Since the publication of the first volume of Don Quixote in 1605, the world has been enthralled by the tale of the aging country gentleman whose love of chivalric romance stories inspires him to travel the countryside righting wrongs — even though his enemies and deeds proved delusional more often than not. Now, as Miguel de Cervantes’s book witnesses its 400th anniversary, it is at last having a celebration worthy of its place in history.

Spain, the setting of the novel, is holding year-round events, and has even constructed a Don Quixote pilgrimage throughout the Castilla-La Mancha region, a 60-day journey covering some 2,500 kilometres (although purists may argue that the route has been largely manufactured by a zealous tourism industry; the only place ever identified by name in the book is Barcelona).

Embracing Don Quixote is proving to be a global cause, rivalling last year’s great literary anniversary, the centenary of Bloomsday — the celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses that sees Dublin go wild every June 16. In London, one can find art exhibitions, such as Tilting at Windmills: From Fool to Hero at the British Library. In Manhattan, a tribute to the book, part of the PEN World Voices festival, will be held tonight at the New York Public Library, featuring authors Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster and others. In June, George Balanchine’s ballet Don Quixote will be performed at the Kennedy Centre in Washington with several National Ballet of Canada corps members; the program will be remounted in Canada at a later date.

Don Quixote is important because it is a text that both looks back and looks forward,” explains Stephen Rupp, the chair of the department of Portuguese and Spanish at the University of Toronto, who has co-ordinated a conference on the book to take place in Toronto on May 11. “It takes the long tradition that informs classical texts, such as those by Homer and Virgil, and it reworks many of the motifs and concerns of that tradition in then-modern terms. It provides a bridge between earlier literature and the modern novel.”

But it’s not just as a footpath of literature that Don Quixote is more than a footnote in history. Rupp also thinks the book was a success because of its broad range of comedy, including irony, satire, slapstick and parody. And it featured characters commenting on the book or themselves, centuries before the term meta-textual was commonly bandied about in academia. “I think he wrote the book to have something for every kind of reader,” says Rupp.

For Edith Grossman, whose critically acclaimed new translation of Don Quixote will be released in paperback on April 23, the date of Cervantes’s death, it’s the human qualities in the characters of Don Quixote and his sidekick, loyal squire Sancho Panza, that compel readers. Their comic journey — a mad quest to impress Quixote’s princess Dulcinea (really a local peasant girl) sees them fight giants (really windmills) — is something everyone can relate to, or at least dream about.

“I think all of us at one time or another have seen ourselves in Don Quixote, felt ourselves misunderstood by a hostile world. The things that drive Quixote, the desire to improve life, that’s something that speaks to us in a way that Hamlet speaks to us or that Faust speaks to us,” says Grossman. She’ll be hitting the North American Don Quixote lecture circuit, stopping in Toronto on May 11, as part of this continent’s exploration of the book and its influence on Western culture.

And the book’s legacy has been profound. Published in two volumes, it was a bestseller on its release in 1605 (the first English version appeared in 1612; the second volume was published in 1615, one year before Cervantes’s death). Since then, there have been countless reinterpretations. Few figures have taken on such a mythical dimension as Don Quixote. Even those who have never read the book, which generally runs close to 1,000 pages, have some idea of what the story is about. Certainly more people use the word quixotic (idealistic or unrealistic) or the phrase “tilting at windmills” (fighting an imaginary foe or pursuing an impossible goal) than have actually read the novel.

The story has appeared as ballets, by Marius Pepita as well as Balanchine; as an opera by Jules Massenet; and been set to music by both Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel. In the visual arts, the misguided hero appears in paintings by the likes of Honoré Daumier and Pablo Picasso.

Today Don Quixote may figure most prominently in the popular consciousness in its theatrical versions, notably the 1956 musical Man of La Mancha, subsequently turned into a film starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren. Even film attempts have become legendary: Orson Welles struggled for 20 years to try to get the story on screen; it was also the impossible dream of director Terry Gilliam, whose disastrous quest to make a movie out of it was captured in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha.

But the book’s biggest impact has been felt in the literary world. Critic Lionel Trilling once said that all modern novels were in some way a retelling of Don Quixote. Five years ago, when the media compulsively collected best-of lists to mark the end of one millennium and the beginning of another, Don Quixote was almost always the unanimous choice for best book of all time.

Its high regard in the literary world may be due in part to the fact that it is a book not just about quests, but about reading — a relatively new pastime in the 17th century. “It’s about the two pillars of modern life, love and books,” writes Douglas Glover, the Governor-General’s Award-winning author (Elle) who recently released The Enamoured Knight, a new take on the old tale. Glover argues that Quixote was driven mad by his hobby. “The old don reads books of romance, and the books infect his brain,” he says. “Books mediate his reality and tell him how and whom to love.”

As with literature’s other great figures, such as Hamlet and Faust, interpretations of Cervantes’s work have shifted over the years. When Don Quixote was first released, it was considered a comedy, parodying the chivalric romances that were popular at the time. In the 19th century, writers began to see Quixote as a tragic figure, defeated by his own heroism. Last century, scholars began to concentrate on the self-conscious aspects of the novel.

Ultimately, part of the book’s charm is that it is simply a great story. “It’s a wonderful book to read and reread,” says Rupp, “and a great book to teach.”