Miguel de Cervantes has had more influence on modern Spanish than any other writer. Even people who know no Spanish and never heard of Cervantes will sometimes talk about "tilting at windmills," meaning to try to do something impossible and fail spectacularly. The phrase comes from Cervantes's famous novel Don Quixote, where the crazy main character thinks he is a knight-errant and attacks a windmill, believing it to be an evil giant. The English language also built the word "quixotic" from that novel, an adjective for a person who perseveres in a noble but futile cause.
Cervantes was to the Spanish language what Shakespeare was to English. That is, Cervantes's writing is frequently cited as the dividing line between medieval Spanish and modern Spanish, just as Shakespeare represents the transition from Middle English to modern English. But it is easy to exaggerate Cervantes's similarity to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a playwright and a poet, while Cervantes was mainly a novelist - the first significant novelist in the Western literary tradition, although the Lady Murasaki of Japan pioneered the novel in the East five hundred years earlier. And while Shakespeare led a quiet and unadventurous life, Cervantes was a veteran soldier whose left hand was crippled by Turks in the great sea battle of Lepanto; he later was captured by the Barbary corsairs and spent years as a slave in Algiers.
Cervantes's other works are rarely mentioned. He also wrote La Fuerza de la Sangre ("The Strength of Blood"). The plot is disturbing to our modern sensibilities: the young punk Rodolfo rapes the innocent Leocadia, making her pregnant, and then she and her family restore her honor by making him marry her. Although the idea of a rape victim marrying her attacker is loathsome to us today, by 16th century standards Cervantes was exceptionally compassionate to Leocadia, not blaming her for her suffering as most people of the time would have. By the bloodthirsty standards of that era, a rape victim was considered shamed forever unless she imitated the Roman matron Lucretia by committing suicide; Cervantes gave Leocadia what seemed to him a happier ending.