Tag Archives: Don Quixote

Classically Petty

Don Quixote is a pretty important book, to put it mildly. Often counted one of – if not the – greatest book ever written, it’s definitely something you can categorize under Serious Literature. It’s also home to some outstanding pettiness and a magnificent middle finger to fan-fiction.

The book was hugely popular right from when it was first published. It didn’t take too long for another writer to think there was something to this delusional adventurer and faithful pseudo-squire and write his own sequel under the name Avellaneda. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote’s author,  clearly didn’t take kindly to his characters being used like this, and took several shots at the unofficial sequel when his Part Two came out a decade later.

Notably, Part Two sees many of the characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza encounter both aware of and fans of Part One. The book was published in this fictional world too, and when he sallies forth on his new adventure, Don Quixote must reckon with the reputation of his fictionalized self. Not only that, but Don Quixote discovers that there is another book out there (by Avellaneda!) about him and his adventures, and this one is patently false. Quixote is very unhappy with this version of himself as it gets details about him wrong. He’s so mad about it that he ups and cancels his plans to go take part in the jousts in Zaragoza. You have to realize, that at this point in Part Two one of Don Quixote’s big goals has been to go and compete in these jousts (as a noble knight like [he envisions himself] himself would). All that is tossed aside because the fake-fictional version of Don Quixote jousted in Zaragoza and the real-fictional Don Quixote wants absolutely nothing to do with his fake-fictional self. Don Quixote (and by proxy, Cervantes himself) doesn’t want to give any credence to Avellaneda’s sequel and so the book makes it abundantly clear that Don Quixote did no such thing.

That, in and of itself, would be a nice meta attack on Avellaneda’s fan-fiction, but Cervantes goes further. On his way home, Don Quixote meets a Don Alvero Tarfe — a character from Avellaneda’s Part Two. They get talking, and Don Alvero claims to be a good friend of Don Quixote, which Don Quixote says is impossible because he is the real Don Quixote. Over the course of their conversation, Don Alvero — a character originally from Avellaneda’s unofficial sequel, remember — takes back any statement about having met Don Quixote prior to this encounter. And then a notary is summoned and Don Alvero makes a sworn affidavit, because as far as Cervantes is concerned, there’s no such things as overkill when it comes to discrediting Avellaneda.

Seriously, there isn’t. Don Quixote returns home, and vows to become a shepherd. That’s it, Don Quixote’s done, no more adventures with our errant knight-errant. Oh, and then, lest some wannabe-Avellaneda wants him to take up the mantle again, Don Quixote promptly falls sick, recants all his knightly desires, and dies.

Yep, Don Quixote dies at the end. Spoiler. And the narrator firmly states that Don Quixote went on no other adventures than those in Part One and Part Two and any piece of fiction that suggests otherwise is full of crap.

That’s right, Cervantes straight up kills off his famous main character just so no one else can play with him.

Look, I’m sure there’s something to be said here about Cervantes’ overly tight protection of his creation and some valid fuel for an in-depth discussion of Death of The Author as it pertains to fan-fiction and adaptations. Maybe even something about metafiction as it pertains to Don Quixote. But honestly, the whole point of this rant essay was to tell you about what a petty rascal Cervantes was. Would’ve thought Serious Literature could be so catty?

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Metanarrative, Cervantes, and The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride is (probably) my favorite movie. It also happens to be based on a book, which I first read in my mid-teens. Now, the book caught me off-guard. It was far more cynical than the film and there was this whole mess about William Goldman’s personal life. I read it again a few years later and finally understood it. See, the novel The Princess Bride is a postmodern exploration of metanarrative wrapped in with a deconstruction of adventure narratives. Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Wait, what?

Let’s break this down. Much of The Princess Bride is William Goldman telling us about his life, his psychiatrist wife, disappointing son, and his quest to find the book his grandfather read him as a kid. Sadly, the book (by S. Morgenstern) is long and filled with boring bits. So Goldman skips them, interrupting the narrative every now and then to tell us what he’s skipping and why.Really, who wants to read three chapters about economics anyway?).

Of course, this is all fabricated. There is no S. Morgenstern, Goldman’s wife isn’t a psychiatrist, and he has two daughters. But within the book it makes for a beautifully postmodern story; Goldman is fully aware of how stories work and merrily draws attention to it in the metanarrative. At times it’s a story about stories. Meanwhile, he pokes fun at the conventions of the adventure and fantasy genre, deconstructing a lot of what we take for granted in them.

A few hundred years earlier, Cervantes did the same thing in Don Quixote. Like Goldman, he presents the central story as one that he’s researched extensively and is relaying here for us. But the ‘research’ often interrupts the story. A memorable moment early on sees Quixote in a duel with a Basque, they’re poised to deliver fatal blows and then the narrative stops and the narrator informs us that that’s where his copy of the story ends. We’re then treated to a few pages of how he got a hold of the next chunk of the story.

Cervantes is playing with the very idea of fiction and stories. He’s messing with the narrative, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. It’s a lot of fun and lends Don Quixote’s story an almost mythic quality, which is further enhanced by the style of the narration.

Throughout it all, Cervantes is endlessly making fun of the chivalrous novels that were popular at the time. How? He takes someone who gets caught up with the notion of being a knight errant and, taking the books as gospel, sets out in an attempt to have a grand adventure and sees what would really happen.. It doesn’t go well, one because books don’t mention these knights bringing changes of clothes, money, or provisions; and secondly, someone who goes around meting out his own brand of justice while violently defending any insult of his honor actually looks a lot like a vigilante bandit. Naturally, hilarity ensues and Don Quixote and his squire wind up being attacked in response (all to our amusement).

Stories like The Princess Bride and Don Quixote are important. They take what we know and play with it; not just be deconstructing the tropes of the genre they’re using, but also by playing with the idea of stories themselves. It’s not just books that do this; the famous “Duck Amuck” cartoon not just demolishes the fourth wall (postmodernism) but uses the very metanarrative of animation as a plot. Actually, if you want a good representation of what I’m talking about, that’s a great place to start.

I love postmodernism and metanarratives in stories, mostly because I love stories in the first place and it’s wonderful when they play with it. It’s fantastic and often adds an additional layer to already great narratives.

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