Or Perspective is Really All About Where You Stand
The timeless tale of Don Quixote is a voyage within a voyage. Like all journeys, the spiritual and physical are interwoven, entwined, inextricable. Misadventures, detours, predicaments; all with such a noble heart that “quixotic” was already an adverb by the 18th century. So much has been written of Don Quixote in general that you won’t find me embarked on such a foolish quest. Instead, I’d like to concentrate briefly on one small episode: the Ingenious Hidalgo’s Imaginary Flight.
At a ducal court (we are not told where), Don Quixote makes the acquaintance of the Countess Trifaldi, known as the “Duenna Dolorida” – the Distressed One – on account of her unfortunate and rather bristly beard. This curiously afflicted Countess relates to Don Quixote the tale of an extraordinary steed, a wooden horse capable of flight and great speed, governed by turning a peg in his forehead. Property of the magician Malambruno, workmanship of the sage Merlin, this wondrous steed’s name “is not Pegasus, as was that of Bellerophon ; nor Bucephalus, as was that of Alexander the Great ; nor Brigliador, as was that of Orlando Furioso ; nor is it Bayarte, which belonged to Reynaldos of Montalvan ; nor Frontino, which was Rogero’s: nor is it Boötes, nor Pyrithous, as they say the horses of the sun are called; neither is he called Orelia, the horse which the unfortunate Roderigo, the last king of the Goths in Spain mounted.” He is none of those; his name is Clavileño the Winged, “which name answers to his being of wood, to the peg in his forehead, and to the swiftness of his motion…” Clavileño “neither eats nor sleeps, nor wants any shoeing, and ambles such a pace through the air, without wings, that his rider may carry a dishful of water in his hand, with- out spilling a drop, he travels so smooth and easy...”
And even more extraordinary, Clavileño is about to arrive, courtesy of the mage Malambruno, and would Don Quixote dare take flight on his back? His success, he is assured, will rid the Duenna Dolorida and her ladies of their uncomely beards, product of a sortilege cast by the same Malambruno. And the horse arrives, pushed forward into the torchlight by wild men garbed in leaves.
Naturally, Quixote is eager to depart, he will not even bother to wait for “either cushions or spurs, so great is [his] desire to see [her] ladyship and these [her] unfortunate friends shaven and clean”. Sancho Panza, on the other hand, would prefer to leave the Dolorida with her whiskers and stay with his feet firmly on the ground. Nevertheless, both mount, are blindfolded, and the extraordinary flight begins.
Of course it is a farce. Neither rider dares peek under the mask, Quixote because it would not be noble manners to distrust his hosts, Sancho because he is of a prudent nature, always torn between the desire to believe his master’s fantasies and his down-to-earth peasant nature. He contents himself to hold tight, just in case.
The celebrants make a rushing wind with a bellows, they singe the riders with torches, Clavileño rocks and bucks and finally explodes when the fireworks that stuff his innards are lit. The two intrepid travelers are hurled to the ground. They pick themselves up, remove the blindfolds, and see the assistance lying dazed on the ground as well, clearly mazed by the fabulous landing. When they come to, Quixote recounts his adventure, and thanks to his bravery, the Dolorida and her accompanying Duennas’ beards have indeed vanished. (Along with their owners it seems; typically gallant, Don Quixote had not thought it strange, or at any rate he was too well mannered to remark, on originally meeting the Duenna, that she had “a voice rather harsh and coarse than clear and delicate”. Gustave Doré himself depicts rather masculine-looking “ladies”, to say the least.)
The episode is quickly concluded, it is tempting to chalk it up to Don Quixote’s noble credulity and unbridled imagination as a caricature of the heroic adventure, but a closer look brings fascinating facets into focus.
The first is Clavileño (literally “wooden peg”). His fabrication credited to Merlin is of course invented by Cervantes, but magical wooden steeds had already made their appearance in literature.
A similar horse, controlled by a wooden peg in the neck, although more exquisitely carved in ivory and ebony, according to the tale, once belonged to a mysterious sage from the Indies, and was displayed before the King of Persia during the festival of Nowrouz in the eternal city of Shiraz. Astride the marvelous mount, the Prince of Persia, Firouz Schah – rescues the Princess of Bengal and returns to Shiraz, all in the space of a single night and a day. The tale comes to us from the Thousand and One Nights. The original stories (like Aesop’s Fables, the archetypal corpus was much augmented with successive retellings and publications) come from 12th-century Persia.
The Enchanted Horse also appears in “The Squire’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer, though this time he is made of brass.
“This same steede shal bere yow evere moore
Withouten harm, til ye be ther yow leste,
Though that ye slepen on his bak or reste;
And turne ayeyn, with writhyng of a pyn.”
