“Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, is hailed as the first modern novel. A unique blend of humor, tragedy, and critique nestled within a meta-narrative on chivalry and storytelling. Jay reflects on the enduring relevance of Don Quixote’s adventures through the lens of modern fan fiction and intellectual property debates.
Permanently moved is a personal podcast 301 seconds in length, written and recorded by @thejaymo
One of my favourite books of all time is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, and I’m going to tell you why.
I read it once as a teenager and I’ve read Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation twice as an adult. I have the paperback edition with Picasso’s sketch on the cover.
As I’ve grown older, the book has only got better. Not because the story has changed, but because I have. My understanding of the novel and its wider context has grown.
Don Quixote, is of course a story about an otaku shut-in named Alonso Quijano. A man who does nothing but read chivalric romances. Eventually, after collecting and consuming so many stories he loses his mind and decides to become a knight-errant himself. Seeking to revive chivalry in his modern era, he adopts the moniker of Don Quixote. And navigates the world of the novel, as if he were a character in a chivalric romance story.
Long time listeners will of course immediately recognise this affliction or condition. Brainworms; acquired from the media he was consuming – the world he was immersing himself in.
Don Quixote is regarded as the first ever novel
The book is also a sort of meta-commentary on the narrative environment that Cervantes found himself working in. The pivot between the collective ownership of story and the authorial driven narrative form we know today.
Most stories at the time – usually written under pen names – were versions or extensions of common oral tales passed from one person to another. Media that had emerged from a storytelling tradition that treats characters as a kind of collective property, shared. Think of high mediaeval chivalric romances as a kind of extended and shared permissive IP, or fandom universe.
Cervantes’ other main innovation as an author and what makes it the first novel. Was to explore the psychological state of his characters. Still the defining feature of the novel as a form. We see the story play out through the eyes of Sancho Panza and Quixote, and we are privy to their inner lives and motivations.
In the chivalric romances, and more generally of fiction in this period, characters rarely ever explained themselves – if at all. If they did, they would usually do so in the form of a soliloquy or grandiose pronouncement.
So we have a character, who is navigating the world of novel through a world(view) adopted from the media he has consumed. Who goes off on adventures, (and due to his delusional obsession), gets in and out of tragic and comical situations. Don Quixote is a comment on the disconnect between the romantic imagination and the harsh realities of life. A critique of the unrealistic and impractical ideals of chivalric romance.
Don Quixote is also one of the first works of metafiction
The book comments on its own narrative form and even comments on the nature of storytelling itself. To explain why, we must turn our minds to the modern phenomenon of fan fiction.
Like fan fiction, Don Quixote is a work in dialogue with both reader and genre. Contemporary readers would have been familiar with other chivalric romance stories and the conventions of the genre. Cervantes subverts both by having Quixote be a fan of the genre and operate by its conventions. If alive today, I imagine that he would have been writing all sorts of fan fiction and posting it on archive of our own and self publishing on Amazon.
Don Quixote was written in two parts. The first part was published in 1605. But 4 years after its publication, an unauthorised follow up called: “The Second Book of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha” was published.
As you can imagine Cervantes was not a fan of this *at all*. And began writing his own follow up. To illustrate how incredibly meta this novel is, Cervantes puts the unauthorised sequel into the world of the book. As after all Don Quixote is a book about a reader of books.
In Part 2 Don Quixote visits a printing-house in Barcelona and finds the unofficial sequel being printed there. The character of Quixote then proceeds to read a real book about himself. Which, from his point of view (and the authors) is a complete fabrication. Later an irate Quixote and long suffering sidekick Panza then meet one of the characters from the unsanctioned sequel. They make him swear that the “other” Quixote and Sancho are impostors.
This self-referential meta commentary, to the reader, still feels incredibly modern. It illustrates the evolving literary culture of the time. There was a growing awareness of the literary marketplace and economic value of creative work. It takes a position on authorial intent, authenticity and literary value. All things that eventually birth copyright a hundred years later in 1710. Issues that in the age of AI, we are still wrestling with.
By responding to the unauthorised sequel, inside the world of the book and dismissing it, Cervantes engages with the very modern ideas of intellectual property and canon. The idea that someone can own or authorise character. Rather than collective stewardship of characters by multiple authors that had been tradition.
There are 3 worlds nested inside the novel. Each porous to one another. The first is the characters psychological interiority, Inside the world of the book, written by a fourth wall breaking self referential author.
Honestly, if you haven’t ever read Don Quixote it’s very good.