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COLUMN: Medieval literature is weird and wonderful



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"A world of disorderly Notions, pick'd out of his Books, crouded into his Imagination," reads the text below the illustration. "Don Quixote" was written by Miguel Cervantes in 1615. It is the best-selling book of all time outside of religious texts. Clark Gudas Buy Photos

Ye olden days of fiction had it all. Characters battled windmills, cut the heads off of magical green-colored knights and tricked shepherds into believing a stolen sheep was actually an infant. Break into what the medieval and Renaissance eras had to offer with Dr. Faustus and Don Quixote and read about more medieval literature in future book columns.

“Dr. Faustus,” Christopher Marlowe

When striking deals with Lucifer, it’s important to have a little foresight. In this late 16th century play, the supremely educated Dr. Faustus lacks just that. He asks Lucifer for magical abilities, in exchange for later surrendering his soul and spending eternity in hell. As tempting as magical powers are, one would think a doctor of medicine and law would have understood that any deal that includes eternal damnation is not a fair shake.

With limited time and hell awaiting him, what does Faustus do next? He plays practical jokes. He amuses himself by frightening the Pope under a guise of invisibility, and asks his devil servant, Mephastophilis, to bring him the legendary Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy. In an attempt to amuse and warn Faustus of his impending doom, Mephastophilis personifies the Seven Deadly Sins in a sort of variety show, but Faustus fails to see anything in them of his own impending damnation. 

Faustus is a tragic character, in that he is extremely well educated and is still unsatisfied, desiring power that lies beyond mortal knowledge. 

The play brings a compelling look into the grim underside of religion, hedonism and self-obsession in the 16th century. The moments humor are a welcome respite from the gloom as well. 

Despite its religious morality — a “don’t be like this, or you’ll go to hell” mentality — the play also critiques the Catholic church, and was controversial due to its portrayal of demons and magic.

“Don Quixote,” Miguel Cervantes

The bestselling book of all time, outside of religious texts, “Don Quixote” tells the tale of a chivalrous, gallant, battle-ready knight traveling Middle Ages Spain with his stout squire, Sancho Panza, in a quest to win honor and fame for his mistress, Dulcinea del Toboso. Quixote is the epitome of honor, pride and virtue. He battles knights and monsters in deadly combat, and seeks the destruction of his archenemy Freston the mage.

None of this is actually true — but Quixote believes this about himself anyways. In reality, he’s a loony old man with illusions of grandeur. His armor is over a hundred years old, and the monsters he fights are actually windmills and watermills. Dulcinea del Toboso doesn’t exist, nor does Freston.

The book is a pitiable and hilarious satire of older chivalry novels, but also explores the idea of a person mixing reality with his own fantasies. Quixote’s quirky antics progress the narrative — Quixote travels to an inn he believes to be a castle, and asks the innkeeper, who he believes to be a royal lord, to knight him. He regularly gets into fights with monks and merchants he believes to be villainous scoundrels and wears a shaving basin he stole in battle with a barber, believing it to be the enchanted helmet of a famous knight.

Don Quixote is a character who can’t — or perhaps chooses not to — distinguish reality from fiction. Cervantes takes this confusion a step further by making himself a character in the novel and by stating that the novel is actually written by someone else.

Destroying the walls between fiction and reality, the second book of "Don Quixote" has Quixote and Panza learn they are famous, after the successful publication of the first book of “Don Quixote." 

Confused? You should be. The novel treats reality as a plaything in hilarious and, for the time, unprecedented ways. 

"Don Quixote" is a long novel, but in its pages are many hilarious and poignant adventures. No complex analysis is necessary to enjoy watching Quixote lose a fight against a windmill, or to feel a bubbling sense of excitement when the author tells the reader he isn't the real author.

Between Quixote’s comical illusions and Cervantes’s fourth-wall breaking, the novel wants to destroy the bridge between fiction and real life. By extension, it asks the quintessential postmodern question centuries before postmodernism: “What is real?”

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