedly, nuts.
  9. Don Quixote’s lady-love, Dulcinea del Toboso, doesn’t appear in the book. That’s largely because she doesn’t actually exist.
  10. Don Quixote’s servant, Sancho Panza, gets to be the governor of an island that’s so extra-special it doesn’t even bother with the surrounded-by-water thing.

In true Don Quixote style, it now occurs to me that anyone who hasn’t read Don Quixote but has got this far has just utterly disproved the basis of this list.

Ah well!

Sally Prue has read Don Quixote more than once. Her retelling of Don Quixote as part of the Oxford Reading Tree Treetops Greatest Stories Series is published on 9th May.

Sally is an award-winning writer for young people of all ages. Her latest novel for Oxford, Song Hunter, won the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award for Historical Fiction. Sally has a daily language blog at The Word Den, and is occasionally to be found on Facebook and Twitter @sally_prue.