09/10/2013 14:25 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Bluffer's Guide to Don Quixote

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is one of those books that almost everyone has heard of and that almost no one has read. Others include Jack Kerouac's On The Road, JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy and the bible.

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is one of those books that almost everyone has heard of and that almost no one has read. Others include Jack Kerouac's On The Road, JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy and the bible. But with the Royal Opera House putting a on a ballet of the Spanish export it might finally be time to fill in those plot-holes with a little help from the Bluffer's Guides.


Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote the character of Don Quixote all the way back in 1605. But it was another decade before the next and final instalment fell into the laps of the Spanish people. In defence of the moustachioed Spaniard, El Principe de los Ingenios (The Prince of Wits) to his friends, he was busy getting arrested and becoming a Franciscan tertiary (some sort of quasi-monk).


Don Quixote aka Alonso Quijano (he changes his name at the beginning of the story), sets out on a journey almost as long as the book which details his adventures. He has a sidekick (as all good heroes have) called Sancho Panza who differs from him in almost every respect (as all good sidekicks do) and a mission (there's always a mission): to revive the chivalric codes of fictional-yore.

In the first volume Quixote sets out to vanquish evil like a more willing Frodo Baggins but his efforts are somewhat hampered by his poor grasp on reality. By the time 1615 rolls around things have got quite dire for Quixote and after whipping himself 3,300 times and governing a fictional island for ten days he gives up on his chivalric ideals and dies of a fever.


Almost. Director Terry Gilliam (full-time genius and part-time nutter) has been valiantly trying to adapt the unwieldy novel into a film since 2000. He hasn't succeeded. But Lost in La Mancha (2002), directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe and starring Jeff Bridges, Jean Rochfort and Gilliam himself, tells the story of his first failed attempt.

You might impress people by drawing parallels between Quixote and Gilliam: both optimistically idealistic and idealistically optimistic in the face of failure, and both bad at separating life from art. Equally, mention the similar film-within-a-film A Cock and Bull Story (2005), a movie treatment of Laurence Sterne's unfilmable 1759 novel Tristram Shandy. (Head to for extra bluffing credit.) Remember to point out that this film is a mocumentary to Fulton and Pepe's documentary. Although Quixote muddles up reality and fiction, it's best if you don't.


Si! Marius Petipa's 19th Century ballet, choreographed to Ludwig Minkus' score is still hailed as the most successful adaptation of Cervantes magnum opus, albeit abridged (which it is, quite dramatically). Try fitting every twist and turn of Quixote and Sancho Panza's journey into a 2-hour-long ballet. Pepita and Minkus's ballet still forms the basis of modern-day adaptations, but the Cuban Carlos Acosta is the latest choreographer to give it a whirl.

If you don't feel qualified discussing crescendos and quavers or pirouettes and pliés, then stick to the much-streamlined plot. Thoughtfully (and vocally) ponder if Quixote will smash his pasteboard helmet.


In the ten-year-interim between the first and second volumes of Don Quixote, people got a little restless waiting for Cervantes to rescue his protagonist from the brink of the cliff hanger he'd left him on. So restless that someone wrote an unauthorised sequel. When Cervantes' legitimate volume came out it included an author's preface in which he told a somewhat oblique cautionary tale about a mad man in Cordoba who dropped marble slabs on dogs until he was severely beaten by the angry owner of a Lurcher. Cervantes then explains that bad books are heavier than stones, which we suppose is the modern day equivalent to suing him for everything he's worth.

DO ASK 'You know that Quixotic means, of course? An impractical optimism in the pursuit of romantic ideals.'

DON'T SAY 'Yeah, I've definitely read it. Well, I got to the windmill bit...'


  1. In 1575 Cervantes and his brother were kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Algiers.
  2. The thin Quixote and the fat Sancho Panza (his name means 'holy belly') embody the control of Lent and the excesses of Carnival respectively.
  3. Bijoux publishers Visual Editions are currently in the process of masterminding an illustrated version of Don Quixote. Never heard of Visual Editions? Check out our Bluffer's Guide to the pint-sized publishers.
  4. Rumours of a Johnny Depp and Steve Pink adaptation of Don Quixote surfaced in Christmas of 2012. Terry Gilliam was not associated with this rumoured Disney production. Ouch.
  5. According to the Hungarian theorist Gyorgy Lukács Don Quixote is 'the first great novel of world literature.' And to others it's the first modern novel.

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