Why Should You Read Don Quixote?: An Animated Video Makes the Case

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Exquis­ite Engrav­ings of Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote

Get a First Glimpse of Ter­ry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the “Cursed” Film 29 Years in the Mak­ing

Why You Should Read One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude: An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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