(This self-same steed will bear you evermore
Without least harm, till you have gained your quest,
Although you sleep upon his back, or rest;
And he’ll return, by twisting of a pin.)
Thus Clavileño’s flight path most probably begins in the Indian subcontinent, with a stopover in Shiraz, a possible detour to the British Isles, to finally land in Spain. (Cervantes is well au fait of his folklore; the horse Bayard is a local legend from the Ardennes in northern France, though he includes Boötes amongst the four horses of Helios, perhaps a confusion with Bronte.)
And what of Don Quixote’s vivid description of the heavens? Cervantes mixes medieval notions with the discoveries of Brahe, Kepler and others. (In passing, I’m much surprised that Tycho Brahe’s extraordinary island observatory of Uraniborg has not found its way into more film and fiction.) Aristotlean and Copernican universes mesh and overlap, in the same manner that we can conceive of the heavens and of space, both somewhere above our heads. (Likewise, the Earth’s core and Hell are somehow contiguous beneath our feet.)
Of course, references to travel in the heavens or in the sky abound amongst the earliest myths, but they do not corporeally project the listener into orbit. When Icarus flies too close to the sun, we the readers are no closer to space than is a moth approaching a light bulb just above our heads. Gods are forever thrusting people and creatures into the sky to become constellations, but it is a curiously summary gesture that in no way evokes breaking free of Earth’s gravity. Only with the notion of the infinity of space does the fictional journey aloft venture truly beyond our limited sphere of experience. Mythological flights in space have little of the metaphysical journey, they are curiously pedestrian, as if to truly achieve the subliminal we must have somehow familiar surroundings. Until we were able, with the universe expanding under the gaze of astronomers, to truly imagine ourselves physically beyond the earth, the senses were in no way solicited.
Even in the scientific age, we are at a loss to describe things which are beyond our experience. Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, gives a description of his flight not dissimilar to Don Quixote’s. Lacking points of reference, language becomes lyricism, and simple words acquire a poetry of their own.
‘… I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear Earth…The water looked like darkish, slightly gleaming spots…When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the Earth’s light-colored surface to the absolutely black sky. I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the earth. It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquoise, dark blue, violet, and finally coal black.’
‘…Rays were blazing through the atmosphere of the earth, the horizon became bright orange, gradually passing into all the colors of the rainbow: from light blue to dark blue, to violet and then to black. What an indescribable gamut of colors! Just like the paintings of the artist Nicholas Roerich.’
Roerich, who was one of H.P.Lovecraft’s favourite painters, and whom Lovecraft admired for the same striking palette, painted mystical landscapes, many at altitude in Tibet and the Himalayas whilst embarked on an enduring quest for Shambhala. Perhaps what Lovecraft glimpsed – from below – and Gagarin surveyed from above and recalled in Roerich’s paintings was the shared passion for the subliminal experience. The link is of course as fortuitous as a book chanced upon – or missed – but imagery requires a focus and a language; its path through literature is never linear.)
Don Quixote does his best to describe the wild ride through the heavens, but his senses mislead him. He feels the wind of the bellows and the heat of the torches, and imagines himself high above the earth.
“Don Quixote now, feeling the wind, said: ‘Without all doubt, Sancho, we must by this time have reached the second region of the air, where the hail and snows are formed: thunder and lightning are engendered in the third region; and, if we go on mounting at this rate, we shall soon reach the region of fire; and I know not how to manage this peg so as not to mount where we shall be scorched.’”
Sancho wishes to “un-hoodwink” himself and see, but Don Quixote admonishes him. (Sancho nevertheless peeks, or afterwards claims he did, but his account is so confusing and his explanation so garbled that no one lends it credence.) Finally, the firecrackers in Clavileño’s belly are lit and they make their rude landing.
Other touches are pure Cervantes: Don Quixote, instead of having a voluptuous and grateful princess hold tight to his waist and rest her pale cheek on his shoulder – Merlin had lent Clavileño to Peter of Provence, his previous rider, to carry off “the fair Magalona”, also depicted clinging to him for dear life (by Doré and others) earlier in the Duenna’s story – has her caricature in the portly Panza, who nevertheless is constrained to mount sidesaddle. Rather than elevating his vision, Sancho’s resolutely terre-à-terre imagination reduces the Pleiades, from daughters of Atlas and the nymph Pleione, to seven little she-goats gamboling in the aether, following rural Spanish folkore. (Apparently the Pleiades are vulgarly called in Spain “the seven little she-goats”. Questioned as to whether there were no he-goats among them, Sancho replies they may not pass the horns of the moon, astral allusion to cuckoldry that would certainly have been appreciated by Cervantes’ audience.) Sancho may indeed travel the heavens, but his heart is anchored firmly to Mother Earth’s solid bosom.
