Before the rise of England to the status of a world power in the seventeenth century, Spain’s empire in the sixteenth century covered an immense portion of the globe. Yet the character of this nation, so unlike any other in Europe, confounds easy explanation. Inheriting the bloods and passions of its constituent peoples, it blended Arabic, Hebraic, native Iberian, and Latin stocks into a mixture of perfervid and turbulent vitality.

No other nation in Europe was as devoutly religious as Spain; and the preference of the people was for a creed rich in miracles and stern in conception. Even criminals carried religious paraphernalia and scapulars; in 1600 Spain contained some 9,000 monasteries and over 32,000 Dominican and Franciscan friars, nearly all of them imbued with a zeal that marked them off from their milder counterparts in Italy.

Agriculture and industry had suffered grievously from the expulsion of the Moriscos and Jews; and the peasantry, disdaining manual labor, settled into an enervating lassitude that found the guitar and songbook more congenial than the plow. The Inquisition—always more severe in Spain than in Italy—cast a pall over cultural life, retarding the growth of free inquiry and cutting the nation off from the stimulating strains of European thought that had galvanized Renaissance Italy and Reformation Germany. Spain chose to remain medieval. She stayed contentedly so.

The surfeit of gold from the New World, ironically, contributed to Spain’s decline. As fast as the money was unloaded from the galleons, it was spent on wars and on the purchase of manufactured goods from England or Holland. Prices exploded as the law of inflation caught up with the influx of precious metals: in Andalusia, we are told, prices of good increased by 500% in the sixteenth century.

The money could not last forever. Galleon traffic from the Americas in 1700 was less than half what it had been a century earlier. The bullion had proven to be as addictive as it was fleeting. One is reminded of the similarly corrosive effects of petroleum wealth on some Middle Eastern nations.

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As the money dried up and the military reversals mounted, Spain found herself saddled with a parasitic class of nobles, a dour clerical establishment, and an inadequate manufacturing base. These proved incapable of modernizing the country. Spain settled into a long period of political and military decline. And yet there was—and remains—an incomparable majesty and grandeur in Spain, even as her decline became a European tragedy. The conquest of an empire that spanned the globe, the seeding of the New World with a transformed Latin blood and culture, the fanatical propagation of the Roman creed into strange and savage lands: is this not one of history’s great dramas?

It is against this backdrop of valor and decline that we must consider Spain’s greatest novelist. Miguel de Cervantes was born at Alcalá on October 9, 1547.  His father was an itinerant physician, scratching out an uncertain living from the generosity, and the ailments, of the peasants with whom he disdained to rub shoulders. At age 22 he had some of his poems published by a Madrid teacher, and in the same year was banished from Spain for ten years as punishment for dueling. In 1571 he signed as a seaman in the armada assembled by Don Juan of Austria (most likely to escape prison) and saw action against the Turks at Lepanto, enduring three wounds and the loss of use of his left hand.

In 1575 he and his brother Rodrigo, on their way back to Spain, were captured by Saracen pirates and (as was customary at the time) impressed into slavery in Algiers. For five years he was held in bondage. His sisters tapped into their marriage dowries, his mother tapped her friends and contacts, and together they raised the five hundred crowns needed to ransom him. From this experience he gained a wealth of stories, a knowledge of Arabic and of Islamic customs, and a genially philosophic view of life. But perhaps this was enough. He returned to Spain rich in nothing but experience.

Further military adventures brought him little except a healthy skepticism of swordplay and war. In 1584 he married a loyal and patient woman named Catalina, eighteen years younger than he, and oversaw the publication of a mediocre romance titled Galatea; further efforts as a playwright produced little in the way of lucre.

Appointed a tax collector at Grenada in 1594, he was eventually jailed for ninety days on suspicion of embezzlement; released, our hero was locked up again in Argamasilla. Like his Portuguese contemporary Camões and his English predecessor Thomas Malory, he found prison a wonderful concentrator of literary effort, and there completed the manuscript for what would eventually become one of the most cherished novels in world literature.

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In 1605, his meandering manuscript finally saw print, and touched heaven. It was titled The Life and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha. It is a genial tale of a kindly lunatic, who time has passed by, wandering the Spanish countryside (although trying to follow Cervantes’s geography is impossible) and upholding feudal values against brigands, miscreants, and windmills.

Here we find some of the most touching creations in Spanish literature: the loyal Sancho Panza and his donkey, the Lady Dulcinea, and the odd assortment of characters whom the Don encounters in his rambling quest. Don Quixote himself is animated by a desire to right injustices and to protect the weak; he longs to return to an imagined golden age of knights and heroes, and seeks to recreate this ethic in his tragi-comical dealings with the Spanish peasantry. Cervantes channeled a lifetime of suffering and failure into the most optimistic, kindly, and profound of all novels.

