Note: The following remarks are adapted from Dean Brian T. Kelly’s report to the Board of Governors at its November 14, 2015, meeting. They are part of an ongoing series of talks about why the College includes certain texts in its curriculum.
The events of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s remarkable life played out against a backdrop of Spain’s “Golden Age.” The Hapsburgs ruled. Gold from the new world was pouring in and, after 800 years, the Moors were finally driven out. The faith of Christendom was crumbling while Spain stood firm. It was the age of Velasquez, Zurbaran, Ribera, and El Greco. The great royal monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial was conceived and constructed. King Philip II was king of Spain, Portugal, Naples, Sicily, and even England and Ireland through his marriage to Queen Mary I. His empire extended to territories in all of the known continents including the Philippine Islands, named after him.
Of all of the great authors that we read, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra might have had the most eventful life. He went to sea and fought with Muslims and pirates. He served important functions in ecclesiastical and royal courts. He was a tax collector, a frustrated pioneer, and a literary giant. He was imprisoned by both Christians and infidels. And did I mention pirates? It occurred to me that he should have been dubbed “the most interesting man in the world,” rather than the pretender in the Dos Equis beer commercials.
He was born into a poor family in Alcala de Henares, Spain, in 1547, on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel. When little Miguel was five years old his father was temporarily imprisoned for not paying his debts. Financial struggles haunted Cervantes throughout his life and he ultimately died in penury. But he was an enterprising young man and, at the age of 21, with no university training, he managed to acquire a position in the entourage of an Italian prelate and traveled to Rome. This appointment seems especially timely, as it allowed him to escape a warrant for dueling. At the time the normal punishment would have been exile and the loss of his right hand.
As Christendom united to resist the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks, Cervantes volunteered to fight in the allied fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria, Philip II’s half-brother. He fought gallantly in the decisive Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Though sick he refused his captain’s urgings to stay below deck. He said, “though I am weak and full of fever. It is better that I should fight in the service of God and the king and die for them, than keep under cover.” In the conflict he took two bullets to the chest and one to the hand. It is said that after the battle Don Juan visited the sick and befriended the brave Spaniard. His patronage may have helped Cervantes rejoin the Christian forces, though he never recovered the use of his left hand.
The Christian victory at Lepanto was generally credited to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary, whose feast is now celebrated on October 7, the anniversary of the battle itself. Chesterton’s poetic treatment of this battle, simply called “Lepanto,” makes mention of our hero. Cervantes himself later referred to Lepanto as “the greatest battle that past or present ages have ever seen or that future ages can ever hope to see.” He was very proud of his injuries and his role in this conflict.
After several more years of military service, Cervantes decided to return to Spain in 1575, but his ship was overrun by corsairs, and he was held prisoner for five years in Algiers. His friendship with Don Juan turned out to be unfortunate in this circumstance, since it gave his captors an inflated sense of how much ransom to demand. Over several years he tried again and again to organize an escape. After one such attempt he was condemned to 2,000 lashes but remarkably survived. When another plot was discovered, Cervantes turned himself in to protect his co-conspirators. He insisted that he alone bore responsibility and was condemned to death, though it appears that this was merely a ploy to terrorize him into revealing the names of the others involved. Finally, in 1580, he was ransomed by his family through the labors and generosity of Trinitarian monks.
Back home he briefly worked as a legate for Philip II to newly annexed Portugal. In 1584 he married Catalina de Salazar in Esquivias, La Mancha, and also welcomed an illegitimate daughter, Isabel de Saavedra from another union. In 1587 he was assigned as a royal requisition agent, gathering provisions for the Spanish Armada. He requested, but was not granted, a post in the West Indies. In 1592 he was charged with fraud and briefly jailed. In 1594 he became a tax collector in Austria. Unfortunately, financial mismanagement landed him in prison for several more months, though he was eventually cleared of all charges. His final years were spent in poverty and ill health. He died in April of 1616 — 10 days before William Shakespeare.
During this remarkable life Cervantes found time to write one of the most astounding works in the history of literature, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, which Dostoyevsky called “the final and greatest utterance of the human mind.”
Our students read this great masterpiece at the beginning of their junior year. It is remarkably complex, funny, intelligent, earthy, frustrating, and completely satisfying. It tells the story of a middle-aged country gentleman whose brain shrivels from reading too many books of chivalry. Convinced that he himself is called to the life of knight errantry, he sets out in a patched-up suit of armor, on a scrawny nag called Rocinante, and accompanied by a simple peasant named Sancho Panza to “defend maidens, protect widows, and succour orphans and the needy,” and especially to serve his lady, Dulcinea del Toboso.
