Air Travel in Cervantes
Cervantes often depicted the craft of writing in his works. In the prologue to Don Quijote, he portrays himself as uninspired, head in hand, staring at the empty page and wondering what to say. In the Novelas ejemplares he invites his readers to a game of billiards. Both images are serious and playful in different ways. In one, he appears
to be self-deprecating, but is also underlining the creative control that comes from hard choices about what to write next.
In the other, he stresses the ludic dimension of fiction, not to down-play its importance ―‘horas hay de recreación'― but
to emphasise that literature is a game of skill for more than one player. When these two images are superimposed, the result
is a useful set of tools for understanding what Cervantes is trying to do in his fiction, and why he is so good at it.
The notion of art as play is not new, but the image of the writer wielding his pen as a billiard cue —eyeing up angles, working
out geometrical possibilities of character and situation, allowing for the nap of reader expectation— helps us to appreciate
the skill, and experience the pleasure it brings. This paper will look at some of the trick shots he plays in Persiles y Sigismunda, discuss how he gets away with them and what they contribute to the rules of the game. Almost everything that follows is
inspired by frequent re-readings of E.C. Riley's classic study, Cervantes's Theory of the Novel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). Few works of criticism stand the test of time as this book has. By looking at some of Cervantes's
more playful passages, this paper offers a modest celebration of the life and work of a brilliant and humane reader and critic
whom we all miss very much.
At the beginning of chapter 18 of book I of the Persiles, Cervantes holds a roll-call to keep track of the cast. The head-count shows a net gain of thirteen named characters from
Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Poland and England. The deceased —for Cervantes regularly culls the cast
to keep it to a manageable number— include a Portuguese nobleman and a Norwegian chambermaid. Many more characters —French,
Lithuanians, Poles and a Scottish countess— will join before the pilgrims reach their objective. One often suspects that Cervantes
has deliberately set himself the challenge of getting as many characters as possible, from as many countries as possible,
up to the Arctic Circle and then on to Rome.
This apparently chance convergence of many life-lines, though implausible, can be allowed because it is, in fact, rather commonplace.
Ordinary people's lives intersect in a similar way on a daily basis. Everyone we meet comes to us with a pre-history, from
which an extraordinary narrative can often be made. What interests Cervantes about these encounters is the hidden logic that
lies behind the questions that get asked on these occasions: who are you? where have you come from? how did you get here?
The criteria for an acceptable answer to these questions are set out in a well-known incident in La gitanilla.1 Andrés catches the page-poet Clemente stumbling about in the gypsy encampment, and suspecting that he has been drawn there
by Preciosa's beauty, cross-examines him unmercifully: who is he, where is he going, why is he travelling so late and so far
from the road? Clemente's reply is rather pathetic: he is on his way to Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia, he is travelling
at night to get there sooner, and he has lost his way in the dark. Andrés is deeply sceptical and insists that he can do better:
‘si os conviene mentir en este vuestro viaje, mintáis con más apariencia de verdad...' (112). You say that you are going to
the Peña de Francia and it is twenty leagues in the other direction. You say you are travelling at night: through thick woods,
without even paths, let alone roads? ‘Amigo, levantaos y aprended a mentir...'
So Clemente tries again, and this time tells a much more elaborate story, and a much less plausible one. This time, he claims
to be a fugitive from justice after hiding in a monastery for two weeks because he and a close friend, a Count, had killed
two men who had been hanging around the house of the Count's secret lover. He and the Count had decided to split up and make
their escape; the Count had gone to Italy and he to Talavera, and, yes, he had only mentioned the Peña de Francia for something
to say. Which is the better lie? There is no doubt that ‘I got lost' rings more true, but one cannot help remembering the
words of Borges's detective Erik Lönnrot in La muerte y la brújula: ‘posible, pero no interesante'.
The Persiles opens, in medias res, with the lives of Periandro and Auristela at a point of brief convergence. A beautiful youth is brought out from an island
dungeon. Who is he? Why is he going to be killed? He is to be transported a short distance to the isla bárbara, where he will be put to death and his heart ground up and made into a potion. The son of the man who can drink this potion
without squirming will conquer the world. The barbarians who espouse this belief spend their lives capturing young men to
supply the ingredients for the drink, and young women, of whom the most beautiful will be chosen to give birth to the conquerer.
