Did Don Quixote Long For Muslim Spain?

Don Quixote is the Saturday Night Live of the Spanish Inquisition. Cervantes roasts everybody, including the Catholic Church and even the reader. This magnum opus—called by many the first Western novel—is really a book about reading: Carlos Fuentes famously said of Quixote: “Su lectura es su locura.” [“His reading is his madness.”] Quixote reads too much (if that’s possible) and wants to become the literary heroes of his books. But just who are those heroes?

Quixote lauds Amadís de Gaula, El Cid, and Roland, among others. But he also venerates figures—ostensibly enemies of Christian Spain—from the Qur’an as well as Spaniards who were exiled for Muslim ancestry.

The Reconquest described in Quixote’s books ended a century before, in 1492, when the final independent Muslim kingdom in Western Europe (in Granada) was expelled. By Quixote’s day, there were apparently no more Moors in Iberia. Still, Quixote lights out in search of heroic battles to sanctify Spain, in the guise of El Cid. (The historical Cid—Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar—served many years on the court of the Taifa de Saraqusta, but, in the epic poem about his exploits, he fights exclusively against Muslims.)

On his great quest, Quixote finds only madness and Manchegan windmills, mistaking the latter for giants (i.e., Moors). Between the lines, however, Cervantes concealed a story that literary critics are only beginning to resolve. It’s a biting satire of the Catholic Church—but also a nostalgic and painful account of the systematic destruction of Islamic culture in Spain. More here by Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera in Public Books


“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

“There is no book so bad…that it does not have something good in it.”

“For neither good nor evil can last for ever; and so it follows that as evil has lasted a long time, good must now be close at hand.”

“There were no embraces, because where there is great love there is often little display of it.”

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Painting by Irshad Salim (Oct., 2015)