The Knight in History by Frances Gies
2 February 2019
A Clash of Kings, A Game of Thrones, book burning, Book Covers, censorship, Don Quixote, Epic Novels, Harry Potter, Individual Will, Knights, Les Miserables, Literature, Master Nicolas, Medieval Romances, Middlesex, Miguel de Cervantes, Rocinante, The Journey, Ulysses, War and Peace, Wishbone, Written Language
Don’t ask me why I began Don Quixote with only two weeks left before I start my next to last semester of Graduate School. It’s a game my brain plays to fuck with me. I spend most of summer taking small bites out of various books, starting many and finishing only a few, well, not a few, but not nearly as many as I begin. I waver. There’s so many books in my collection, how can I choose only one to actually read. In the mountain of knowledge that is my library, there are always the books my eyes drift to. The heavy tomes. Crime and Punishment, Napoleon Bonaparte, which I also started, War and Peace, Middlesex, The Executioner’s Song, etc. The unifying quality of each of these books if their dense page count. The day of the 1000 page novel seems behind us, yet still there is that drive to prove to the self that you possess the strength to challenge such a monster. In the Summer of 2009 I tackled Ulysses, summer of 2013 was Les Miserables, and summer of 2014 was A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. It seemed appropriate, as I near the end of graduate school, that I journey with the idealist knight as my days of Sancho Panza are most likely on the wings. I’m thinking next summer will be either Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, of Fydor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
It was Wishbone that finally pushed me over the edge. I discovered the other day that the show comes on PBS Sunday mornings, and last week’s episode was the Don Quixote episode which was one of my favorite’s growing up. There’s always just been something about knights. Don Quixote has been sitting on my shelf for only a few months. The Mermaids sang their song, and two weeks be damned, I’ve begun the book.
Now obviously trying to tackle Don Quixote in one essay would be monstrous, it cannot be done, and it should not be done. Instead I have elected to turn my attention to one chapter of the novel dealing with the destruction of Don Quixote’s library by his family, barber, and priest.
The chapter in question is the sixth in Part One of my edition, the Penguin Classics. I know this sounds superficial and violates the oldest cliché in all of bookdom, but I chose this edition for the cover. Don Quixote looks out over the fields of Spain, his lance pointed upwards to the heavens, his body wrapped in armor (which is inaccurate but forgivable), and his steed Rocinante is lazily sniffing the grass a stark contrast to his masters idealism. Just looking at the cover, which is a painting by Adrian Louis Demont and which also cuts out Sancho Panza slowly working his way up to his master’s side, there’s a wonderful sense of possibility. I feel like there’s a chance for a real journey, and not just another opportunity to read about stoned kids writing Dada and talking about Easy Rider like they’re actually seen the movie and not just the trippy parts on YouTube. The problem with the Journey narrative today is that it’s all so superficial. What is occurring on the external level is all meant as symbolic significance to the experience and wisdom of the protagonist, meanwhile any and all secondary characters are stripped of a chance to become full human characters. My problem, is that too often Journey narratives today fail because there isn’t an idea that people can honestly experience the world, they can only experience their perceptions of the world.
Before chapter six takes place Don Quixote has donned his faux-armor, mounted his horse Rocinante, and tried his luck as a knight. He is knighted by an innkeeper who is aided by two prostitutes, he has interrupted the whipping of a young field hand and rectified the situation before he leaves and the poor soul continues to suffer the lash, and he attacks a gathering of merchants who leave him flounced after Rocinante trips during his attack and they flee. He is discovered by a local who recognizes him and returns him to his house prompting his niece and housekeeper to call for the aid of the local priest.
