Across The High, Uncharted Seas

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Let us strive to imagine Cervantes before the publication of Don Quixote – before, indeed, the composition of that famous opening line: “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing.”

In some senses, it should not be difficult to imagine Cervantes pre-Quixote: his life is well chronicled, he was a well-known figure in his day, and he was, after all, 58 years old before the publication of the first volume of his masterpiece (his one and only masterpiece) in 1605.

Yet imagining Cervantes without Quixote is like imagining Quixote without Sancho Panza, without Rozinante and without the windmills of La Mancha: a massive act of the imagination is required to eliminate the awareness of something that is the result of pure imagination. Quixote is as real as our brains themselves.

Nevertheless let us try. We can imagine the young Cervantes, inspired by the chivalric romances of the late Middle Ages and crippled by his father’s financial tribulations, longing to ride out into a world of pure purpose and high ideals. We can envisage him as a young man in Italy, the Italy that still bore the after-image of Dante and Petrarch and Boccaccio, the Rome that still housed the ghosts of Cicero and Catullus and Julius Caesar, thirstily imbibing the ideals of the early Renaissance, with its heady mixture of Ancient and Modern, the sensual and the intellectual, the spiritual and the political.

We can picture Cervantes casting aside his studies and his literary ambitions to take up arms for the Holy League against the Ottoman Empire – an act of valour that was to cost him the use of his left arm. In the Battle of Lepanto of 1570, the greatest sea battle in living memory for Cervantes and his contemporaries, he insisted on fighting despite being Ill with a fever; he received three gunshot wounds, one of which rendered his left arm useless and any of which might have killed him.

More dramatic images follow: of Cervantes being captured by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery some years later; of him living as a Christian slave in Moorish North Africa; of him trying to escape no fewer than four times before he was eventually ransomed and allowed to return to Spain.

And then we see him trying – unsuccessfully – to establish a reputation, and earn a living, as a playwright in Madrid. We see him consumed with envy as the Madrid public increasingly favours the style of his contemporary dramatist Lope de Vega, forced to work as a tax collector to earn the living that he cannot conjure with his pen, gradually recognising his own lack of poetic talent and then – irony of ironies – thrown into jail for irregularities in the accounts he has presented to his paymasters.

All this happens before Quixote. And there are yet more images: of his siring an illegitimate child, marrying another woman shortly thereafter, realising that his bride’s eccentric uncle might be a model for a new character, a new type of hero – an anti-hero – in a new type of story. All this happens before a single line of Quixote has been penned.

Of course the germ of the idea must have been with him for a long time. Cervantes had published novellas before taking up arms, and in his captivity in North Africa he was said to have had many experiences that provided raw material for Don Quixote. The very idea of using his literary talent to describe common people on everyday language – the Sancho Panzas and Dulcineas of this world – is said to have come to him at this time.

But did he ever imagine the path on which he would set out when he wrote that unforgettable first chapter of his one and only masterpiece and sent his anti-hero, his second self, out in search of adventure, and glory, and fame? Perhaps there was a moment when he realised that he had created something bigger than himself, something stranger and at the same time truer, something that had its own independent existence that would endure beyond his own lifetime and carry him into the fame he had so often sought, like a man-of-war plunging unstoppably into the heart of the Battle of Lepanto.

Perhaps there was a moment when Cervantes realised that, for his half-century of existence on this earth, all that he really had to offer was this – an account of the random wanderings of a deluded elderly man in search of the dreams of his youth.

And perhaps he realised that this poor material, this bitter little joke, contained a universe that was so much bigger than itself that, defying all precedents and natural laws, scorning all fashions and trends, it bore within itself the soul not only of a unique masterpiece but of every novel that was to follow in its wake, like a flock of seagulls languidly following a battleship across the high, uncharted seas.


Jonathan Steffen is a writer and musician. Jonathan was a published author while still at university. Born in London, he read English at Cambridge, where he won the King’s College James Prize and the Cambridge University T.R. Henn Prize, both for creative writing. On graduating, he received a Harper-Wood Travelling Studentship for English Poetry and Literature, awarded by St. John’s College, Cambridge.

His work encompasses poetry, short stories, novels, literary translations, songs and instrumental music.

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