Cervantes even achieves something more, for he turns this strange figure into a philosopher, and has him and Sancho Panza amuse the reader with a flood of well-placed adages. Despite his master’s shortcomings and befuddlement, Sancho loves him, serves him loyally, and provides the comic relief needed in a narrative of eight hundred pages.  The book is a goldmine of proverbs, a fountain of wisdom, a vein of memorable episodes, and at times a tiresome bore; yet we are swept along by the bubbling stream of the narrative, the cheerful humor of the whole, and its ability to tap into the deepest recesses of our consciousness.

We love Don Quixote because we see ourselves in him. We identify with his hopeless quests, his need to dream great dreams, his veneration of a lost ideal, and his protective self-delusions in an unforgiving world.  We share the hardships and humiliations of the “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” because we have lived them, and go on doing so.

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Miguel de Cervantes: a life of adventure and difficulty

Don Quixote is one of the glories of the written word. It has seen more translations than any other book except the Bible; the Don and his loyal squire are drawn with such precision and sympathy that we feel offended when Cervantes humiliates his heroes. At the end of the tale, the old Don takes ill, and feels the approach of the Reaper. The final deathbed scene is one of the great passages of world literature. Who will object to our quoting it here at length?

As all human things, especially the lives of men, are transitory, their very beginnings being but steps to their dissolution; so Don Quixote, who was no way exempted from the common fate, was snatched away by death when he least expected it…A physician was sent for, who, upon feeling his pulse, did not very well like it; and therefore desired him of all things to provide for his soul’s health, for that of his body was in a dangerous condition. Don Quixote heard this with much more temper than those about him; for his niece, his housekeeper, and his squire, fell a weeping as bitterly as if he had been laid out already…

At length he awaked, and, with a loud voice, “Praised be the Almighty,” cried he, “for this great benefit he has vouchsafed to me!”  The niece, hearkening very attentively to these words of her uncle, and finding more sense in them than there was in his usual talk, at least since he had fallen ill; “What do you say, sir?” said she; “has any thing extraordinary happened? What mercies are these you mention?”  “Mercies,” answered he, “that Heaven has this moment vouchsafed to show me, in spite of all my iniquities…”

Don Quixote’s words put them all into such wonder, that they stood gazing upon one another; they thought they had reason to doubt of the return of his understanding, and yet they could not help believing him…The curate thereupon cleared the room of all the company but himself and Don Quixote, and then confessed him…These dismal tidings opened the sluices of the housekeeper’s, the niece’s, and the good squire’s swollen eyes, so that a whole inundation of tears burst out of those flood-gates, and a thousand sighs from their hearts…

“Woe’s me, my dear master’s worship!” cried Sancho, all in tears, “do not die this time, but even take my counsel, and live on many years. For shame, sir, do not give way to sluggishness, but get out of your doleful dumps, and rise…”  “Soft and fair gentlemen,” replied Don Quixote; “never look for birds of this year in the nests of the last: I was mad, but now I am in my right senses; I was once Don Quixote de la Mancha, but I am now (as I said before) the plain Alonzo Quixano; and I hope the sincerity of my words, and my repentance, may restore me to the same esteem you have had for me before…”

Thus died that ingenious gentleman, Don Quixote de la Mancha…with design that all the towns and villages in La Mancha should contend for the honour of giving him birth, as the seven cities of Greece did for Homer…Several epitaphs were made for his tomb, and will only give you this, which the bachelor Carrasco caused to be put over it:

The body of a knight lies here,

So brave, that, to his latest breath,

Immortal glory was his care,

And made him triumph over death.

Nor has his death the world deceived

Less than his wondrous life surprised;

For if he like a madman lived,

At least he like a wise one died.

All of Spain wept with Sancho. No one who has dared to dream impossible dreams, who has been inspired by a just and noble cause, or who has sought to attain the unattainable, can fail to be moved the pathos and humanity of this story.

If anyone should doubt the enduring greatness of Spain, let him stand beneath the fantastic spires of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; let him touch the sublime arches of the Alhambra; and let him hear the rhythm and beauty of the Spanish language, spoken in all its forms across the globe, which cedes to no other tongue its primacy.

The venerable old Don, despite all his human flaws and follies, possessed a nobility of purpose that redeemed the limitations of his powers. Spain honored him, loved him, and forgave him.

Read More: An Epic Poem Of Discovery And Adventure