Nevertheless, it is proto-science-fiction, and possibly one of literature’s first attempts to recount space travel, disguised as it is in the colourful vestments of farce. Don Quixote’s vision of space is in perfect harmony with the scientific notions of the times, and even more importantly, it is the premise of the very idea of relativity, coined by Galileo in 1632, nearly three decades after Cervantes’ death.
The simple enough yet fundamentally revolutionary idea, first hinted at in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, that such immutable things as time might well not be so reliable as we think, that time and space might be malleable, that subjective notions of time – what one feels or experiences – and objective time – as measured by precise instruments – might not always be the same, finds its complete expression only in 1916, with the “Theory of General Relativity”.
Of course this is not to say that Einstein in any way owes a debt to Cervantes, even though Don Quixote was his second-favourite novel,* but it’s tempting to think that Clavileño might have appeared briefly in his musings, like a comet flashing through the sky.
Finally, though, there is a last facet of the Imaginary Flight: its depiction in illustration. Naturally a popular scene, few artists who have undertaken the rambling odyssey of illustrating Cervantes have left it out; it brings us neatly full circle (or orbit) to relativity once more.
The vast majority of early depictions of the scene insist on the farcical nature of the evening’s entertainment. We are given the best seats amongst the sniggering spectators, invited to mock the lanky knight and his credulous squire and revel in the cruel prank. Such uniformly partial and limited perspectivism of vision ignores the pure fantasy and rapidly expanding scientific universe hidden within the tale. We have a thigh-slapping good time at the brave hidalgo’s expense, but we ignore Quixote’s vision. We do not take flight.
1. Unknown illustrator. The History of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha. Published in 1719 by R. Knaplock, D. Midwinter, J Tonson et al. London.
2. After the designs by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752). Illustrations for Don Quixote. Published in 1725 by Gerard van der Gucht. London.
3. Illustration copied after Diego de Obregón (active 1658-1699). Vida y hechos del ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote de la Mancha. Published in 1735 by Antonio Sanz. Madrid.
4. Illustration by Luis Paret y Alcázar (1746-1799) and engraved by Juan Moreno Tejada (active 1780-1810). El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. Published in 1797-1798 by Gabriel de Sancha. Madrid.
5. Illustration by Célestin François Nanteuil-Leboeuf (1813-1873). Don Quijote de la Mancha. Published in 1855-1856 by Francisco de P. Mellado. Madrid.
6. Steel engraving by Luis Ferrant y Llausas (1806-1868), one of a number of illustrators for an edition of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. Published in 1880 by Biblioteca Ilustrada Espasa. Barcelona.
7. Attributed to José Luis Pellicer y Fener (1842-1901), for an edition he illustrated with Ricardo Balaca y Canseco (1844-1880). El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. Published in 1880-1883 by Montaner & Simón. Barcelona.
8. “Don Quixote and Clavileño”. William Strang (1859-1921). A series of thirty etchings by William Strang illustrating subjects from “Don Quixote”. Published in 1902 by Macmillan. London. Reproduced in William Strang; a catalogue of his etched work. With an introduction by Laurence Binyon. Published in 1906 by J. Maclehose & Sons. Glasgow.
Only with the first steps of the space age, with the idea of aeronauts, balloons and like contraptions inhabiting the popular imagination, do illustrators finally take Quixote’s side, and try to imagine what his eyes were seeing, and to illustrate his extraordinary flight. It is a shame illustrators in the 17th and 18th centuries chose not to do so; how they would have translated the notion of a jaunt in space as conceived at the time would be a valuable complement to the science of the early astronomers.
But could they indeed have? It is as though the potentiality of experiencing flight and perhaps outer space itself was necessary to liberate Clavileño and his riders from the gravity of convention and launch them into the aether. Until Copernicus, the infinite was the realm of myth and religion – only God could be infinitely anything, only the gods could be immortal – and largely outside personal experience, despite tales of the dislocations of time involving sojourns in the realm of Faerie, which are also inevitably underground. As the universe around the Earth began to become infinite, from the blue-painted globe of the heavens on Atlas’ shoulders to a real place inconceivably immense, it is as if imagination acquired a dimensionality that it had heretofore lacked.
1. Illustration by Apeles Mestres (1854-1936). El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. Published in 1879 by Juan Aleu y Fugarull. Barcelona.
2. Illustration by Gustave Doré (1832-1883). El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. Volume II. Published in 1892 by L. Tasso Serra. Barcelona.
3. Illustration by L. Palao. (C19th-20th) El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. Published in 1931 by Ramón Sopena. Barcelona.
4. Illustration by Carlos Vázquez (1869-1944). Ibid.
5.. Illustration by Enric C. Ricart (1893-1960). The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of la Mancha. Published in 1933 by Limited Editions Club. New York. Printed in Barcelona by Oliva de Vilanova.
