Miguel de Cervantes
It may be the most influential novel ever written. The tale of the mad Spaniard and his naive squire shows up in everything from Sherlock Holmes to Blackadder to Doctor Who and every buddy cop movie you’ve ever seen.
Retired gentleman Alonso Quixana has a love of books about chivalry, so much so that he digs out his grandfather’s suit of armor, fashions a crude visor for its helmet, and recruits local farmer Sancho Panza as his squire. He’s no longer Alonso Quixana. He is Don Quixote, soon dubbed the Knight of the Rueful Countenance. Quixote sees not what’s actually before him but anything that his mind can spin into an adventure worthy of a knight-errant. Think of those famous windmills he tilted at. Quixote’s antics wreak havoc on some, amuse others, and frequently result in insult or injury to Sancho, convinced that Quixote will conquer a land and make him governor of an island. By Part II, a history of his “adventures” has been published, and Quixote is treated, sometimes as a punchline to elaborate pranks, as a celebrity. All the while, his village priest, barber, and a local scholar scheme to lure Quixote back home to cure him of his madness.
The book is, first and foremost, a parody of the books about knights-errant popular in the early 1600’s. This was best paralleled in the Red Diamond novels, where a cab driver obsessed with PI fiction goes off the deep end and believes he’s the titular private eye and that all the fictional PI’s from Spenser to Kinsey Millhonne to even the Continental Op are his friends.
But Quixote and Sancho form an dual archetype that echoes throughout modern literature. Mark Twain cited him as an influence on Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. With the roles slightly changed, Quixote and Panza become Sherlock Holmes (intelligent, but neurotic as hell) and Watson (long suffering and the voice of reason). Carried further, Doctor Who features the mad (and whimsical) Doctor, whose madness is somewhat deliberate, with various companions playing ever-changing versions of Sancho (though usually much better looking.) That’s right. Sarah Jane Smith is based on a portly, middle-aged Spanish guy who rides a donkey.
What’s truly unusual is the prose. It’s rather straight forward and spare for a novel written in the early 1600’s. The only truly wordy parts are when Quixote opens his mouth. His overwrought speeches, which alternately amuse and infuriate the other characters, are an orgy of semicolons and run-ons.
But if Shakespeare is the most important dramatist in history, Cervantes has cemented himself as the most important novelist in modern history.