Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Brother Sancho, an adventure looms.

The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Don Quixote is a story of adventure, travels, battles, love, and friendship. It centers around two main characters: Don Quixote, a moderately well-off gentleman from a small town in Spain who fancies himself a knight errant, and Sancho Panza, a local from the same town who agrees to serve Don Quixote on his travels as his squire. The two men get into a wild series of situations, including but by no means limited to battles with (enchanted) windmills, wineskins, priests, and women, intervening in a many a tragic tale of star-crossed lovers, in a few rare cases actually defending people's honor, and generally gallivanting and gadding about Spain. The two are both generally perceived to be - how shall I put it - stark, raving mad. Don Quixote is by no means an idiot, and has quite a lot of very interesting and intelligent things to say along the way, and even Sancho proves himself as a loyal friend, a lover of proverbs, and, occasionally, a man of sense. They are brought back home a few times (some due to injury, others due to tricks played on them by well-meaning friends) and in the end, Don Quixote dies a quiet death a mere week after returning from his last venture, leaving his possessions to his niece and to Sancho.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was 982 pages, so as you can guess, I've left quite a bit out of the plot summary; the adventures are far too many to enumerate each one, but I will say that my favorites involved slapping oneself to remove enchantments and battles with cats.

Here are my thoughts in regards to the book, in no particular order:

- I felt an immediate kinship with Don Quixote at the beginning of the novel when his niece, the barber, and the priest burn all his books on knight errantry to try and rid his head of the "foolishness" of it all. It reminded me of Fahrenheit 451 (which is coming up later on my list) and I was appalled at the thought of someone intentionally burning my books. I knew (just 50 pages in) that this Don Quixote was a character I was going to like. (Don Quixote, by the way, has no trouble believing the story he is told later that an enchanter burned his books and walled up his library. He knows the enchanter had a beef with him, so it came as no surprise.)

- When Don Quixote is first starting off with Sancho Panza, he tells Sancho, "Over there, we can dip our arms right up to our elbows in what people call adventures." I liked the image of reaching into a big pile of adventure right up to my elbows and pulling them out, one by one.

- I listened to a great deal of Spanish guitar music while reading this book (which I downloaded expressly for that purpose) as well as some Ennio Morricone soundtracks and a few other movie soundtracks (including the soundtrack for Jurassic Park - make fun of me if you choose, but it is LOVELY!)

- I write in my books, and the most common notes I found when I skimmed back through were:
- "Ack!"
- "Hagh!"
- "Aw!"
and my favorite -- "!"

- This book is replete with story-within-a-story plot lines, which I found first endearing, then tiresome, then downright confusing. They did, however, contain lots of poetry, and one of my favorite lines in the book:

I die, and I despair of being blessed
In life or death with any joy at all,
So I'll persist in my fantastic dream.

- The relationship between DQ and SP alternates between hilarious, heartwarming, and downright adorable. In one of my favorite scenes, DQ accuses SP of talking too much: "in all the books of chivalry I have read, an infinity of them, I have never come across any squire who talked to his master as much as you do to yours." After this, SP doesn't talk to DQ at all, but then he nearly Bursts and simply HAS to start talking to him again. So cute.

- After Sancho returns with DQ to town at one point, he's describing to his wife why he enjoys adventuring with DQ. "It is true that most of the adventures you find don't turn out as well as what you'd like them to, because out of a hundred you come across ninety-nine usually go skew-whiff. But in spite of all that, it's great to be waiting to see what's going to happen next as you ride across mountains, explore forests, climb crags, visit castles, and put up at inns as and when you like, and not the devil a farthing to pay."

- Other people who come across DQ and SP are constantly evaluating their sanity. Here's my favorite line DQ comes up with in discussing madness: "To tell jokes and write wittily is the work of geniuses; the most intelligent character in a play is the fool, because the actor playing the part of a simpleton must not be one." Truly, Don Quixote is no fool, and we see this most clearly in the end.

- Sancho's loyalty to Don Quixote becomes one of the great themes in the book -- he defends DQ when he's discussing serving a master with a fellow squire (who turns out to be a man from his town who's pretending to be a squire as part of a ruse to get DQ to come home), saying, "a child could make him believe it's midnight at noon, and it's because he's so simple that I love him from the bottom of my heart, and can't bring myself to leave him, however many silly things he does."

- Hands down, the funniest scene in the book (and trust me, there are MANY) is when Don Quixote offers to fight a group of caged lions. The lions refuse to come out of the cage (and DQ declares this a victory) but when a fellow knight urges DQ not to attack the lions, DQ retorts, "Sire hidalgo, pray go away and play with your tame decoy partridge and your intrepid ferret, and let others proceed with their own business. This is my business, and I know whether or not these lion fellows have come after me." I'm going to start telling people to go off and play with their intrepid ferrets.

- When other people questioned DQ's obsession with knight errantry and his sanity, I was reminded of the first blog post and the line, "Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one." When a critic accuses DQ of wasting away his time, DQ replies, "Is it appropriate to go bursting into other men's houses to rule their lives, or for certain people, brought up in the narrow confines of some hall of residence, and having seen no more of the world than that part of it lying within fifty or a hundred miles around, to take it upon themselves to lay down the laws of chivalry and pass judgement on knights errant?" Don Quixote, crazy as he may be, is eloquent and passionate in his defense of his chosen pastime.

- Teaser for if you decide to read the book yourself: Sancho does eventually get to govern an island (in a very Loose definition of the word island) and there are some great moments in that story as well, which I won't go into here.

- Don Quixote and Sancho Panza may not accomplish much throughout their journey, but they are most certainly free to explore, free to have adventures, and free to be whoever they choose to be. As Don Quixote puts it to Sancho, "Freedom is one of the most precious gifts bestowed by heaven on man; no treasures that the earth contains and the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honour, men can and should risk their lives and, in contrast, captivity is the worst evil that can befall them." This line has particular meaning given that Cervantes himself was captured by pirates and spent 5 years trying to escape from a Greek he was sold to in Algiers before being ransomed in 1580, 25 years prior to publishing this book.

- I'll leave you with two final thoughts. One character, Don Juan, asserts that "there's no book so bad that there isn't something good in it." I think there's a great deal of truth in this; I can't say I've loved every minute of every book I've read so far, but I can say with total certainty that I've derived some good, some new amusement or nuance or passion, from every novel on this list. The best parts of books are often buried far beneath the surface, and the casual reader, if she's not careful, might miss them entirely.

- Don Quixote dies rather abruptly at the end of the novel, which made me a little sad and a little bit wanting more. His character aptly speaks to this a few chapters earlier, telling Sancho, "There is a remedy for all things but death." Don Quixote, you batty, brilliant, brave man - I'll miss you.

My older sister Lexie also read this book with me and (GASP!) finished it before I did. I may post some of her thoughts (if she would like to be so gracious as to share them with us) a bit later.

Now I'm off (a second time) to Middle Earth, this time to an older generation of hobbits, dwarves, and dragons, and where the story of the ring began.