IDYLLIC SATIRE: The Role of Cervantes and Voltaire. (1607 to 1778)


     Though born more than a hundred years apart, these two authors shared a common ideological passion for life. The Reformation shaped the life of Miguel Cervantes, while it was the Enlightenment that gave Voltaire his perspective. Both periods shared a common theme of Church and State criticism and ridicule. The vehicle used by both to dispatch these institutions was satirical fiction. It was effective, often cruel, pointed and biting. And it got both writers into trouble on occasion.

      The Reformation was a volatile time for Europeans. It was precipitated by earlier events, like the Western Schism, the expansion of the Moors into Spain and The Black Death, all of which eroded people’s faith in the Catholic Church. That along with the printing press and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire led Martin Luther to posting his “95 theses” condemning Catholicism . The Spanish Inquisition was also significant during this period, reaching its pinnacle before the taking of Grenada, ending the Muslim presence in Iberia in 1492.

      The Age of Enlightenment was a cultural revolution, prompted by science and logic. Its purpose was to reform society with reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted science, skepticism and intellectual interchange, opposing superstition, intolerance and abuses by Church and State. Gone was the age of chivalry, to be replaced later by a naive optimism, the two main themes in the works of Cervantes and Voltaire.


DON QUIXOTE De La Mancha  By Miguel Cervantes

     Chivalry had died out during the Reformation, although the cornerstone of it (Might makes Right) was alive and well in Spanish Christendom. It was in the guise of the powerful Inquisition . (Interesting too, that the narrator calls himself, Cide Hamette Benengeli, an Arab of Moorish Spain. Its as if Cervantes wants to introduce the 1st great European novel to be written by a Muslim.)

     Thus we find Alonso Quijano, a land owner from La Mancha . He is obsessed with his library of chivalrous books . Driven mad by the inconsistencies he perceives in his own time, he sets out to restore dignity to the lost profession of knight-errantry (as if to reform the Reformation).

    He assembles a rudimentary sword, tarnished and dented suit of armor and a bowed plough horse named Rocinante, falsely perceiving himself to be a dashing Knight on his stallion steed in glimmering silver armor ; and then heads out into Spain in his quest for glory, calling himself, Don Quixote. Accompanied by his faithful , bloated and longsuffering squire, Sancho Panza, the two chase his dream through the contemporary countryside. The discussions between them along the way are endless and bizarre, in which Quixote’s heightened insane view of life come crashing down to earth with Sancho’s sly pragmatism. They are locked into mutually exclusive views of the world, even though one cannot do without the other. The reader faces in the same moment, an ideal world and the brutal facts of the real world.

     Quixote tilts with windmills, thinking they are giants and fights with innkeepers he envisions to be ogres, causing heavy damage to their premises while also attempting to rescue a maiden in the form of a statue of the Virgin Mary from her captors only to get beaten up by priests. He acquaints himself with a scullery whore and names her Dulcinea, a noblewoman of refined qualities . We then wonder if he will ever see the world for what it is, laughing at every episodic adventure. But in the end, it is he who has the last laugh.

     Yet we continue to read page after page, year after year, century after century of his adventures and faux conquests feeling quite sorry for the moribund hero. It is only when Quixote is confronted by the Knight of the Mirrors (a disguise by his neighbor ) in which The man from La Mancha recognizes his reflection for what it is, does the adventure cease. But with that, Cervantes craftily leads us to the recognition that even though the man was mad, his world view held more sanity than the real world about which he lived.

 The Resident Scholar - Doug Taylor