Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, born September 29, 1547, was a Spanish novelist, dramatist, and poet. Cervantes was the author of the novel Don Quixote, a masterpiece of world literature that was a great influence to other renaissance writers. Cervantes was born to a poor family in a town called Alcala de Henares. His father was a surgeon who made little money to support the family . Without the means for much formal education, Cervantes became a soldier.
On his return to Spain he worked at a series of government jobs that involved extensive travel in Andalucia. (Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia) . His career as a public servant was marked by as much misfortune as was his military career. Not till his later years did Cervantes find a patron. It was then that he had the time to devote to his writing.
Cervantes was a literary experimenter. In 1568, when Cervantes was a student, a number of his poems appeared in a volume published in Madrid to commemorate the death of the Spanish queen Elizabeth of Valois.
In 1569 he went to Rome, where in the following year he entered the service of Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva. Soon afterward Cervantes joined a Spanish regiment in Naples. He fought in 1571 against the Turks in the naval battle in Lepanto, in which he lost the use of his left hand. While returning to Spain in 1575, Cervantes was captured by Barbary pirates. He was taken to Algeria as a slave and held there for ransom.
(Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia). He did however make several unsuccessful escape attempts, but he was finally ransomed in 1580 by his family and friends. Returning to Spain at the age of 33, Cervantes, despite his wartime service and Algerian adventure, was unable to obtain employment with a noble family. This was usually the gift presented to military veterans for their distinguished courage. Deciding to become a writer, he turned out poems and plays at a prodigious rate between 1582 and 1585 (Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia). Few of these are still existent. His pastoral novel La Galatea (1585) gained him a reputation, but the proceeds from its sale were insufficient to support him. Cervantes then took government jobs, first furnishing goods to the fleet of the Armada and later collecting taxes. The government imprisoned him several times because he failed to give a satisfactory explanation of his tax-collecting activities. While in prison Cervantes conceived the idea for a story about a madman who imagines himself a knight-errant performing the splendid feats described in medieval tales of chivalry.
The first part was issued under the title The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant Don Quixote of the Mancha (Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia). It became such an immediate success that within two weeks after publication three pirated editions appeared in Madrid. Partly because of the pirating and partly because of his lack of financial acumen, Cervantes never gained substantial wealth from the enormous success of the work. His Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Novels, 1613), a collection of 12 short stories, includes romances in the Italian style, descriptions of criminal life in Seville, and sketches of unusual events and characters (Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia). One of these stories, “El coloquio de los perros” (The Talking Dogs), is particularly renowned for its satirical prose style. The second part of Don Quixote was published in 1615. Cervantes completed the fantastic allegorical novel Persiles y Sigismunda (1617) four days before he died in Madrid on April 23, 1616 (Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia). Cervantes’s most influential work, Don Quixote, is generally regarded as the first modern novel. It is a brilliant satire, not only of the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance but also of the sentimental and pastoral novels popular in Cervantes’s own time (Byron, 24). The principal character of the novel is Don Quixote, an elderly village gentleman of modest means.
An enthusiastic reader of old-fashioned tales of chivalry, he becomes obsessed with the idea of reintroducing the practice of knight-errantry into the world. In Part I Don Quixote equips himself with arms and armor and rides forth on Rosinante, a broken-down horse, to challenge evil wherever he may find it. He is accompanied by the loyal and shrewd, but credulous, peasant Sancho Panza, who serves him as squire. In his deranged state, Don Quixote sets himself the task of defending orphans, protecting maidens and widows, befriending the helpless, serving the causes of truth and beauty, and reestablishing justice. His adventures and skirmishes are often grotesquely inappropriate to the situation; for example, he attacks a windmill, thinking it a giant, and a flock of sheep, thinking it an army. The obstinacy of his illusions never permits him to heed the warnings of Sancho Panza, whose attitude is as realistic as that of his master is idealistic (Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia). The philosophical perception of the novel lies in the suggested balance of their contrasting views; realism verses idealism. In Part II the contrast between the romanticism of Don Quixote and the practical wisdom of Sancho Panza is less striking. Don Quixote becomes a trifle more reasonable, and Sancho Panza begins to understand rather dimly the illusions of his master. In the end Don Quixote returns to his village and abandons knighthood. He realizes the error of his ways, declaring that “in the nests of yesteryear there are no birds today,” falls ill, and dies.
Critics generally agree that Part II of Don Quixote is superior because of its compact organization (Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia). Don Quixote has had a tremendous influence on the development of prose fiction. It has been translated into all modern languages and has appeared in some 700 editions. The theme of realism verses idealism, brought forth by this novel, shaped and were major influences of other renaissance writers and artists. Cervantes was truly a renaissance mind at it’s best.