It has been Periandro's fate to be included among the ranks of the former and, quite independently, Auristela's to be among
As a response to the question ‘what are you doing here?' this explanation is far from uninteresting. But it is only the beginning.
Up to this point, Cervantes has restricted himself to characters and situations which belong wholly to an exotic, legendary,
epic-romance world. Their lives may be extraordinary and wildly romantic, but there is nothing inherently implausible in Icelanders
and Norwegians sailing around the northerly latitudes. But the heat of the conflagration on the isla bárbara brings to the surface a group of three characters, a Spaniard, an Italian and a Portuguese, who belong to the Mediterranean
world and have no real business being there. They are out of place in that context; explanations are called for, and good
ones at that.
The first to explain himself (chapters 5-6) is the Spaniard, Antonio, in whose sea-cave Periandro and Auristela take refuge
from the burning island. The son of well-to-do parents, ‘medianamente nobles', he served in the forces of Charles V in Germany,
and while home on leave became involved in a brawl following a dispute over forms of address. It is the all-too-familiar story:
someone calls him vos, he responds with a sarcastic vuesa señoría, swords are drawn, and blood is spilt. He flees back to Germany, then back to Spain and finally embarks on an English ship
taking soldiers home from Lisbon. During the trip he gets involved in another brawl, this time with an English seaman, and
as a punishment he is put in a rowing boat with some supplies and told to find his own way home. After a long period at sea,
during which he visits an island populated only by wolves and undergoes a prolonged spiritual harrowing, he is washed ashore
on the isla bárbara.
While Antonio takes care of the rescue from the main island, Rutilio, the Italian, engineers the release of the prisoners
from the dungeon on the prison island. Rutilio also came to be on the isla bárbara as a result of a shipwreck (chapters 8-9). He had been out on a trading expedition from his base in Norway, but how he came
to be in Norway is another matter. He begins his story as a dancing master in Siena. He falls in love with one of his pupils,
absconds with her and is sentenced to death when her father catches up with them and calls in the authorities. He is rescued
from prison by a witch who carries him off on her cloak. Four hours later (the chronological exactness is a nice touch) they
land in the half-dark of an unknown country. She turns into a wolf, tries to seduce him and he kills her. As she dies, she
regains her human form. He stands looking at the body, wondering what to do, and an Italian-speaking passer-by welcomes him
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The third account (chapter 10) is, if anything, more cryptic still. The Portuguese nobleman, Manuel de Sosa Coitiño appears
almost literally from nowhere, from among the crowd of escapees from the fire. He is heard singing in one of the boats in
which the group make their escape, and then tells a heart-rending tale of his love back home in Lisbon for the beautiful girl
next door, of how he asked for her hand and was told that she was too young to marry, but that he should wait two years and
that he should have first refusal. When the two years are up he learns that she has decided to become a nun. In the very act
of recounting his heart-break he dies at the feet of his audience, just as a dream had foretold the previous night. Auristela's
sadness at his death is deepened by the realisation that, now, she will never know how he came to be on the isla bárbara: 'con este sueño se ha escusado este caballero de contarnos qué le sucedió en la pasada noche, los trances por donde vino
a tan desastrado término, y a la prisión de los bárbaros, que sin duda debían de ser casos tan desesperados como peregrinos'.3
By any standards this is a bizarre trilogy of stories. All three accounts clearly have their roots in the novella, the short tale of love, honour and intrigue which Cervantes used so often and to such good effect. Antonio's tale is the
most fully worked through, and with the exception of the wolf that sends him away from the uninhabited island, comes closest
to Clemente's ideal blend of invention and plausibility. The Portuguese lover's tale, while it causes no problems of plausibility,
raises the question of why it is there at all. Whereas Antonio and his family will remain mainstays of the cast until he is
reunited with his parents in Spain, and his children will remain with Periandro and Auristela until they reach Rome, Manuel
de Sosa Coitiño exists in the narrative only to tell his unfinished story. He comes from nowhere and dies in the act of narration.
