Don Quixote book cover

In Review

What the Mad Knight Was Seeking

By Harvey Cox

Three events propelled me to re-read—after maybe 50 years—Miguel de Cervantes’s epochal novel about the Knight of the Woeful Countenance. The first was the realization that 2005 marks the 400th anniversary of what some critics call not only the first but also the greatest novel ever written. Also, I am not getting any younger, and there are some books we are just not ready for when we are young and callow—as with the study of the kabbalah, one should wait until maturity is edging toward old age in order to appreciate them. Don Quixote, along with Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is surely one of these. Like the most famous of all knights errant, and like Cervantes, we too—as we grow older—have endured some rough patches in life and have seen our share of people posing as something they are not. Indeed we have done a bit of such posing ourselves.

The second motivation for reading the brilliant new translation by Edith Grossman was that my son Nicholas was about to perform in his high school’s production of Man of La Mancha, the justly famous musical based on the Cervantes masterpiece. I had never seen the musical before, having scorned it years ago as by definition incapable of capturing anything even close to the core of a monument of Western literature. Now, however, having re-read the book and drunk in the show (by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion), I have, at least in part, recanted. Of course a 900-page book cannot be poured into a two-hour musical. But I think the show does succeed in conveying at least one of the central tenets Cervantes advances, namely, that all of us, and not just the mad knight, live with a certain level of illusion and self-deception. Cervantes was neither the first nor the last to notice this, but unlike many other treatments of the subject, his has the virtue of gentle irony. Who can finish Don Quixote or walk out of Man of La Mancha without a feeling of warm affection for the hero in the barber’s-basin helmet?

Perhaps the most important reason I went back again to Don Quixote, however, was that I was preparing lectures for a Yale-Harvard Travel/Study Seminar to Spain and Morocco this spring, one that bears the title “Co-Existence of Faiths and Cultures.” The focus will be on that section of medieval Spain called Andalucia, and Morocco, where a splendid, thriving, brilliant interfaith civilization flourished from the seventh until the twelfth centuries. The Spanish historian Américo Castro has called it the age of the convivencia, when peoples and cultures not only tolerated one another but also actively engaged one another, and drew on one another’s artistic and spiritual resources while maintaining the integrity of their own traditions.

In this region, under Muslim rule, Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in relative harmony. Indeed scholars of the three traditions labored together to translate Aristotle and the other treasures of ancient Greece from the Arabic, in which they had been preserved, into Latin and Castilian. This enterprise, without which the Renaissance would never have happened, continued for a time even after the Christian princes from the north of Spain had begun what is now known as the reconquista. One historian describes a scene in the chapter room of the cathedral of Seville. There, under the auspices of the bishop, Raymond of Seville, one could have found turbaned Muslim scholars, rabbis in long beards, and Christian monks in robes all sitting around a table lighted with giant candles and poring over old manuscripts.

Some critics believe that Cervantes’s novel is an eloquent lament for this lost golden age. In the opening pages the author, using what has now become a classic conceit, describes noticing on the street of the former Jewish quarter in Toledo a boy trying to sell a bundle of ragged old papers to a rag merchant for scrap. Picking the tattered manuscript up he notices it is written in Arabic, a language he cannot read. But in glancing at it he immediately suspects this is an account of the famous Don Quixote of La Mancha, written by an Arab named Berengedi. He pays the boy a nice price for his trash, snatches the material, and begins to look around for someone who can translate it for him, which could be a dangerous enterprise in post-convivencia Spain, because Arabic is now an illegal language and Muslims have been driven from the realm. But he finds a Morisco, a man of Muslim parentage whose ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity (though many of them did so in name only). The two sneak off to a quiet place where Cervantes pays the Morisco, and the tale—full of windmill giants, sheep armies, and Dulcinea, the kitchen maid “noble lady,” unfolds.

By 1605, when the book was published, and became a bestseller in Spain, the convivencia had been over for a century or more. Torn by internal battles and pressed by the Christian princes of the north, the Muslims had retreated until they held only the province of Granada with its monumental Alhambra in the southeast corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Then, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella, who called themselves “the Catholic monarchs,” having determined to unite their realms under a single religious ideology, had conquered Granada, forced the Muslims to leave, and ordered the Jews to convert, depart, or die. This had been the death knell of convivencia, but in 1605 the echoes of those rich times still reverberated, and the nostalgic outlook Cervantes projects onto Don Quixote suggests that he missed it, missed it desperately.

And who would not? It was indeed an incomparable time. By the tenth century the caliph Abd al-Rahman III had constructed in Cordoba a city that was much larger than any elsewhere in Europe. It had crystal pools, libraries, animal parks, and a genteel style of life. Its physicians were second to none, and when monarchs in the less civilized reaches of what were eventually to become France and Germany fell ill, they came to Cordoba for treatment. It was also a religiously cosmopolitan city. When Abd al-Rahman wanted to find the best candidate in his realm for his foreign minister, he turned to one Hasai ibn Shaprut, a native of Cordoba who was a scholar, physician, and rabbi, the head of the thriving Cordoba Jewish community.

The interaction moved in all directions. Literary historians have recently pointed out that Dante’s Divine Comedy owes much to Arab sources, and that Muslim mysticism undoubtedly shaped the thought of St. John of the Cross.

It would be tempting simply to bask in the sun of this fabulous period. Our purpose in the travel seminar, however, is not just antiquarian. We hope to learn something about how such a civilization came to be and what eventually caused it to fall apart. One could hardly imagine a more pertinent topic in 2005. From the highest realms of scholarship to the most lurid of religious hyperbole, we are constantly warned today that there is something essentially irreconcilable between the core values of the Islamic worldview and what we have—recently—come to call the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, so we are condemned to a “clash of civilizations.” Or we are instructed by the television evangelists that we need to recognize that Muslims worship a different God from the one to whom Jews and Christians pray.

But the historical record gives the lie to this picture. Of course there have been periods of conflict between Christians and Muslims, or more exactly, between countries rule by Christians and those ruled by Muslims. But there have been long periods of intense and creative interaction, and the period of the convivencia is one of them. This is something the Knight of the Woeful Countenance knew well. What does it have to teach us?


Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes; translated by Edith Grossman, with an introduction by Harold Bloom. Ecco, 976 pages, $29.95.

Harvey Cox is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. His book When Jesus Came to Harvard was recently published by Houghton Mifflin.

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