This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for September 29, 2017: Those Places

September 29, 2017: birthday: Miguel de Cervantes

Today is believed to be the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes (books by this author), born near Madrid (1547), whose life was a series of misfortunes. As a young man, he fought in a war against the Ottoman-Turkish Empire, and he became a war hero, receiving special recognition from the king. But on the way home from the war, he was captured by pirates, held for ransom for five years, and chained to a wall for months at a time. He finally made it back to Spain, where nobody even remembered the battle he had fought in. So he took one of the only government jobs he could find, confiscating agricultural goods for the king. He had to travel around the countryside in all kinds of weather, arguing with shopkeepers and farmers, enduring accusations of corruption everywhere he went. Then in 1595, he was charged with embezzlement, even though he was probably one of the only honest employees working for the government at the time. Having escaped five years of captivity in Africa, Cervantes now found himself imprisoned in his own country for a crime he didn’t commit.

And it was in prison that Cervantes first got the idea for his masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605), a parody of the popular trashy romances of the era, full of monsters, wizards, and beautiful princesses. Cervantes’s novel was about a middle-aged man named Don Quixote who has read so many romances that he comes to believe they are true. And so one day he embarks upon a career as a knight and takes as his squire a farmer he knows named Sancho Panza. The two go off on a series of misadventures, arguing constantly about whether they live in a world full of romance and enchantment, as Don Quixote sees it, or whether they live in a world of bandits and prostitutes and beggars, as Sancho Panza sees it.

The first volume of the novel was a best-seller, though it didn’t make Cervantes much money, because there was no copyright at the time, and pirated editions were published all over Europe. So Cervantes wrote a second volume, in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza learn that they have become famous since someone has published a book about them. They travel around the country, correcting the falsehoods that have been spread about them, and they struggle to prove that they are indeed the real Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, not the fictional versions. Most critics consider the second volume even better than the first.

Miguel de Cervantes said, “Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.”