And as for Rutilio, his aerial flight from Siena to Norway is difficult to reconcile with Cervantes's life-long dedication
to the proposition that, however thin the truth might be stretched, it should not be allowed to break ('la verdad adelgaza
y no quiebra').
Rutilio's flight is not the only example of air travel in the Persiles. At the end of Periandro's long flashback in book II, he tells of how he broke a horse of King Cratilus by riding it over
a cliff: 'con tan mal grado suyo, como gusto mío, le hice volar por el aire y dar con entrambos en la profundidad del mar'
(266). Only after he had taken off did he remember that the sea was frozen. However, heaven ensured that the horse's legs
were strong enough to take the strain, horse and rider skidded across the ice a good long way, and no harm was done, although
all the onlookers were certain he must be dead.4
Later still, in book III, chapter 14, one of the pilgrims looks up from a picnic to see something about to land on top of
them: a beautiful woman has been thrown from a tower, and her voluminous skirts have broken her fall, allowing 'la mujer voladora'
to land unscathed. Cervantes comments that this was a 'cosa posible, sin ser milagro.'5 Of course he is right, and we can accept both these incidents (just about) because we understand the physical principles
which would, admittedly in exceptional circumstances, make them possible; just as we understand the physical principles which
enable the pilgrims to survive in the hull of the capsized ship at the start of book II. Although Cervantes uses the word
'volar' in the case of the flying horse and the flying woman, they are both in fact instances of arrested falling, and although
Mauricio says that three or four broken legs would have left Periandro less dependent on his listeners' courtesy (as he puts
it), it is not difficult to see how a low angle of trajectory, a high terminal velocity of the horse and a low coefficient
of friction might combine to produce a miraculous escape. And we all know how a parachute works.6
In the case of the flying woman, however, close inspection of the text reveals that she is a carefully planted distraction.
As soon as she lands, the pilgrims hear shouts from the top of the tower, where the man is preparing to throw another woman
to the ground. Periandro sprints to the top of the tower, grapples with the madman and wrests away his knife, but in the struggle
both men fall off the tower, the madman run through with his own knife, and Periandro, who did not have loose clothing to break his fall,7 is left suffering badly from cuts and bruises. There can be no better example in fiction of a reader's credulity being so
skilfully stretched: the first fall sets us down gently and prepares us without our realising it for the virtual impossibility
of the second fall, the one that really is a miracle.
But what about Rutilio's journey by witch's cloak? The incidents of the flying woman and the flying horse remind us how careful
Cervantes always is to cover himself against the charge of stretching the truth to breaking point. But Rutilio's flight seems
unnuanced in comparison, and comes remarkably early in the novel: if Cervantes were proposing to be unscrupulously deceptive,
one might have thought it better left till later. However, there is another example of air travel in Cervantes which may shed
some light on Rutilio's case: the Clavileño ride in Don Quijote Part II.
In chapters 40 and 41 of Part II, while they are guests of the Duke and Duchess, Quixote and Sancho undertake a ride on a
wooden horse called Clavileño. They are assured that this is the only way that the Countess Trifaldi, the Dueña Dolorida,
and her ladies in waiting, can be rid of the beards which they have been given by the wicked giant Malambruno. Clavileño will
take them the 3227 leagues (note, again, the spurious exactness) to Candaya, where they will be able to do battle in aid of
the bearded women. Knight and squire are blindfolded and climb aboard. By using a variety of theatrical effects, bellows and
burning wicks, the Count and Countess persuade Quixote and Sancho that they are flying through wind, fire and ice. Finally
the rockets in the horse explode and the two dupes are deposited in a charred heap on the ground.
Sancho's account of the flight highlights the moral significance of the episode: he claims afterwards to have peeked through
his blindfold, and to have seen the world as a grain of mustard seed and its inhabitants as hazel-nuts. The episode is a parody
of classical and medieval accounts of aerial ascents, as a result of which those who experience them come to learn various
moral commonplaces: the pettiness of the earth when seen from space; the chaotic chorus of mankind in the context of universal
harmony, and so on. Sancho's experience of his flight is often said to lie behind his disenchantment with earthly power and
the loss of ambition to be the governor of an island. To that extent, at least, the episode was not wasted.8
But the Clavileño episode also has other lessons to teach, on more traditional and theoretical issues concerning plausibility
in fiction. The Clavileño adventure itself presents no problem of plausibility, since the whole thing is a set-up.9 Quixote and Sancho do not go anywhere, and we know that the horse never leaves the ground because the narrator says so.
