DON QUIXOTE is among the earliest novels, and – owning to its humor and thought-provoking story – it continues to be one of the world’s most important literary works. The book tells the tale of a Spanish gentleman, Alonzo Quixano, who has a combination midlife crisis and breakdown of sanity that result in his adoption of the new name Don Quixote de La Mancha (a.k.a. Knight of the Rueful Countenance, and [later] Knight of the Lions) and his setting off as a knight errant (i.e. a roving warrior in search of adventure, competition, and opportunities to be virtuous / chivalrous.) We are told that this breakdown is the culmination of obsessive reading of books on Chivalry. These books were the pulp fiction of the time: low-brow, sensationalist, and – to the scholarly-minded — pointless. A recurring debate throughout the book is whether these books are harmful and should be avoided or whether they are a harmless amusement that may even have benefits. For Don Quixote, they are neither; he sees them as a truthful depiction of how knights live an behave.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Don Quixote makes two journeys away from his village in La Mancha. The first trip is short-lived, beginning with some preliminaries before he can strike out as a knight. A handy series of delusions help set events in motion. In his mind, an old broken-down horse becomes “Rocinante” (a regal knight’s steed.) A beautiful farmgirl who he has never met becomes the Lady Duclinea del Toboso – object of his affections [unbeknownst to her.] Finally, an innkeeper becomes the King who Don Quixote asks for knighthood [which the bewildered innkeeper bestows upon the deranged old man.] Shortly thereafter, Don Quixote takes his first beating and is taken back home.
During this time period, his concerned staff and neighbors burn all his books on Chivalry, but that has little impact [possibly because he’s already read all the books and knows them by heart] and soon Don Quixote is riding out on his second sally — this time with his squire, Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is able to face quite a number of ignominious adventures during this outing, including his famous charge on the windmills – which he sees as giant arm-swinging monsters. [From whence the turn of phrase “tilting at windmills” derives to describe the behavior of charging into a futile and ill-advised battle with an illusory enemy.] At the end of the first part, Don Quixote is dragged back to his village by the curate and the barber (two men interested in saving Don Quixote from his madness.) Believing he is under an enchantment, Don Quixote is able to be returned home with minimal kicking and screaming.
Part two of the book continues the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they again leave their home village. It’s worth noting that Cervantes presents this work as if it were a book within a book – in other words, as if he’s presenting collected tales of the life of Don Quixote as they were presented in other volumes. This creates some amusing instances of the literary equivalent of fourth wall breaking. I found that the second part did feel different from the first. Whereas, part one comes across as a conglomeration of tales, a through-flow of story is more apparent in the second part. The two parts weren’t released together, and so there is probably good reason for this besides a literary decision to change styles. The second part has been said to be more reflective – rather than pure farce – and that makes sense as Cervantes had about a decade to ponder what he wanted to say. Much of the second part revolves around the activities of a Duke and Duchess who prank Don Quixote. By this time, the first volume of Don Quixote’s exploits has been in publication for a while and the “knight errant” is well-known as a madman and a buffoon.
Pranking both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is a challenge as the two men are quite different in their vulnerabilities. The Duke and Duchess can use suggestion to exploit Don Quixote’s inclination to mentally conjure grandiose, romantic scenarios. However, Sancho Panza is of sound mind and has a kind of pragmatic insightfulness and so they must – instead — exploit his lack of sophistication and cowardice. The Duke gives Sancho Panza governorship of an island – something that Don Quixote has been promising he would give his squire as soon as some King or Queen saw fit to reward him for his virtuous service as a knight errant – which, of course, is not forthcoming. Sancho rules for only ten days before his hunger and cowardice reach their limits in the face of: first, a doctor who puts him on a calorie-restrictive diet for the health benefits; and, second, a mock attack on his island.
The book ends after a second battle with a disguised Sanson Carrasco. Carrasco, far from the knight seeking fame that he pretends to be, is a villager from La Mancha who wants to see Don Quixote return home to get well. He “battles” Don Quixote once as the Knight of Mirrors about midway through the book, but is defeated (more through a combination of his own inexperience and bad luck than as a result of Don Quixote’s skill.) On this second occasion, he fights as the Knight of the White Moon and defeats Don Quixote – who is forced by the dictates of the wager to return home. At first, Don Quixote plays like he might try out the shepherd’s life for a year, but soon he falls into a funk. Before he dies, he reclaims the name Alonzo Quixano and acknowledges that he’d been out of his mind and that all of his adventures in knight errantry were a farce.
Returning to the question of whether the chivalry books are harmful and should be avoided at all costs or whether they are entertainment with some redeeming features, the reader is really left leeway to conclude as he or she sees fit. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a new question. Plato and his most famous student, Aristotle, argued this same question. Plato believed that all these exciting stories could do is incite people to violence and other unproductive endeavors. Aristotle believed that there could be catharsis (purging of emotions) through dramatic works.
At first blush, it might seem clear to the reader that Cervantes is saying that these works are detrimental. He proposes that they, literally, dried out Don Quixote’s brain and turned him into a madman. However, one might come to feel differently as one sees the influence that Don Quixote has on people. While everyone recognize that he is a madman, most also recognize that he has a sort of wisdom and courage about him. He stands for virtuosity, even if he doesn’t have the power to back it up with weapons that he imagines he does. Sancho Panza also has a sort of wisdom, and one suspects that this sagacity has increased through his exposure to Don Quixote. For the brief time that Sancho Panza is governor, he makes some sound decisions and he never exploits his position to his own gain. While none of the battles of Don Quixote amount to much, people are moved by his advice and his virtuous example.
This is a hard book not to love. I will admit to thinking that — particularly in Part one –it could have benefited from an editor, but given its seminal literary position, it’s hard to give this criticism much weight. [What I mean by it is that there are numerous repetitive examples of Don Quixote mistaking one thing for another and getting into an unwise fight throughout the first part, few of these scenes are anywhere near as effective as the relatively early ‘tilting at windmills’ scene. Therefore, there is a bit of tedium in these scenes.] That said, the book is witty is places and laugh-out-loud funny in others, and it offers philosophical food-for-thought while never being overbearing in the process. If you read fiction, you should definitely read this book.