Was Cervantes Part English? Does It Matter?

Jáuregui's CervantesThere has been a lot of reporting on some recent scholarship by historian Julio Mayo that finds that Cervantes, author of Don Quixote along with a bunch of stuff you’ve probably never heard of, had a relative that was British. There are two ways to look at this. First, it’s interesting because we know so very little about Cervantes. Second, it is not interesting because Cervantes’ lineage is not interesting.

The whole thing has to do with the an English family of traders, the Timtams. They apparently moved from England to southern Spain in 1480. As early as 1481, John Tintam was involved with the slave trade between Guinea and Spain. Now I know, Tintam and Timtam are not the same words, but that is the way it was at that time — spelling was all over the place and people often spelled their own names in different ways. Anyway, Tintam was the father or grandfather of Juan Titon de Cervantes. Is this Cervantes’ father’s father, Juan de Cervantes?

It is possible. However, since Cervantes’ paternal grandfather had a brother who was mayor of Cabra, the family was so integrated, and thus bred, into Spanish culture, that I have a hard time thinking much of this great English connection. Ultimately, we are all related. But more than that, people moved around a lot in the 15th and 16th centuries. There was a lot of breeding of people from different areas. And that brings up the whole “So what?” factor in this story.

I’m worried that the reason people are interested in this is to take away some of the Spanish of Cervantes — that there is an implication that a “pure” Spaniard could never have written such great books.

I’m worried that the reason people are interested in this is to take away some of the Spanish of Cervantes — that there is an implication that a “pure” Spaniard could never have written such great books. But if only he had some of the magic dust from the island of Shakespeare, well then, it is all explained. The truth is that Cervantes was very much a Spaniard. In fact, it’s a bit disturbing at times to read his thoughts on the matter. What’s more, he tried to join the Spanish Armada, but was refused service (due to his lost hand, as I recall).

But there’s something else here. Throughout his life, Cervantes wanted to be a poet. But he was never successful at this. And the reason is that Cervantes wasn’t a very good writer on the micro-scale. What makes Don Quixote great is not the fine writing. It is first and foremost that he is a funny guy — the early 17th century Terry Pratchett. And the reason that we think him great today is because in those two novels he created the blueprint for both the modern and the postmodern novel.

Certainly others had written long books before. In fact, people had written long and funny books, like Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel series. But Don Quixote is remarkable in a number of ways. First, the characterizations are much deeper than anything ever seen; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza seem like real people. Second, the books actually go somewhere — they have narrative arcs. Other books were just much more like real life: this happened, then that happened, then another thing happened. Don Quixote pulls all that together and comes to a satisfying ending.

I think that Cervantes stumbled upon greatness because he was rather bad at the kind of writing that was popular at the time. Don Quixote was not the first “novel” that he wrote. It was just the one were he happened upon something new: two glorious characters who propelled his story to greatness. Exactly how Rodrigo and Leonor Cervantes came to produce the great writer is only marginally interesting and of no relevance at all.

16 thoughts on “Was Cervantes Part English? Does It Matter?

    • “Cervantes’ great grandfather was a slave trader” is a whole lot more interesting than “Cervantes’ great grandfather was British.” Fun fact: Cervantes was a slave for five years, although he wasn’t much put to work because his captors were under the mistaken impression that he came from a wealthy family and were hoping to ransom him for big bucks. He made four unsuccessful attempts to escape — one of them quite elaborate (which probably would have worked but he was ratted out). He was eventually ransomed along with a number of other men by a priest. Even with what little we know about him, Cervantes lived a very colorful life.

            • I still think I’m confused, but it is interesting what we do and do not know about Cervantes. A great deal is known about him because of all the jobs he applied for that he didn’t get. But these at least give us some idea of where he was and what he was doing. And he was thrown in prison twice in his 50s. He is an interesting contrast to Shakespeare for whom writing was just about making money. Cervantes sought acclaim — or at least the respect of fellow writers. Shakespeare was going after a coat of arms; Cervantes was just trying to get the rent paid.

        • Tim Leary, the LSD guru (and a shallow writer, IMO, but that’s not relevant), got arrested for weed possession when he was driving with his daughter and the cops pulled them over. The daughter panicked; she had weed in the car. Leary took the weed so he’d be arrested and his daughter wouldn’t.

          Leary ends up jailed in San Luis Obispo. A radical leftist group springs him. They arrange a plan where they cut the power briefly to the prison, so Leary can escape by using the electric line to the jail as a hand-over-hand means of clearing the wall. The guy’s an aging former Harvard professor, and he’s got X number of seconds to move himself hanging from the line before the backup kicks in and he’s electrocuted. Miraculously, it works.

          So flash-forward a few years. Leary is holed up in Canada. He falls in love with a lady who wants to marry him and wants him to meet her family in the US. Leary agrees to cross the border into upstate New York for the meeting, and presto, he’s arrested. Turns out his paramour was a CIA spy.

          I heard this story on an Amtrak train going from Portland to Santa Barbara. The conductor had no comments the entire ride (which is, like, a 24-hour trip) until we passed the very jail. Then he told this story on the PA for ten minutes. It was wild.

          Later I read a few-years-old TIME article by Ken Kesey which verified the story. And added this amazing tidbit. Kesey met Leary in jail and asked him if he was angry towards the spy. Nope! Turned out he still received her visits weekly:

          ‘”She likes this espionage action. It gets her off. It turns her on.” He walked us to the door and waved at the warden behind his bulletproof glass wall. “Besides,” he added, “who am I, of all people, to put down somebody else’s turn on?”‘

          You gotta salute that!

          • I didn’t know about CIA part of that. The first part I knew from a long-time friend of Leary’s. He was a character. But his extensive LSD use did affect his brain and his later writing was very weak. I copy edited the electronic version of The Politics of Ecstasy. It was one of the worst jobs I ever had. What dreck. And I couldn’t change it; I could only make sure that it was exactly what the great man had written. But oh what a barren world it would be without folks like Leary!

            • Or Amtrak conductors like that. No s**t, the guy told this story in the same way a pilot would say “those of you on the right side of the plane can see the Grand Canyon, we’ll be beginning our descent into Los Angeles in 30 minutes, please return your trays to the upright position.”

              Amtrak is nucking futs, and God bless it for that.

                    • It is literally cheaper to drive since I pay $20 a tank and it is two tanks to get there and two tanks back.

                      In other news the best friend is paying for part of my hotel for my birthday present! YAY!

                    • Sure, if you want to exclude externalities. When the final polar bear is dead, I will blame you! :-)

            • Oh, and thanks for torpedoing my lifelong fallback dream of being an editor. That sounds horrible! Glad it’s better now …

              • Well, there is a difference between editing and copy editing. And that was a particularly horrible kind of copy editing. But so little copy editing gets done these days. I don’t get to do much more of it at my day job than I do here. Modern writing is more like manufacturing than anything else. But editing is overall fairly nice — especially if you work with good writers.

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