Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is one of the most famous and beloved characters in Western literature. An older man with a comfortable life, "Don Quixote" spends much of his time reading books on medieval chivalry. Eventually he imagines himself to be a knight errant in search of fame, honor and glory. Cobbling together some armor and mounting his tired horse, he sets off for (mis)adventure in this enjoyable and stimulating story. The tale of Don Quixote gave us phrases like "quixotic" (for something that is impractical or fantastic) and "tilting at windmills" (for attacking imaginary enemies).  Don Quixote is also called the first "modern novel" and is one of the most popular books of all time.

Battle of Lepanto
Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616) is most well-known for writing Don Quixote, but he lived an exciting life long before he became a celebrated writer.  Born in the ancient university town of Alcala de Henares, in Spain, at a young age Cervantes joined the army to fight the Turks.  He fought in the decisive sea battle at Lepanto, which ended Ottoman naval supremacy in the Mediterranean.  At the Battle of Lepanto, Cervantes received three gunshot wounds, two in the chest and one which maimed his left hand for life. When his service in the army ended, Cervantes returned to Spain.  On the way there he was captured by Barbary corsairs, was taken prisoner, and kept as a slave in Algiers.  He tried to escape several times, but was only freed when his parents were able to pay his ransom. 

Back in Spain, Cervantes had constant money problems.  Unable to support himself and his family with his odd jobs, he eventually began to write to supplement his income. During his years of extreme poverty, Don Quixote first appeared.  It quickly became the most popular book in Spain and brought Cervantes international fame.  Surprisingly, Cervantes profited very little from his success and even in old age he remained quite poor.  He died on April 23, 1616, the same day as William Shakespeare.

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