This long, loose, playful series of adventures poses a challenge to idealists, whatever their time or place.
I bought and read my Penguin Classics paperback of Don Quixote in July 1979, when I was 20. I had already formed the intention of reading the great novels of history, and I knew that this was one of them. I didn’t find it too hard to read, for, although it is long (940 pages), it is a comic adventure story narrated in a straightforward way; but I did find it to be a bit of a chore, feeling that it was kind of a one-joke idea stretched out to great length, padded further with incidental side-stories that had only a tangential connection with the main plot.
This time I enjoyed and appreciated the book much more. If you haven’t read it, the story concerns a middle-aged Spanish country gentleman, tall and lean to the point of appearing emaciated, whose “surname was Quixada or Quesadafor there is some difference of opinion amongst authors on this point.” This man has a large collection of books on the adventures of medieval knights errant, and, inspired by these and convinced of their truth, he decides to take up the vocation of knight errantry himself under the name of Don Quixote. Recruiting a plainspoken local peasant named Sancho Panza to be his squire, he sets out on his broken-down horse Rocinante to protect the weak, avenge the wronged, and terrify the wicked.
The narrator of the story is candid that Don Quixote is mad and deluded, and all the characters around him see him this way, including Sancho Panza, who nonetheless is tempted by Don Quixote’s firm promises that great rewards will come to him if he serves such a dauntless knight as himself. Don Quixote’s housekeeper and niece, as well as his neighbors, all try to talk him out of his crazy idea, but he is adamant. He is determined to prove that Don Quixote of La Mancha is not only a knight errant, but the greatest knight errant of all time.
His delusion causes him to see the world in terms of his ideals. In a famous early adventure, he sees a windmill as a menacing giant, and, lowering his lance, fearlessly charges it, only to be badly tumbled by the moving arms of the mill. Many more humiliating reverses await Don Quixote in his quest for fame and honor, but he always has a ready explanation: all knights errant are persecuted by malicious magicians, and Don Quixote is no exception. It is the task of the knight to face these cruel tricks with courage and unwavering resolve. Pain, suffering, and hardship are the knight’s path, and he is indifferent to them.
Another feature that knights errant have in common is the state of being in love with a beautiful woman who treats the knight with haughty disdain. To fulfill this role in his own case, Don Quixote has created the figure of Dulcinea del Toboso, the identity of whose human substrate is not clear, but seems to be a certain plain girl from a nearby village. But to Don Quixote, his lady Dulcinea is a woman of matchless beauty and nobility, and winning her regard and her love is his fondest wish and his deepest desire. Those he defeats in combatand there are a few strange cases of thisare ordered to take themselves to Dulcinea del Toboso to report that they have been beaten by Don Quixote and to put themselves at her disposal.
But Don Quixote is a lunatic and nobody takes him seriously. Indeed, many people, when they perceive his madness, decide to play tricks on him, encouraging him in his delusion for the sake of some laughs at his expense. Not infrequently these take the form of cruel practical jokes. Don Quixote bears it all with courage and as much dignity as possible.
And madness is not the whole story with Don Quixote. For when he is talking about anything other than knight errantry, he speaks with such good sense and erudition than people are struck by his wisdom. He is a kind of idiot-savant that people find impossible to understand. How can a man who is so intelligent and well spoken attack flocks of sheep thinking that they’re armies of Turks? How can these parts of his nature not see each other? It’s a mystery that no one can solve.
His faithful squire, Sancho Panza, is caught in the vice, so to speak, of these contradictions, for although he clearly sees, and is not shy about pointing out, his master’s craziness, he is also won over by Don Quixote’s cogent explanations, and even more by his assurances that riches and honors await the squire of any knight errant. This part of Don Quixote’s delusion Sancho is ready to believe.
On this second reading of the book I found my response to the story more complex. For I found myself inspired by Don Quixote’s character and by his view of the world, and I had to believe that the narrator himself shared this inspiration, even as he mocks the knight for his madness. For the “real world” that Don Quixote is not part of is not such a great place: it is a place where people do play cruel jokes on each other and take advantage of each other; where people are motivated by greed and selfishness; where people are jaded, cynical, and scornful. Our heart knows that Don Quixote’s commitment to courage, justice, and honor is the right attitude to have; but is there really no way that these values can be squared with life on Earth? In some ways Don Quixote is a long, and yes playful, meditation on this question.
Don Quixote is also the ancestor of other literary and dramatic characters who have appeared since then. He is the type of the deluded comic figure; I thought of Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies, and of Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow in his guise as Rocketman.
Then there is the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is also the prototype of the modern “buddy story.” But unlike the perhaps homoerotic undertones of Newman-Redford movies or the Lethal Weapon series, this relationship feels much more earthy and real, as well as loving, even though the two characters may suffer from differing amounts of mental disorder. By turns affectionate, appreciative, irritated, and exasperated, the master and his servant are inseparable. It is Sancho who gives Don Quixote his memorable epithet, the Knight of Sad Countenance, which Don Quixote unhesitatingly adopts. Their relationship is discreetly mirrored by that of their mounts, Rocinante and Sancho’s ass Dapple, who have a deep love for each other.
The second part of the book, written some years after the first, enriches the theme by showing more and more people willing to humor Don Quixote’s delusion for the sake of their own entertainment. But the more effort they put into humoring him, the more they become enamored of his view of the world, and one senses that they envy him his integrity and wish they could really see the world the way he does.
There is much more that could be said about this work. Among other things, Joseph Campbell, in his Creative Mythology, points to Don Quixote as a key figure in the long history of the mythological struggle between the lunar bull and the sun steed. The gaunt, crazy knight astride his broken-down nag is the picture of the twilight of solar, patriarchal culture, whose actual demise is depicted in Picasso’s masterpiece Guernicaalso a Spanish work.
This time, when I read Don Quixote, I laughed and tears came to my eyes, and there aren’t many books of any length that I can say that about.