Consider a novel which has survived for almost four centuries, and is still regarded as one of the great masterpieces of world fiction. I speak of Don Quixote, by Cervantes.
Its story is of the adventures of a gentleman whose wits have been turned by reading old books of romance and chivalry; he equips himself absurdly with miserable armour and an old and wretched horse, and he rides forth in search of adventures. Their story is not told with tidy literary art; it is a rambling and often coarse tale of the foolishness of a mad old man who is mocked, beaten, and humiliated until, on his deathbed, he understands the folly of his delusion.
The book is often read superficially. More often it is not read at all, by people who are nevertheless aware of it, because the story is familiar from stage, film, and operatic versions, and has given our language the word “quixotic,” meaning actuated by impracticable ideals of honour. But if we read the book carefully and sympathetically we find the secrets of its extraordinary power. It is the first example in popular literature of the profoundly religious theme of victory plucked from defeat, which has strong Christian implications. The Don, who is courteous and chivalrous toward those who ill-use him, and who is ready to help the distressed and attack tyranny or cruelty at whatever cost to himself, is manifestly a greater man than the dull-witted peasants and cruel nobles who torment and despise him. We love him because his folly is Christlike, and his victory is not of this world.
Is this what Cervantes meant? I cannot say, for I am not a Cervantist, but this is certainly what he wrote, and we know that such a book could not have been written except by a man of great spirit. This is the puzzle which has led some impetuous critics to assume that a writer is sometimes an idiot savant who writes better than he knows, and who, of course, needs critics to explain to him the world, and probably also himself.
– Robertson Davies, A Merry Heart, p. 195