Cervantes did his best to bury the chivalric novel, but it sprung back at him like Antaeus wrestled to the ground. What do we remember first of Don Quixote, his chivalry or his madness?
At the heart of Don Quixote is a major conundrum of literary fiction: if it is wrong, for the sake of art, to condemn “dangerous” books because they could have a bad effect on their readers, then how can fiction be of any worth if it is ineffective? If you argue that fiction cannot “corrupt” you, then you lose the possibility that it can also transform lives for the better; if you allow that fiction can transform you for the better, then you must also allow that it could transform you for the worse, and you must therefore bear the burden that certain books must be banned.
For my part, I will admit that some books may transform you for better or for worse, but I will nevertheless resist the need to ban them, since I would rather live in an apparently dangerous world than in a gelded world. I am a little like Don Quixote, then, who would like to face monsters and dragon, though they be imaginary.
The corrupting influence in question here is the chivalric novel itself. Having read too many of them (like your humble host here), they made his brains go soft, and thus he bethought himself a knight and hilarity ensues from his mistakes on reality. That would be a nice slapstick routine, would it stop there. The genius of the Quixote is for me not so much in its deconstruction of the chivalric novel using realism (something Orlando Furioso does with better grace and a less ambivalent attitude towards its source). Rather, it is the creation of a book that wrote itself.
Let’s recall the layers of meta-fictionality: Don Quixote believes he is a knight like those in the romances he read, and his story has been written down by an Arab whom Miguel de Cervantes is translating (common fare of romances: or dit le conte…). In this story he eventually encounters (in Part II) a book being written about himself, which recounts his famous deeds, but whose authenticity and correct authorship is of course disputed, this being a mirror of an actual event in the publication life of Cervantes’s Quixote (a.k.a Part I), which attracted continuators and imitators. Part I and II are thus preceded by incredible prefatory material, including sonnets to Quixote by Orlando himself and other famous fictional knights, as well as a an author’s preface that sets up everything here as an elaborate joke on the ignorant readership (which must include the actual reader reading it).
In other words, it’s a bottomless pit of paradoxes. But what of its take on chivalry?
Somehow, I think Cervantes is prey to the same mistake he attributes to Don Quixote: mistaking fact for fiction. Time and again, there are memorable, vicious barbs at the the topoi of chivalric novel: Quixote’s madness, his obsession with famous helmets, his cure-all potion, Sancho’s bagging, and so forth. It’s as if we’re treated to a correction of Orlando Furioso with the unflattering light of realism, making us realize: this whole genre is built on lies, impossibilities, and madness that would never hold a second in the real world. But how much did audiences of, say, Lancelot, really read these adventures as literally as Quixote (or Cervantes) does?
I sense a straw man because Cervantes shows through and through a genuine, albeit dissatisfied love for the chivalric novel. The book-burning episode is the most obvious witness to his fondness for them (Orlando, Amadís, and Tirant lo blanco), but there are hints elsewhere, especially in the painstaking way Cervantes addresses all the codes of the romance. Unlike Ariosto who delights in those codes, even when he subverts them, Cervantes feels more like a jilted ex-lover who wishes to convince himself he has moved on from his old love (chivalry), and that he really, really loves the new one (realism).
It’s no wonder then that the aftertaste of Don Quixote is our culture is a nostalgia for “the knights of old” rather than a bold assertion of modernism. In a way, it is a chivalric novel for the modern age, rather than the modern age’s final repudiation of the chivalric romance.
Read in Edith Grossman’s excellent translation (which, incidentally led me to discover the inclassable, magnificent Luis de Góngora’s Soledades that she also translated).
Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman, Harper Perennial, 2003. ISBN 978-0060934347.