It is after careful discussion that Don Quixote’s madness can be attributable to one factor alone: books.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is writing satire first and foremost, that must be understood to any and all who approach this thick but wonderful book. Many people would be amiss of the tradition of the Romance, and why Cervantes’s work would have been so subversive for the time. With the rise of the printing press and mercantilism people began to have more and more time on their hands. Since this is an age that pre-dates HBO-GO, I don’t really care for Amazon they’re planning on using drones for delivery in the future and I’m sorry I still believe in fucking Mailmen and UPS fuck you Amazon. Apologies, chased a rabbit. Because human beings are driven by a need to create, to imagine, and to desire comfort, the middle class demanded entertainment and entertainment meant books. Now often the books would be works of poetry, especially complex works such as sonnets. Because these were dense and laden with aesthetic language the reader had to read and read and read in order to dig into the ideas found within. Along with books of poetry were Romances, stories of knights performing great feats against mythical beasts and falling in love…at least from afar. Many of the romances, particularly the Arthurian legends, are riddled with barbarism, rape, murder of innocents, divine intervention that would render the Old Testament God reeling in horror, and general depravity. It is this subject then, to which Cervantes is plying his ability as a writer. He is mocking the image of the knight and the institution of the romance, but the brilliance of the book is Cervantes’s ability to reinvent the knight as someone worth knowing.
My sister has confided in me recently, and I’m sure she’ll love me revealing her secret to the internet, but she admits that she never made it past chapter six.
Perhaps if you’re a book lover you may feel her pain. Don Quixote’s niece, housekeeper, Priest, and barber have amassed in his wonderful library convinced they are the source of his madness and begin to purge it. May all forgive me, but here we go:
The Priest laughed at the housekeeper’s simple-mindedness, and told the barber to hand him the books one by one so that he could see what was in them, since he might find some that didn’t deserve to be committed to the flames.
“No,” said the niece, “there’s no reason to let any of them off, they’re all to blame. Better throw the whole lot of them out of the window into the courtyard, and make a pile of them, and set fire to them, or take them to the backyard and make the bonfire there, where the smoke won’t be such a nuisance.”
The housekeeper said much the same, so anxious were both women to see those innocents massacred, but the priest wouldn’t agree without at least reading the titles. (52).
There are few moments of perfect farce in literature. With the exception of writers like Voltaire, Twain, Heller, or Wilde, few possess the real ability to present the absurdity of human ignorance in its accurate nature. The reason for this is due chiefly to the fact that wit, precise intellectual criticism, is damned difficult. If wit were easy anyone could do it.
I don’t want to just analyze Cervantes’s ability with language however, so I’ll return to my original point. The entire affair of burning of the books is established in these three small paragraphs and the reader is then shown the execution of the thesis. The books of Don Quixote’s library are studied and judged by the merit of their titles, and in some lucky cases, their reputation. Following this scene the first book is selected.
The first one that master Nicolas put into his hands was The Four Books of Amadis of Gaul, and the priest said:
“This is a strange coincidence: I’ve heard that this was the very first chivalry romance to be printed in Spain, and that all the others have their origin and beginning in it; so it seems to me that, as the prophet of such a pernicious sect, it should be condemned to the flames without delay.”
“No, no,” said the barber. “I’ve also heard that it’s the very best of all the books of this kind that have ever been written; and so, being unique in its artistry, it ought to be pardoned.”
“You’re right said the priest, “so its life is spared for the time being. Let’s see the one next to it.”
“This, said the barber, “is The Exploits of Esplandian, Amadis of Gaul’s Legitimate son.”
“Well, to be sure,” said the priest, “the excellence of the father isn’t going to be any avail to the son. Here you are, ma’am, the first faggot on the bonfire we’re going to make.”
The housekeeper was delighted to do so, and the good Esplandian flew out into the courtyard, where he patiently awaited the flames with which he was threatened. (52-53).
The great massacre to follow is at times both repugnant for the reckless abandon and desire to burn, as it is peppered by inconsistency. That of course is a fancy-ass way of saying that the book gathering is at times hilarious and then painful to book lovers. Master Nicolas weeds through the books in a haphazard fashion reading only the titles and often damning them simply for their reputation. At one point he becomes so inured to this activity that he abandons his careful inspection. It says:
And not wanting to weary himself any more reading chivalry romances, the priest ordered the housekeeper to take all the big books and throw them out into the yard. His command didn’t fall on deaf ears, because she’d rather have been burning those books than weaving the finest and largest piece of fabric in the world, and, seizing the about eight of them, she heaved them out of the window. But becayse she took up so many of them together, one fell at the barber’s feet and, curious to know what it was, he saw: History of the Famous knight Tirante the White.