But the discussion of Sancho's reactions, and what he says he saw, throw interesting light on the kinds of arguments one might
be inclined to use about Rutilio's flight: 'Como estos tales sucesos van fuera del orden natural', comments Quixote, 'no es
mucho que Sancho diga lo que dice.'10 Sancho himself says, rather petulantly, in reply to a nit-picking observation from the Countess: 'pues volábamos por encantamento, por encantamento podía ver yo toda la tierra' [my italics].
What we have here is not just a satire on aerial ascent, but a satire on the kinds of arguments that might be invoked to explain
away an aerial ascent in fiction: what Cervantes is showing is that it is not enough to say 'I know carpets don't fly; this is a magic carpet.' An appeal to the supernatural does not help. As Quixote says, leave aside the supernatural: 'o Sancho miente, o
Sancho sueña' ―it is as simple as that. He does not believe Sancho, and the price of his silence is for Sancho to believe
what he said happened in the Cave of Montesinos.
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If we turn back to our trilogy of Mediterranean stories in the Persiles, we see that they also have a set of moral and theoretical issues attached to them. The moral issues are clear; all these
men have something to atone for or some passion which they have to overcome. Antonio's period of fifteen years in the cave
has taught him to subdue his petulance and to learn the joys of Christian marriage and family life. His role in the rescue
of Periandro and Auristela and their escape to the southern lands is part of the process of rehabilitation he has undergone.
Rutilio and Manuel de Sosa have also had to learn to subdue their lustful passions in the frozen north and to do penance for,
or learn to overcome, the excesses of the libido. For the Portuguese lover the experience of re-living his past misery through
the act of narration is so powerful that he is completely overcome and dies. Rutilio is able to live through his experience
and join the pilgrims at their final destination in Rome. To that extent there is a parallel with the learning experience
which Sancho undergoes on his flight. For all three men, the north is a place of penance where passion is expunged so that
Christian virtue can grow back in its place.
But, as with the Clavileño episode, each of the three 'mediterranean' narratives also has a bearing on the technique and theory
of narrative in general. In Antonio's story the issue is length. Excessive length seems to be the cardinal sin in the Persiles: it is a constant topic of comment in Periandro's long narration in book II, and it is there at the outset when Antonio,
uninvited (72), begins his attempt to answer the key questions posed earlier by Transila: '¿quién sois, a qué venís y qué
es lo que buscáis?' (62). Antonio's narration has therefore to be broken into three episodes. The first ends when the nurse
Cloelia expires at the back of the cave and he has to break off while they bury her (a poor reflection on his skill as a story-teller);
and the second ends when his barbarian wife Ricla suggests that he is tiring both himself and his audience, and finishes the
Manuel de Sosa's story shines a different light on life as a narrative and the way that life is bodied forth in narrative.
Here is a man who does not exist outside his own life story, and one thinks immediately of the way in which Don Quixote dictates
his own biography to himself as he rides out across the plains of Montiel. But the technical and theoretical issues behind
Rutilio's aerial adventure are on an altogether different plane, and they bring together the moral issues with the technical
in an extremely interesting way.
A man tells us he flew from Siena to Norway in four hours on a witch's cloak. Do we believe him or not? As Ted Riley has shown,
contemporary theory on the question is clear.11 Failure to keep control of the fantasy shows disregard for the reader's intelligence (181) and there can be no pleasure
in fiction without verisimilitude. So 'the most pleasing fiction is that which contains most of what is so strange as to inspire
doubt and yet is possible' (183, my italics). But what if the fiction contains things which are not possible, things such as witches, lycanthropy and
aerial journeys on cloaks? Here too the theory is fairly clear, and more spectacular forms of the marvellous may be accommodated
in a number of ways: impossible fiction may be allegorical or symbolical in purpose (186-7); supernatural occurrences may
be located in far-away places (189-91); they may be presented as consistent with popular belief or the intellectual context
of the age (191-2); or they may be attributed to an intermediate narrator whom we may choose to believe or not (192).