Who has not heard of this trio and their glorious adventures? The story itself is initially mad-cap, full of ridiculous misadventures and inevitable beatings. This novel’s nearly thousand pages are filled with windmills, lunatics, lovers, magic caves, bodily functions, many stories of various quality, and endless proverbs from the wise Sancho. But by the end we have come to love the ingenious hidalgo and to appreciate that his mission is important though mysterious. Not to spoil the ending, but he recovers his wits in the end and it is like a punch in the stomach. No one is happy about it and he seems determined to die. Now that he is sane we don’t know him. It is hard to say many things with certainty about the correct way to read this complex novel, but I assert confidently that the reader is meant to love Don Quixote the madman, Don Quixote the dreamer.
I cannot really hope to give you a large sense of the novel, though I urge you to read it. Instead I will focus on one little part, my favorite part, known as the captive’s tale.
Late in the first part of the novel, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are staying at an inn with an odd assortment of characters. They have been treated to a number of highly melodramatic stories about people with too much money and passion and too little sense; some of these stories can strike the reader as unbalanced or even unhealthy, e.g. the “Tale of Inappropriate Curiosity.” At this point a man and woman, he obviously a Christian recently released from Muslim captivity and she a Muslim, arrive at the inn and fill the company with wonder. The captive proceeds to tell his story which, for my money, comes as a breath of fresh air. It is dashing and thrilling and smacks of wholesome reality. We get the sense too that the story of the captive is very much inspired by Cervantes’ own adventures.
The captive says, “news arrived of the alliance that His Holiness Pope Pius V, of happy memory, had made with Venice and Spain against the common enemy, the Turk, whose fleet had just taken the famous island of Cyprus … a disastrous loss. It became known that His Serene Highness Don John of Austria, our good king Don Philip’s half-brother, was to be the general in command of the allied armies. News spread of the massive preparations for war … this inflamed my desire to fight in the great battle that lay ahead … I fought in that glorious battle.”
So the captive, like Cervantes, fought at Lepanto with Don Juan. Like Cervantes he was captured and held for ransom in Algiers, though the fictional captive was taken at Lepanto while attempting to rescue the flagship of the Knights of Malta. Like Cervantes he is held captive for years, always dreaming of escape.
Our author even playfully inserts himself into the story. The captive says at one point, “The only man who emerged unscathed … was a Spanish soldier called something Saavedra, who performed exploits that will stay in the memory of those people for many years, all for the sake of gaining his liberty … if we weren’t short of time I’d tell you of this soldier’s exploits, and they would entertain and amaze you much more than my own story.”
It is clear that Cervantes identifies with the captive and his plight. And he rescues him in delightful and telling fashion. One day when he is in the prison yard, a cane emerges from a small window high above and lowers a small bag of coins. Some days later it happens again with a larger bag of coins, this time with a note, which reads:
… when I was a little girl, my father had a female slave who taught me Christian worship in my own language and told me many things about Lela Marien. [Cervantes explains that ‘Lela Marien’ is a Moorish name for Our Lady.] The Christian slave died, and I know that it wasn’t to the fire that she went but to Allah, because since then I have seen her twice, when she told me to go to the land of the Christians to see Lela Marien, who loved me very much. I don’t know how I can go. Many Christians have I seen through this window, and none but you has seemed a gentleman. I’m very beautiful, and young, and I have much money to take with me. See if you can find a way for us to go, and there you’ll be my husband if you want, and if you don’t want I don’t mind, because Lela Marien will give me a husband ... May she and Allah keep you, and this Cross that I kiss again and again.
Thus the adventure begins; and after many twists and turns the captive and the brave Muslim noblewoman, Zoraida, escape under the guidance and patronage of Our Lady and return to Christendom. It is a thrilling story.
In the whole novel there are not many characters, other than Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with whom we can wholeheartedly sympathize. I think we are meant to love the captive and his beautiful bride-to-be. And I think they are meant to introduce Christ back into the novel. My fellow tutor Dr. Joseph Hattrup pointed out that when they arrive in the story, the captive, a slightly older man, is on foot, and Zoraida is riding on a donkey, and they are initially told that there is no room for them in the inn. When asked her name she says, “No, Zoraida, no: Maria, Maria!”
And while the others in the company are distracted by their idle passions and curiosities, these two are focused on finding home and faith. The captive explains that Zoraida’s “clothes and body are Moorish, but her soul is devoutly Christian, because she has the most fervent desire to become one.”
Some scholars have tried to twist the novel into a subtle, Straussian rejection of the Catholic faith. (See Misreading a Masterpiece by Kenneth Colston in New Oxford Review.) With a work as complex as Don Quixote, you could probably claim anything and find some evidence for it. But this reading cannot be accurate. For how could it square with the affection we feel for the “Knight of the Rueful Countenance,” who believes with simple faith? At one point he says, “We knights errant, Christian and Catholic, must be more concerned with the glory of the life to come … than with the vanity of fame … in this present transient life … our works must not stray beyond the limits imposed by the Christian religion that we profess.” And the wise Sancho assents.
And consider our captive, how could a cynical reading harmonize with the beautiful and touching story of the Muslim girl loved and chosen by Lela Marien for baptism and salvation? Cervantes lived imperfectly, but faithful to the end, dying with the oil of chrism on his forehead.