St. Louis, Missouri
First, there is Professor Shutt's infectious enthusiasm for the works he's discussing and even more for the insights that can be derived from those works. Then there's his openness to cultural concepts (Beowulf's heroic manliness, for example, or the piety of the Dream of the Rood) that aren't that popular in the academy these days. He never resorts to cheap shots at the faith or ideals of the Middle Ages, never lapses into that "chronological snobbery" (C. S. Lewis' term) that assumes everyone and everything that came before us is somehow inherently less worthwhile.
Instead, he takes you on an amazing journey through many of the high spots of Medieval Literature, one that will either send you back to reread Gawain and the Green Knight and the Lais of Marie de France or send you forward to finally read those Icelandic Sagas and Troubadour lyrics you somehow managed to dodge in your undergrad days. Unlike most of the lectures I've heard in my life, these bear re-listening. Shutt is that rare type of professor who isn't afraid to admire what others marginalize, nor is he embarrassed by the concept of "truth".
Long ago in my undergrad days I blew by Don Quixote in a survey course. To a mind not very attuned to thick books and partial to any explanation that would make the test easier, believing that Cervantes had penned nothing more than a multi-volume diatribe against those iniquitous chivalric romances was a cinch.
Such an oversimplification served my purposes: first, to identify Cervantes’ proper place on the flowchart of “Those Who Have Contributed to the Creation of the Modern Novel”. Second: to get a passing grade, graduate and get a job and a place of my own.
Over the years, however, I’ve often wondered how any writer, no matter how gifted, could stretch such an indictment over some 900-some-odd pages and still manage to achieve a work that would be reverenced and relished for 400 years. When Audible put Don Quixote on sale in February of 2011, I decided to see—or rather, hear—what Cervantes had really written.
Before I did, however, I decided to immerse myself in the romances that were supposedly Cervantes’ target. I read all of Chretien de Troyes. I read Beroul. And Gotfried von Straussburg’s, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Hartmann von Aue.
I discovered works that were a joy to read. Works that captivated the imagination, that even played with and parodied the very genre they were establishing. So far from finding dusty books worthy of contempt, I found vivid invention and vigorous writing. And in the first dozen minutes of Don Quixote I discovered I had been reading the wrong romances.
Cervantes’ target seems to be the later romances written just before his time, chiefly the Amadis of Gaul and Orlando Furioso. I’ve never read Amadis, but years ago I did get Orlando under my belt and enjoyed the hell out of it. I began to wonder if the whole indictment of chivalric romances was just a device to tell a great story.
No matter what his motivation, we should all be glad he did set pen to paper. I rank Don Quixote with Tom Jones and Pickwick Papers as the three of books I’d choose if cast upon a desert island (not that that’s likely to ever happen). It never ceases to delight. And now that’s it’s over I miss it terribly. Seriously. Most of the credit goes to Cervantes, but the reader Roy McMillan deserves his share as well. His easy tone, light manner and perfect diction make him the ideal travelling companion for this ride.
Oddly enough, the book gives the same kind of pleasure as those romances it lampoons. In this guided tour of life in early 17th Century Spain, you never know what’s going to happen around the next corner. Is the stranger at the inn a villain or a saint? Is the shepherd singing on the hillside a man or a woman? Is the fantastic story they tell true or false? Is the popularity of the first volume of the book, which we find recorded in the second, a tweak at the reading public who consume such improbable works as Amadis of Gaul so avidly?
And of course there’s the ultimate, overarching question that seems to hold the book together: is Don Quixote mad or sane?
Though the book ends with a vigorous diatribe against chivalric romances, the hero (or anti-hero, if you go that way) could not be more sympathetic and likeable. When not smashing puppet shows or liberating condemned cutthroats he is full of good sense and rounded phrases. His “achievements” (battling with windmills and wineskins, for example) make him famous throughout Spain and indeed Europe—not because they are real achievements, of course, but because the book that records those deeds gives such delight.
Maybe that’s why Don Quixote deserves its central place in the “Who-Created-the-Modern-Novel” flow chart: because Cervantes shows us that real life, our ordinary existence, can be as enchanted and improbable as any romance.
Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the 1973 Oliver Reed / Michael York / Frank Findlay / Richard Chamberlain movie repeatedly since high school. Maybe it’s because, unlike The Count of Monte Cristo, this story is set in the more distant past, a past that has been defined and mythologized in the popular imagination (mine included) by this very story. Or maybe it’s just that, for all it has in common with Monte Cristo—opulence, flamboyance, high drama—this is first and foremost an unapologetically adventuresome adventure story. Whatever the reason, I popped in the ear buds, revved up the mower (or stepped on the train home from work, or cleaned the kitchen) and just enjoyed myself. I didn’t expect to be moved mightily and I wasn’t. I didn’t expect to be overawed by a tour-de-force of the writer’s art and I wasn’t. I did expect to be entertained, and I was, handsomely.
This is not to say I didn’t feel a thrill when Athos’ secret was revealed or cringe at the gradual, artful seduction of Lieutenant Felton or feel empathy for d’Artagnan’s grief. If anything, in the original tale the Cardinal and Milady are even more chilling, the father-son relationship between Athos and d’Artagnan even more effecting. But the pity and terror that Aristotle said literature was supposed to produce in us never gets in the way of the plumed, high-booted, hard-charging story. Thank goodness. If anything, the pity and terror the story generates help everything skim along nicely.
As with Sherlock Holmes, it’s hard to say much about a novel that has stood the test of time as well as this one, and which Hollywood never seems to get tired of revisiting (six new versions have appeared since 1973—and at least seventeen before 1973). So I’ll confine myself to this recording, which is excellent. Simon Vance is perfect. For all her beauty, Milady’s voice is always less than beautiful, always tinged with a note of menace and duplicity, even when she’s being nice. The four “inseparables” are pitch-perfect, as is the King, the Cardinal, the Queen, Constance, Kitty. The only disappointment was the executioner of Lille; I don’t know what else Mr. Vance could have done with him, but the deep, rasping note he struck seems a little too stock.
However, that is the only fly—and a miniscule fly—that appears in this ointment. It is boisterous, funny, and every once in a while able to stop you and make you hit the rewind button, as when Planchet, d’Artagnan’s lackey, delivers this bit of encouragement (and my favorite line in the book) to his master:
“Never mistrust the mercy of God.”