“Good Heavens!” cried the priest. “Fancy Tirante the White being here! Give it to me, my friend: I reckon I’ve found in this bbook a treasure of delight and a mine of entertainment. In it you’ll discover Don Quirieleison de Montalban a most courageous knight, and his brother Tomas de Montalban, the knight Fonesca, together with the fight that the brave Tirante had with the mastiff, and the witticisms of the maidens Placerdemivida, and the amours and the trickery of the widow Reposada, and the lady empress in love with her squire Hipoloito. Let me tell you this my friend: as far as its style is concerned this is the best book in the worked, In it knights eat and sleep and die in their beds and make wills before they die, and other such things that are usually omitted from books of this sort. But in spite of all this I do have to say that the man who wrote it deserved to e sent to the galleys for life, for not knowing what he was doing when he was writing such nonsense. Take it home and read it, and you’ll see that what I say is true.” (55-6).
Such testimony would appear beautiful, were it not for the fact the Priest was pilfering another man’s library and burning the books he doesn’t like or else doesn’t have time for. And what of the seven books that fell into the courtyard? Did not they deserve their times to be read? It becomes clear as the reader moves through chapter six that only the books that are known and appreciated by the priest deserve to remain, though of course not in the hands of Don Quixote. Before I conclude one final passage needs to be observed.
“But what’s this other one by its side?”
“Galatea, by Miguel Cervantes.”
“That fellow Cervantes has been a good friend of mine for years, and I know he’s more conversant with adversity than with verse. His book’s ingenious enough; it sets out to achieve something but doesn’t bring anything to conclusion; we’ll have to wait for the promised second part; maybe with correction it’ll gain the full pardon denied it for the time being; so while we wait and see, you keep it captive in your house my friend.” (58).
Cervantes winks so obviously to the audience it might be unforgiveable, were it not for the fact his own self-promotion here is so self-depreciating it could be a joke by Woody Allen. His book is spared the flames.
I’ve written about censorship before and the effect that it has upon the discourse because the written word possesses an incredible power. Early societies treated written documents with awe and authority because words are the bridge between immaterial thought and concrete reality. By taking that which is mundane and transforming it into written narrative, mankind achieves a kind of immortality. There’s a reason runes were treated as both a script and religious bridges by ancient peoples. Even in today’s society when the aura of books seems diminished in the face of billions of screen pages, blogs, online articles, and opinion pieces, people gravitate to communicated language. Our attentions are fixed to titles, and meaning becomes constructed before one even digs deeper into the actual meat of the writing. Master Nicolas in this small chapter seems both odious and ridiculous, but his haphazard censorship of Don Quixote’s library assumes a real humanity, for often human beings will reel from perceived threats until they actually experience something for themselves.
When Harry Potter was first published there were book burnings and public outcry for fear that the novel would turn a generation into sorcerers and godless heathens. My mother, being the wonderful person that she was, said, “Let’s buy the book, read it, and decide for ourselves whether the book is bad.” She read me every Harry Potter book after that, usually while I would play video games, but often when I would just sit and listen, thrilled and entertained. It was only by actually reading the books for ourselves that we determined whether something possessed a wickedness. None of them did. Though I am an atheist so maybe that stuff about godless heathens had some merit after all.
Chapter Six of Don Quixote may pain an avid collector of books, for the library’s collection is burned and the door bricked up, leaving Don Quixote forever separated from his books. Despite their best efforts however, Don Quixote continues his quest leading to the real conclusion, much to the pain of the censor. Human initiative cannot be squashed, and those with conviction will find a way to outlive or outsmart those that would dominate their will. In the end, all Master Nicholas does is reveal himself to be both a hypocrite and incompetent.
Cervantes’s tongue stings deep and true, and the Knight carries on his way.