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My Adventures with Don Quixote: An Introduction

Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, Burgos © 2013 Sean M. Madden

Today I embark upon a long-awaited adventure with Don Quixote, a book I’ve wanted to read since studying at St. John’s College a decade ago.

There were, and remain, of course, many such books. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was one, and Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game another, as well as the final two novels of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, the first two of which I’d read with a handful of students in Beate Ruhm von Oppen’s preceptorial during my final semester in Annapolis.

At any rate, a good number of these to-read books have since been read. Yet Don Quixote has remained. And what better time than the present to go adventuring with the renowned knight errant and his squire Sancho Panza — while I myself am living and adventuring in Spain, if in a humbler and slightly more circumspect way?

But before we get ahead of ourselves, I’ll pen a brief backstory for those of you who aren’t already acquainted with our less honorable, though arguably every bit as quixotic, adventures to date …

My partner Mufidah and I have been slow traveling since deciding — while on an Easter Sunday drive to the South Downs last year — to give up our rented apartment in Lewes, East Sussex, nearly nine months ago, to go adventuring together. The time seemed as right as it was ever likely to be, and within the week we wrote to our landlord to give him our month’s notice that we’d be vacating our beloved High Street home.

Rather than to ferry across to France right away, we thought it would be a good idea to unwind a bit — from the craziness of the several-month-long preparations crammed, in fact, into the one month we’d given ourselves — by going on a meditation retreat. And before that we were nurtured and nourished for a week by a dear friend, and long-time student of mine, in her Hove home. Though having lived just ten miles or so from Kuljinder — and having regularly taught my creative writing classes in Brighton — we unexpectedly rediscovered Brighton and Hove, this time as tourists, basking in the freedom of having whittled down our belongings, packed our car for the road ahead, and said farewell to our quite comfortable life in Lewes.

Well, after four days of “golden silence” in Herefordshire, we came to the simultaneous and joint decision to retreat further to a family-owned campsite just outside Hay-on-Wye, Wales, home of the literary festival which has itself gone a-traveling to become an international affair. There we worked in the busiest restaurant in town, I picked up a second shift cooking at a brand-new tapas restaurant, and we quickly organized a couple writing workshops at Richard Booth’s bookshop, without whom and which there would be no Hay Festival.

When we did finally take the ferry to France, we ended up spending the whole of the summer there — CouchSurfing or camping in Lille, Paris, Fontainebleau, Vichy, Cindré and Monbazillac — and arrived in Burgos on the first of September to witness the waning gibbous moon hover above the city. We’d watched the previous night’s full moon rise over the Dordogne and the hillside vineyards of Monbazillac, known for its sweet white wines, sixteenth-century château, and expansive views of the river valley below. And in between we’d slept our last night’s sleep in France, climbed and descended the mountain roads of the southwest, unexpectedly seized the opportunity to swim in the sea at Biarritz, and witnessed the Pyrenees rising majestically over the Bay of Biscay just before we crossed the border into Spain and continued on to Burgos, the ancient capital of Castile.

El Cid, Burgos © 2013 Sean M. Madden

El Cid, Burgos © 2013 Sean M. Madden

The local (and reportedly national) hero here is El Cid, an eleventh-century Spanish nobleman and military leader whose exploits are an admixture of history and legend. In first dipping into Don Quixote I noticed, by way of one of the opening poems, that our famed protagonist’s horse, Rocinante, is (ironically) noted to have been the great-grandson of El Cid’s mount Babieca, pictured to the right with El Cid.

But though we’ve been in Spain for five months now, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the public library finally reopened after having closed just prior to our arrival in preparation for a move to a new purpose-built location. We then had to wait a week for our library cards. But the moment these were in hand, we scoured the sizable English literature section in search of good reads. Until then we’d been assuaging our literary appetite with the half-dozen or so books we’d brought from home and those, mostly free, that we’d downloaded to our iPhones — out of copyright editions, say, of the King James Bible, the works of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Thoreau, Wilfred Owen’s poetry, The Wind in the Willows and One Thousand and One Nights, the latter which we’re reading together before going to sleep each night.

On that first visit as a card-carrying patron of the Biblioteca Pública, I checked out bilingual editions of Ted Hughes’s Crow and a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems, an abridged version (their not having the real McCoy) of Jude the Obscure — Thomas Hardy’s tragic tale which has long haunted me — and, finally, Don Quixote. The latter is the much-heralded Edith Grossman translation, published by HarperCollins in 2003, the same year I finished my master’s degree at St. John’s, Annapolis and made a mental note to read the Spanish classic when I had the time. Now, living in Spain, that time has finally come.

I’ve thus far only read Grossman’s translator’s note, Harold Bloom’s introduction, Cervantes’ prologue and, in his own words, “the endless catalogue of sonnets, epigrams, and laudatory poems that are usually placed at the beginning of books” which he tells us, tongue in cheek, he’d hoped to forgo but in the end felt obliged to offer up in support of his noble knight.

In other words, I stand before this book in (relative) innocence, knowing not if, or in what way, it might seize hold and carry me forth as a fellow traveler, or stowaway of sorts. That the journey may be wayward and chockablock with the unexpected — both the staple and the spice (if sometimes, too, the very bane) of all worthwhile travels — is all I presently hope for.

If you’d like to join me in this adventure — with or without your own copy of Don Quixote in hand — I’d suggest following this new website of mine (you’ll find my other website here) so that you’ll be notified when I post Part One of “My Adventures with Don Quixote”, coming soon.


Photo: Sean M. Madden Sean M. Madden is a writer-educator, photographer and slow traveler. A digital nomad, he’s also co-founder of Creative Thunder, helping creative individuals and small businesses to fire up their online presence and prowess. To get a free copy of the inspiring Creative Thunder Manifesto, click here.