Don Quixote may be the first modern novel, but Cervantes did not pull it out of the air like a magician’s bouquet. The Spanish bard borrowed language, story, form and genre, giving them his own indelible stamp. The stories he borrowed became his own.
Obviously, the principal genre Cervantes plundered was chivalric romance. Romances are the authors of Don Quixote’s madness, they serve as guidebooks for his speech and behavior, and they are the templates for the novel. The book follows the typical structure, story line, chronotopes and many conventions, but the heroic tale becomes a parody as it passes through the hands of multiple authors, some realistic and some rhetorical.
As with the best parodies, Cervantes pays homage to the genre while satirizing it. Cid Hamet writes at the end of the novel that “my only desire was to bring into public abhorrence the fabulous and absurd histories of knight-errantry, which, by means of that of my true and genuine Don Quixote, begin already to totter, and will doubtless fall, never to rise again” (Cervantes 944). Nevertheless, readers do not view chivalric romances with abhorrence when they finish reading, even though they do see them with irony. Cervantes did not topple the genre; he reinterpreted and reinvented it.
Even the practical Moorish author fails to abandon romance entirely, for he continues to refer to the character by his knightly name, Don Quixote, although the country gentleman has himself disavowed this name. Cid Hamet even calls the knight-errant “true and genuine,” a phrase we would expect from the credulous narrator / editor, not the realistic Cid Hamet.
Romance and parody are not the only genres Cervantes adopted and adapted. He is indebted to the picaresque novel as well, a genre popular in Spain at that time. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “picaresque” as “narrative fiction which deals episodically with the adventures of an individual, usually a roguish and dishonest but attractive hero.” The story line is essentially the same as in romance: “Somebody passed this way, meeting various people and having sundry adventures.” What differentiates the picaresque is that its hero is not a noble warrior, but a “roguish and dishonest but attractive” fellow. This revolutionary alteration to the hero story enabled Cervantes to create a new hero, at once noble and absurd. Because of Cervantes and the picaresque, our contemporary heroes may be roguish, lower-class, dishonest, deranged, or morally ambiguous.
Cervantes invokes many other genres: pastoral romances, historical chronicles, military accounts, cautionary tales, proverbs, puppet shows and plays. The interpolated tale “The Curious Impertinent” belongs to a popular genre in which the fidelity of a wife is tested, in this case with disastrous results. Poetry litters the pages: sonnets, ballads, rustic love songs, pastoral poems, complaints, epitaphs and spiritual verse.
The novel is a veritable catalog of genres, a compendium of literary types. It is a book of books, striving to represent the literary world in miniature (if a 944-page book can be a “miniature”). James Joyce also tried to represent a multitude of literary forms in Ulysses (1918 – 1920). The book of books is itself a genre.
(An extract of my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, which you can get at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)