On the morning in August of 1604, a little-known writer named Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra walked through the streets of Valladolid, Spain, toting a heavy manuscript to publisher-bookseller Francisco de Robles. Cervantes carried a hopeful attitude that this odd book would become a success, but Robles held little hope the manuscript would sell five copies. A month later, Cervantes sold the rights to publish “El Ingenioso Don Quixote de la Mancha”. The printing was finished in December, and the book came out in January 1605. Cervantes’ hard work made its way from manuscript to the published book that readers and scholars alike agree, even to this day, that Don Quixote became the greatest literary masterpiece in Spain and the world.
If Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra had never written this magnum opus, about a Spanish gentleman who read so many books of chivalry that he decided to become a knight in a world where they no longer existed, literature from 400 years ago to the present might have been completely different. His self-proclaimed mission called himself to right the world of wrongs in an out of date chivalrous manner. He called himself “Don Quixote de la Mancha” and Cervantes wrote hundreds of pages over a period of years to complete Part One of Don Quixote. Before he could get the novel published, his scribbled-worn copy had to be read and corrected by an editor who took the time to compile and rewrite the work as a “clean copy” adding spacing and punctuation so that it could be easily read by the printers. However, before going to print and publication, all books printed in Spain had to be given the “blessing of the state” by a royal “censor” who scrupulously read the work before being granted “license and privilege” for publication. Of course, Cervantes’ manuscript passed the government’s strict approval. Robles sent Cervantes’ text to Juan de la Cuesta – a book printer in Madrid.
The first copy was printed in Madrid, Spain which would soon become the primary source for conversation and laughter among many Spaniards. Sales of the book shot up immediately and by the end of 1605 one thousand eight hundred copies were printed and had flown off bookstore shelves. From Europe to the Spanish-American colonies, copies were sent by boats for hungry readers. Translators in England, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal were rushing furiously to put the book out in their native languages.
Cervantes probably thought about his future book while jailed in 1597 for stealing money from a bank that had crashed. Cervantes drew upon the adventures of his interesting and exciting life as a soldier, prisoner, escape artist and tax collector to create a whole gamut of characters and situations. His book would be new and original in every facet of telling stories. Later it would be called the first “bestseller.” Cervantes’ literary masterpiece became the first fictional novel that set the standard for writing future bestselling novels.
The general plot of Don Quixote is clearly funny. A fifty-year-old man named “Alonso Quixano” sells his land to buy novels about outdated chivalric knights. He reads night and day until he goes mad and leaves home to become a knight, naming himself “Don Quixote de la Mancha.” Quixote perceives reality as a knight from the antiquated stories he reads and believes he is truly a famous knight of old in a society where no knights existed but prevailed in 16th-Century Spanish literature. Quixote sees everything in terms of those boring books which abounded in bookstores. The plot in Don Quixote includes a knight-errant where whores become princesses, men become other knights, magicians, or chain gang prisoners, large windmills become dragons, and inns turn into enchanted castles.
Together with his “squire” – Sancho Panza (“Potbelly”), his old nag – “Rocinante” and his ladylove “Dulcinea del Toboso” for whom he goes on chivalric quests, his misfit adventures caused all readers to at least chuckle, but in Spain, there exists a saying: “If you come across a solitary person laughing they are either mad, or reading Don Quixote.” (“Don Quixote: The Unlikely Conquistador”, The Independent, Jan. 29, 2005).
The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha was an immediate and roaring success. Demand for copies was so high that within a few months its author, Miguel de Cervantes, was having the book distributed throughout Iberia while Robles and Cuesta began work on a second edition. Two pirated versions appeared in London, along with two others in Valencia and Zaragoza; hundreds of copies were loaded on to the galleons embarking for the New World. By June Don Quixote and Sancho Panza had become iconic figures, their effigies carried in parades and others popping up in celebrations for the rich and poor. (“Don Quixote: Now and Then”, Financial Times, 2018).
It’s interesting to note that although Cervantes’ name ultimately became known throughout the world, he never made any money from the monumental sales of Don Quixote. As a matter of fact, Cervantes’ life had mostly been marked by poverty and tough fortune. Nevertheless, he did not lead a boring life whose events Cervantes borrowed to make Don Quixote an exciting read.