The very name of Don Quixote conjures up the images of an ageing knight astride an old nag setting out on a mission of adventures and gallantry.
Yes, that is the hero of famous Spanish novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, (Spanish: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha), which is popularly known just as Don Quixote all over the world.
After reading too many adventure novels, Don Quixote who is nearly fifty comes to regard himself as the last knight alive and takes upon himself the onerous duty of rescuing helpless maidens and bringing to book miscreants of every kind. If Don Quixote is known all over the world for his silly acts of valor and chivalry, it is not that well known that the life of Don Quixote's creator Miguel de Cervantes was full of real adventure and daring.
Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547 in a town near Madrid. His fater was an apothecary surgeon who had less patients than creditors calling daily to collect their dues. So it was not long before his father was clapped into debtors' prison, leaving the young Cervantes to fend for himself along with his two brothers and a sister.
On To The Real Adventure
No one knows how but Miguel did get a sort of education and even went up to college, probably acting as a valet to rich undergraduates. In his early twenties he went to Italy to enlist as a soldier in a regiment of the Spanish naval elite corps, Infantería de Marina, stationed in Naples, then a possession of the Spanish crown. This was probably the first time in his life when he was well-dressed and ate wholesome food regularly.
Then came the real adventure.
A Turkish fleet was bearing down upon Italy. Spain sent her ships to aid the navy of the Papal States to fight off the aggression. In one of the Spanish ships sailed the young Miguel. When the battle was met at Lepanto off the Greek shores on October 7, 1571. Miguel lay in his bunker shivering with malaria. But he was not the one to miss the fireworks. He rushed up to the deck, fought valiantly and was among the first to board an enemy ship.
That day a fierce battle was fought sending down thousands on both sides. Miguel received gunshot wounds which rendered his left arm useless. but he was happy his side had come out victorious.
Turns and Twists of Fate
It was in 1575 that Miguel set sail for Spain with many of his companions with high hopes. He not only had taken part in real adventure but was also carrying a letter of recommendation from his commander to no less a person than Philip II, the King of Spain.
With this letter Miguel hoped to secure a good post in the government but fate had something different in store for him. After a few days at sea, the vessel carrying Miguel was overtaken by pirates. Miguel along with his companions was taken into slavery in Algiers.
Credit: By Fernando Selma, grabador, Ferro, dibujo. [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsDuring his captivity Miguel witnessed the barbarous cruelties the captives had to suffer. His companions were dying around him in the dungeons by flogging and starvation and Miguel was never sure when his time would come. This was enough to break the resistance of any steel-hearted man but not Miguel. He not only tried to keep up the spirits of his companions but plotted more than once to break away from the clutches of the tyrants.
The wretches who had tried to escape before him had met a violent end but Miguel was spared probably because of the letter of recommendation he was carrying to the Spanish ruler. Pirates might have taken him to be a valuable catch that could fetch them a fat ransom.
When Miguel's bids for freedom passed the limits of his not-too-patient masters. he was sentenced to be hanged along with his co-plotters.
Here also his sheer courage saved him from certain death. When brought before his captors, Miguel, with arms folded and chin raised high, took upon himself all the blame for the plot.
Though cruel, the Algerian brigands praised sheer bravery. Miguel was pardoned. Even then he had to suffer for months before his family in Spain could scrape up enough to pay for his freedom.
Back To Spain
It was in 1580 that Miguel set foot upon the soil of Spain at last. Here also disappointment awaited him. Instead of a hero's welcome that Miguel might have hoped for, he was disillusioned to realize how soon a wounded soldier is forgotten by the world.
After trying for long to secure a good post in the government, Miguel tried his hand at writing. His first book La Galatea was mildly received bringing him enough to marry a young peasant girl. His bride brought him a dowry of a piece of land and a few agricultural implements. Any other man in his position might have settled down to the life of farming but not Miguel whom theatre, the passion of his early youth was beckoning him to Madrid.
Once in Madrid, Miguel set upon writing plays that got him enough to keep the wolf from the door. Now Miguel thought that he had arrived at last. Some day he would bring forth a play as would earn him fame and fortune.
Here also the fate played its trick.
A young writer arrived on the scene. This man was churning out plays in just twenty-four hours and soon crowded Miguel out on the streets, looking for a job.
Again In Prison
At that time Spain was preparing to fight England. The great Armada was being made ready. This was an opportunity for Miguel who found a job of gathering supplies for the fleet and also collecting taxes.
All went on well till Miguel's accounts were checked. His lack of knowledge of maths had put the accounts in a mess with the result that Miguel was charged with embezzlement. He got out of the trouble by paying a heavy fine to be soon confronted with another problem. The banker with whom he had deposited the sums collected as tax went bankrupt. This time Miguel went behind bars for a long stretch.
The Magnum Opus
Looking out from the bars of the prison, Miguel saw the pageant of life flitting before his mind's eye. The characters he had met in life - princes, paupers, gypsies, pirates, thieves, swindlers, murderers - wCredit: Public Domain Wikimedia Commonsent on to make the characters of the book that was forming in his mind.
When Miguel was released from prison, he straightaway went to write his life's greatest work.
While he was still in prison, the Great Armada had sunk down into the seas taking with it the also the notion of the invincibility of Spain.
The time was now right for a novel that pricked the bubble of mock chivalry and misguided sense of bravery nurtured by too many adventure novels that were being read by the whole of Spain.
When The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha came out it was an instant hit. The public clamoured for more and Miguel promised a sequel.
However while Miguel was getting down to write the second volume, a self-styled writer beat him to it by publishing a sequel to the great work.Credit: HonorÃ© Daumier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Infuriated by this villainous act of plagiarism, Miguel egged his pen to turn out the true sequel which excelled even the first work and sold more briskly.
Though the whole Spain was reading Don Quixote, unfortunately Miguel de Cervantes never got fame and fortune in his lifetime.
He died a poor man on April 23, 1616, leaving behind him, his magnum opus that is not only considered the greatest work of fiction but also an ever-abiding symbol of its author who never admitted defeat in the face of adversities and setbacks.
Miguel de Cervantes Remembered
Years after he passed away, Cervantes has received acclaim that was denied to him while he was alive. Statues of Miguel de Cervantes as well as his hero Don Quixote adorn many places in Spain.
The author has been put on par with William Shakespeare - both died on the same date, April 23, though years apart. To commemorate the memory of the two luminaries, UNESCO has established April 23 as the International Day of the Book.
The way the life had treated Miguel de Cervantes, he could never have imagined in his wildest Quixotic dreams that he had produced a work that in later years would be considered not only the first modern novel but be ranked amongst the best works of fiction ever written.
Don Quixote has been translated into almost all the languages of the world and influenced a number of later literary works.
Not only that , it has left an indelible mark on the Spanish language itself which is often called la lengua de Cervantes ("the language of Cervantes"). And Cervantes has been dubbed El Príncipe de los Ingenios ("The Prince of Wits").