I recently participated in a panel at the World Fantasy Convention on the importance of getting real-world details correct when writing fantasy fiction. One suggestion that came up for authors writing in a historically-based setting was to read fiction written by authors living in that time period, because they often make throwaway comments that can give us terrific insights into how their contemporaries lived and thought. I mentioned that I had been reading Don Quixote, and at one point there are these women who’ve supposedly been cursed to grow beards (actually, they’re men pretending to be women as a joke on Don Quixote, but that’s beside the point). Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza says, “I’ll wager they don’t have enough money to pay for somebody to shave them.” And I realized, which I never had before, that if your fantasy world doesn’t have safety razors and good mirrors, you can’t have all the men walking around clean-shaven unless there are a lot of inexpensive barbers.
Don Quixote is full of surprises. Another thing I never realized was that the Monty Python cheese shop sketch is pretty much cribbed from Cervantes. Here’s the Don Quixote version, from Edith Grossman’s recent (2003) English translation (no, I’m not nearly so literate as to be able to read Don Quixote in the original 17th century Spanish):
Sancho asked the landlord what he had for supper. The landlord responded that he could have anything and could ask for whatever he wanted: the inn was stocked with the birds of the air, the fowl of the earth, and the fish of the sea.
“There’s no need for so much,” responded Sancho. “If you roast a couple of chickens for us, we’ll have enough, because my master is delicate and doesn’t eat a lot, and I’m not much of a glutton.”
The landlord responded that he did not have any chickens because the hawks had devoured them all.
“Well, Senor Landlord,” said Sancho, “have them roast a pullet, if it’s tender.”
“A pullet? Good Lord!” responded the landlord. “The truth of the matter is that yesterday I sent fifty to be sold in the city; but except for pullets, your grace can order whatever you want.”
“Then that means,” said Sancho, “that you have plenty of veal or goat.”
“For the moment, there’s none in the house,” responded the landlord, “because it’s all gone, but next week there’ll be plenty.”
“That does us a lot of good!” responded Sancho. “I’ll wager that everything you don’t have can be made up for by all the eggs and bacon you do have.”
“By God,” responded the landlord, “that’s a nice sense of humor my guest has. I already told you I don’t have pullets or chickens, and now you want me to have eggs? Talk about some other delicacies, if you like, and stop asking for chickens.”
There’s also a scene where Don Quixote and an author discuss the pros and cons of self-publishing, an exchange eerily similar to those I hear among fellow writers today. Plus ca change….
“Is this book being printed at your expense or have the rights already been sold to a bookseller?”
“I am printing it at my own expense,” responded the translator, “and expect to earn at least a thousand ducados with this first printing, which will consist of two thousand copies that can easily be sold for six reales each.”
“Your grace is certainly good at calculations!” responded Don Quixote. “But it seems you do not know how printers collude or the favors they do for one another.”
“And?” said the translator. “Would your grace prefer that I give it to a bookseller, who’ll pay me three maravedis for the rights and think he’s doing me a favor? I don’t print my books to achieve fame in the world, because I’m already well-known for my work; I want profit: without it, fame isn’t worth a thing.”
The famous tilting at windmills scene happens very early in the novel; so early that I have to wonder if it’s so famous because a lot of people through the centuries didn’t bother to read much farther. They should have, of course. Cervantes published Don Quixote in two volumes, ten years apart. If you only read the first bit of Part One, you’ll miss all the scenes in Part Two where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are trying to explain away the inconsistencies and plot holes in the first volume. And running into people who know who they are from having read Part One. And dissing the unauthorized sequel that some other author wrote to cash in on the success of Cervantes’ work. (There really was an unauthorized sequel.) Not only that, the entire novel, in true epic fantasy style, purports to be not the original work of Cervantes, but merely his translation of some lost manuscripts written in Arabic by a Moorish chronicler named Mr. Eggplant.
The only reason to not read Don Quixote is that it’s over 900 pages long. But if you like epic fantasy, that shouldn’t stop you. Imagine, it’s like reading one of the Wheel of Time books … and only having to read one. With much less description of the embroidery on women’s dresses (though not, by any means, none at all).
You can find more interesting facts about Don Quixote here. Then go read the novel!