Even when he is dealing with the supernatural, Cervantes is careful to surround his fiction with safeguards (Riley, 198):
'that's what it says in this Arabic manuscript', and so on. In Rutilio's case, there is certainly hedging of this sort. When
Rutilio is asked to tell his story he agrees, 'aunque temo que por ser mis desgracias tantas, tan nuevas y tan extraordinarias,
no me habéis de dar crédito alguno.' That's all right, replies Periandro: our own experiences have taught us to believe anything,
'puesto que tengan más de lo imposible que de lo verdadero.' Does that give Rutilio licence to lie? Possibly, but he certainly
got to Norway somehow, and there is no hint of any other mode of transport.
For Riley, the matter is simple. Rutilio's past behaviour is an indicator of his unreliability: 'Cervantes takes care to show
that the character of the narrator was not such as to inspire confidence…the doubt that surrounds the integrity of Rutilio…the
possibility that he was a liar is left wide open' (193). But this is hardly damning evidence. Rutilio's seduction of his dancing
pupil, though reprehensible, has been atoned for by his exile and his selfless rescue of others from the isla bárbara.12 Antonio's youthful behaviour was at least as bad, yet there is no suggestion that this makes him unreliable; prolix, perhaps,
but not unreliable. What is more, it is difficult to see how Cervantes has 'taken care' to undermine confidence in Rutilio
in the way he does with other unreliable narrators such as Campuzano or Cide Hamete Benengeli.
What, then, of popular belief? Does this help to accommodate the more extreme forms of the marvelous represented in Rutilio's
account? There are three difficulties to overcome: lycanthropy, witchcraft and aerial flight. The first of these is also a
feature of Antonio's account (I.5, p. 77), at least to the extent that the wolf who advises him to seek another landfall might
be 'rationalised' as a human being who has been changed into a wolf.13 Witchcraft and its associated tradition of aerial flight were also commonplace in the popular mind. But it is important
to note the prominent disavowals which Cervantes puts in the text. After Rutilio kills the wolf/witch, his compatriot guide
dismisses the whole thing as the work of the Devil:
'destas maléficas hechiceras hay mucha abundancia en estas septentrionales partes ... cuéntase dellas que se convierten en
lobos ... cómo esto pueda ser yo lo ignoro, y como cristiano que soy católico no lo creo. Pero la esperiencia me muestra lo
contrario ... todas estas transformaciones son ilusiones del demonio, y permisión de Dios y castigo de los abominables pecados
deste maldito género de gente.' (92)
A more comprehensive dismissal one could not wish to hear, even though popular belief in lycanthropy and witchcraft is admitted.
But he carefully restricts himself to estas septentrionales partes, and has nothing to say about the aerial journey. Mention of the northerly latitudes is significant because it reminds us
that marvels occurring in distant places might be dismissed as falling outside the civilized frame of reference; but at the
same time it underlines the principal difficulty with Rutilio's tale, which is that the more substantive implausibility takes
place here and now in Italy.
It is possible, therefore, that Rutilio's story, like the case of the mujer voladora, is a clever sleight of hand which uses a lesser implausibility to mask a greater one. In practice, the three implausibilities
are subtly divided into two groups: the lycanthropy and the witchcraft are located in the realm of the exotic,14 but the aerial journey is put in a class of its own. In Cervantes's own terms (Persiles, 163-4), he wraps a miracle within a mystery, and hopes that by providing some rationalisation of the latter, he will be
able to get away with the former.15
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Forcione has drawn attention to similarities in structure between miracle narratives and romance.16 Both have cyclical plots, but the miracle is distinct in that the emphasis is less on the heroes, who are 'usually helpless,
quite unheroic, and frequently even fallen', and more on divine intervention. 'The protagonists of miracles are victims rather
than combatants, their deliverance is a celebration of the power of grace rather than a vindication of any particular virtue
they possess, and the meaning of the situation in which they are involved is to be sought in the significance of the single
central event rather than in the exemplary nature of their acts.' Forcione concludes that, 'with the possible exception of
El coloquio de los perros, the Persiles is Cervantes's most powerful expression of the mentality implicit in the traditional miracle' (331), although he does not
include Rutilio's narrative in his discussion.