6.. Illustration by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944). The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha. A children’s edition from the translation by Charles Jarvis (1675-1739), published post mortem* in 1953 by J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. London; E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc.. New York.
*Heath Robinson had apparently completed several coloured illustrations before his death, complementing his black & white work for the 1902 publication.
7. William Heath Robinson. Ibid.
While scientific knowledge and rationality can be held to put us out of touch with the irrational and the imaginative connections to our own mythology (goodness knows I’ve said it enough myself), such an evolution does indeed beg the question as to the very nature of the mechanics of the imaginary. Could Cervantes have written episodes such as the imaginary flight (Don Quixote and Sancho make an equally intriguing and extra-temporal voyage in an enchanted boat) a century or two earlier? Observers don’t begin to see UFOs until humanity is potentially capable of fabricating space vessels (see C. G. Jung’s Flying Saucers : A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, 1958), would it have been possible for painters to imagine space before it existed?
In closing, certainly no illustrator has bridged science and fantasy as adeptly as Cervantes’ countryman José Segrelles. Segrelles produced 105 colour plates and 126 black and white illustrations for Don Quixote over a long period (the first images were published in the Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News in 1929); they were finally united in a lavish commemorative edition entitled “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha” published in 1966 by Espasa-Calpe of Madrid. But, Spain’s finest modern illustrator was not only a creator of classics of history and legend, he was a passionate follower of man’s efforts to reach the Moon and to conquer space. His depictions of the Moon, initially done by careful observation of the craters in old bread, have an element of fervent fantasy and bold vision that make them more than science, and certainly more than science fiction, which is usually devoid of the atmosphere on which fantasy thrives so readily.
José Segrelles painted one last image of Don Quixote in 1959, one that is not included in the book. We see the fearless hidalgo, bony knees clamped to Clavileño’s rigid flanks, Sancho Panza hanging on for dear life behind, plunging directly down towards the cratered face of the moon, in the same trajectory Eagle must have taken. José Segrelles died on March 3rd, 1969. Three and a half months later, the first man landed on the moon. Curiously, Neil Armstrong failed to mention the hoof-prints of a wooden horse, but Cervantes would certainly have approved.
Left: “But, behold, on a sudden, four savages entered the garden, all clad in green ivy, and bearing on their shoulders a large wooden horse. They set him upon his legs on the ground, and one of the savages said: ‘Let him, who has courage to do it, mount this machine.’”
Center: “Don Quixote now, feeling the wind, said: ‘Without all doubt, Sancho, we must by this time have reached the second region of the air, where the hail and snows are formed: thunder and lightning are engendered in the third region; and, if we go on mounting at this rate, we shall soon reach the region of fire; and I know not how to manage this peg so as not to mount where we shall be scorched.’”
Right: Clavileño on his final approach to the lunar surface, illustration done in 1959.
*The first was The Brothers Karamazov.
Special thanks to Ann Carling, for her tireless pursuit of imagery, references, dates, captions and typos, and to Juan Carlos Tormo, of the CASA MUSEO SEGRELLES in Albaida, for providing not only the illustrations published in the 1966 edition of Don Quixote, but the extraordinary image of Clavileño’s lunar landing.
The majority of the images of Don Quixote is borrowed from the Cervantes Project.
The archive is an extraordinary and exhaustive repertory of publications of Don Quixote, from the first editions to the present day.
The text excerpts are taken from “The Life and Exploits of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha”, published by S.A. & H. Oddy, London, 1809
For previous newsletters concerning the extraordinary art of José Segrelles:
LIFE UPSIDE DOWN
As you know, there is a film about dwarves and a certain Hobbit coming out soon – October 15th will mark three and a half years to the day since I have been busily at work in this decade-along return to Middle-Earth (although we have had a few breaks and weekends off, at least until now) – and things have gone from busy to extremely so. While I have managed to keep up newsletters, with much help, mid-November may come and go in a flurry of long working days, and mid-December in, well, just flurries, not only of snow, but all the rest that accompanies such a film.
I confess that NOT writing about a project that has taken up nearly all my creative time and energy over the last three and a half years has been an exercise in restraint, but the subjects I stumble on (as well as the landscapes, both real and metaphorical, I wander in – back when we still had weekends, I mean) have kept my mind restlessly roaming, has kept my reading and “research” eclectic and stimulating. For that, for the self-imposed obligation to deliver something at least partially coherent once a month, my thanks to all of you who have subscribed to and perhaps even read the newsletters. Thanks as well to my periodic guest authors, and to everyone who has helped keep them going. This is sounding suspiciously like an adieu, but it’s really more the boy who cried wolf – I do hope little attention will be paid to my warning, and to write something palatable (or at least not indigestible) for the next two newsletters, despite the flurries. But, should I not manage… well, it’s just an au revoir.