22 February 2009

Book of the Week (2): "Don Quixote", retold by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Riddell

Martin Jenkins and Chris Riddell, the pair who brought us the fabulous Gulliver in 2004, have now turned their talents to this most classic of classics, the great Spanish novel Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. In it a dreamy old man who has read too many tales of chivalry believes himself to be a wandering knight and sets off on adventures to win fame and honour for himself and his fair lady. With his patient squire Sancho Panza by his side, the old man attacks a flock of sheep (he thinks they’re an opposing army), he releases dangerous prisoners from a chain gang, he spends nights in various inns (he thinks they’re castles) and invariably upsets the innkeepers, and meets a mass of characters along his way who share their stories with him.

Don Quixote is a very episodic narrative, so though it’s a long book it lends itself well to reading in little bursts; and then, of course, there are the pictures… The truth is, I’ve never met a Riddell book I didn’t like, but there’s something about Quixote’s world for which they seem especially appropriate – they’re detailed and lifelike, but also quite mad and fantastical, they’re humane and sympathetic but also grotesque. In this book – itself a beautifully made object – the few coloured images complement an amazing array of uncoloured line drawings into which each box of text is set – the layout is unusual and really effective.

Jenkins and Riddell’s Don Quixote would be more than worth having for the collection of pictures alone (it’s taken me far too long to read as I keep stopping to explore each superb-looking page) but in addition you get one of the finest of all stories stringing them together. Magnificent.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

  • You’d be surprised at how easy and un-intimidating the original is if you give it a try. Why not pick one of your favourite episodes from the story (Cardenio’s tale is probably mine…) and see how it reads in the full version? And if you can get hold of an edition illustrated by DorĂ©, have a look and compare how another brilliant artist has interpreted the story.
  • Riddell and Jenkins’ previous collaboration, Gulliver, is just marvellous, too.
  • And for the stories that set Quixote off on his mad quest, read some old tales of chivalry. King Arthur is among the greatest of heroes of this type, so you might like to start with Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.

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