Did Cervantes Write Don Quixote While in Prison?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about novels and novelists and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the novel urban legends featured so far.

NOVEL URBAN LEGEND: Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote while in prison.

Don Quixote, or as it was originally titled, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha, is likely the most famous novel in the history of Spanish literature.

The story follows a man in the latter part of his life who has become obsessed with the ideas of chivalry and knighthood, even when said ideas seem to contradict reality itself. Along with his faithful “squire,” Sancho Panza, Don Quixote goes on a series of “quests” that proceed from the farcical to the tragic as the book goes along.

Written in two volumes over a ten year period (1605 for the first release, 1615 for volume two – the book is now typically read as one volume with two parts), Miguel de Cervantes’ novel is considered an absolute masterpiece of Western literature. WHEN the novel was written is an interesting story in and of itself.

Here is a portrait of Cervantes…

There have been many stories written about the background of Don Quixote and the life of Miguel de Cervantes, but perhaps the most popular is one that was given a great deal of legitimacy when it was written into the book for the musical, Man of La Mancha.

The musical (music and lyrics by Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh)’s book was written by Dale Wasserman (based on Wasserman’s play, I, Don Quixote). It opens with Cervantes in a debtor’s prison. He proceeds to basically act out the story of Don Quixote to the other prisoners and at the end of the musical, we learn that the manuscript that he has been so protective of the whole musical is, of course, the manuscript for Don Quixote.

Wasserman is basing his story on a real-life incident in Cervantes’ life. Cervantes was born in 1547, and after an extended stay in the military (he served in the Spanish navy, where he served proudly and was shot three times – his wounds resulted in his left arm being amputated when he was 33). A few years later, while on another enterpise, Cervantes was on a ship that was captured by pirates. He was held as a slave in Algiers for five years until his parents ransomed him free.

He would marry in 1584, and for the next twenty years he would work as a tax collector and a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada. He went bankrupt and was put into prison at least twice (1597 and 1602) for his debts, failing to find any loans to keep him out of the clink (I guess we should be happy that people just have to deal with credit reports and loan consolidation nowadays instead of having to worry about being thrown in jail for your debts!).

According to Cervantes (or at least, a comment made by Cervantes in the text of Don Quixote), the IDEA for Don Quixote DID come to him while he was in prison in 1602, but he did not start working on the novel for quite some time after he was out of prison. The idea that struck him in prison was to write a novel about “normal” people, written in plain language.

In any event, the idea that Cervantes had any or all of Don Quixote written while he was in prison is incorrect, so the status of this legend is false.

The legend is…

STATUS: False

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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