In fact, there is a good deal in Rutilio's liberation from jail which is suggestive of the miraculous, not least the fact
that the episode recalls at least three biblical parallels: the safe deliverance of Daniel from the lions' den (Daniel 6:22-3);
the release of the apostles by the angel of the Lord who 'by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth' (Acts
5:19); and the release of Peter (Acts 12:7), which resonates with Rutilio's in several ways. Both accounts have in common
the setting at night, the warders asleep, the supernatural intervention and the striking off of the chains; the double reference
to feet and the cloak are notable, as is the confusion which characterises both prisoners' understanding of what is happening
Rutilio says that he took his redeemer to be an angel rather than a witch, but once he senses the cloak rise into the air,
his resistance kicks in: 'como cristiano bien enseñado, tenía por burla todas estas hechicerías ―como es razón que se tengan'.
But his disbelief does not stop him from making the flight. What we have, then, is something which has the form and appearance
of a miracle but which is diabolical in origin. The problem is that, although God may allow men to believe in witches as a
punishment for their sins (Persiles, p. 92), Cervantes has not provided us with any alternative explanation of how Rutilio got from Siena to Norway. Rutilio's
account is all we have to rely on.
By now we will have realised that Cervantes is discussing rather more than a simple mode of travel. He is edging us towards
an appreciation of something more fundamental. Rutilio's story is miraculous in form, but it is not a miracle in any religious
sense. Because this is the only explanation we are given, we have no choice but to accept it. The miracle lies not in the
journey, but in the telling and the listening. Rutilio's account is, in the language of Austin and Searle, a performative
speech act, one which brings into being the reality it describes.18 In fact, there are at least three nested speech acts, by the narrator, Rutilio, and the witch, each one creating its own
referents and illustrating that truthfulness is the property of an utterance, not a state of affairs, and that literature
is a collaborative project in which 'the author needs the compliance of the reader' (Riley, p. 194).
So we come, full circle, to the conclusion that in Rutilio's story, Cervantes has given us another image of the writer and
the narrative process; of the author and the listener as collaborators, of the narrative pact that exists between them, and
how the narrator carries out his primary task of persuading listeners to believe things which, in the ordinary course of events,
they would not. Campuzano and Peralta provide a similar working model of the narrative pact in the interlude between El casamiento engañoso and El coloquio de los perros in which, despite frequent concessions that dogs cannot talk, Campuzano manages to get Peralta to concede that, under certain
conditions, they might.19
In a similar way, though we should be properly sceptical about Rutilio's aerial flight, it is his job, and Cervantes's, to
help us overcome our disbelief. The witch's coaxing of Rutilio out of jail and onto the cloak has its counterpart in the way
Cervantes works his magic on the reader. The witch puts a wand in Rutilio's hand and tells him to follow her. 'Turbéme algún
tanto', he says. 'Pero como el interés era tan grande, moví los pies para seguirla, y hallélos sin grillos y sin cadenas,
y las puertas de toda la prisión de par en par abiertas, y los prisioneros y guardas en profundísimo sueño sepultados.' (90)
Once in the street she stretches out her cloak and tells him to step on it. He resists, she tells him to forget his 'devociones';
he tries to resist again, but his fear of death overcomes him; he steps right onto the cloak, and the cloak rises into the
air. 'En resolución, cerré los ojos y dejéme llevar de los diablos.' Perhaps we too, as readers, wedded to our 'devociones',
our certainty about what can or cannot be, have to overcome our fears and put our trust in another kind of witchcraft, practised
by a cunning old devil called Cervantes. This old devil seems to be saying, 'trust me, I'll get you from A to B and you'll
hardly know you are flying'. And he will set us down as gently as can be, like Rutilio, 'al crepúsculo del día en una tierra
Perhaps this is why Cervantes tries his most daring shot so early in the book: so that, once airborne, we can sit back and
enjoy the rest of the flight with Aerolíneas Cervantinas.
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