In “one of the strangest stories in modern film,” Monty Python alumnus and critically-lauded director Terry Gilliam strove for three decades to make his take on Don Quixote, an ordeal that inspired two documentaries and that did not end in triumph even when the film premiered to acclaim at Cannes this year after its long gestation. Just a few weeks afterward, Gilliam lost the rights to the film in a lawsuit with its former producer. Nonetheless, for all of the serious setbacks on the road to its completion, Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has still mostly fared better than the protagonist of Cervantes’ novel.
But the delusional knight-errant and his much-put-upon squire’s ridiculous and inevitable failures are what constitute the novel’s enduring appeal. Published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha has become the best-selling novel of all time, and by the accounts of its most illustrious admirers, the matrix of all modern fiction. “The novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes,” says Milan Kundera. Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes called Don Quixote “the first modern novel, perhaps the most eternal novel ever written and certainly the fountainhead of European and American fiction.”
Such effusive praise for Cervantes is near-universal, but like Gilliam’s film, and the fictional knight’s quest, the Spanish writer’s epic adventure came to him late in life, when he was almost sixty, having “spent most of his life as a struggling poet and playwright,” says Ilan Stavans in the TED-Ed video above. He succeeded after a long, undistinguished career with a book that satirized the chivalric romances which “dominated European culture” at the time.
Cervantes’ brilliant idea—conjuring a character who actually believed these stories—gave us the great parodic epic and, in its second volume, a brilliant work of pre-post-modern metafiction in which the characters Quixote meets have already read about his exploits in the first book. The mad hidalgo Don Quixote, unlike the stock figures in popular romances, actually develops and matures as a character, a unique feature of fiction at the time and one reason Cervantes’ book is called the “first modern novel.”
Other foundational features of the novel include the relationship of Quixote and Sancho Panza, a fictional study in contrasts that may be the origin of so many iconic duos since—from Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to Batman and Robin and the Odd Couple. The novel’s commercial success was immediate and global—again marking it as a product of modernity. Pirated copies circulated where it had been banned in the Americas. Asserting his proprietary rights over the character while also meeting reader demand, he wrote and published volume two to preempt spurious sequels.
The TED-Ed video is part of a “Why you should read X” series trumpeting the value of great works of literature. These efforts will, hopefully, inspire many people to pick up the books of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, and more. But ultimately, great works of literature should speak for themselves. Why should you read Don Quixote? Well, yes, because it is the foundation of modern fiction. But the real answer to the question lies between the novel’s covers. Pick up Don Quixote (I like Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation), and find out for yourself.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness