Book Reviews Cervantes: Don Quixote

Cervantes: Don Quixote

(1950, translated by J.M. Cohen)

Part I  (1604)

Everyone knows the story of Don Quixote, maybe from the film The Man of La Mancha or other potted versions of the book, but not everyone has read the book.  As I am still trying to compensate for my poor education, I pick it up now  (4 Jan 2009) and find it absolutely refreshing. Thank goodness we have so many good books in the world, a never-ending stream that extends beyond my capacity to take them all in during my lifetime. But are books necessarily a good thing; doesn't too much reading, especially of romantic literature, make one lose one's hold on reality? Don Quixote, a book about books, seems to suggest that this is what happens.

The novel is a parody of the Chivalric ideal and of the romantic literature which extols it and is filled with references to the literary works in this genre and stories of lovers.  The hero, Don Quixote, whose library, and consequently his head, are full of the novels of chivalry, sets out to emulate those knights who went in search of heroic deeds in the names of beautiful, noble ladies who never requite their love and devotion.  But Don Quixote's Lady is, quite unwittingly, a cruel mistress; she has no idea that Quixote has chosen to dedicate himself and his deeds to her.  Furthermore, Don Quixote has never seen her and simply devotes himself to her on the basis of her reputation. When Sancho Panza discovers the true identity of Dulcinea del Toboso, Aldonza Lorenzo, daughter of the innkeeper in Toboso, Don Quixote's lady, he exclaims, ‘I know her well and she pitches a bar as well as the strongest lad in the whole village.  Praise be to God!  She's a brawny girl, well-built and tall and sturdy, and she will know how to keep her chin out of the mud with any knight errant who ever has her for his mistress. O, the wench, what muscles she's got, and what a pair of lungs.  I remember one day she went up the village belfry to call some of their lads who were working in the fallow field of her father's, and they could hear her as plainly as if they had been at the foot of the tower, although they were nearly two miles away. And the great thing about her is that she is not a bit shy.'  (209)

As this is a satirical novel, we meet not only the idealistic Don and his down-to-earth squire, Sancho Panza, but also the author whose wry humour takes us through adventures, through research, and through comments on literature and writing that make the medium a conscious part of the product.  For example, Cervantes ends chapter VIII just as Don Quixote and an adversary with swords raised are about to attack each other.  His reason: his source has not provided the complete story and he needs to search for the material. That takes him to Toledo where he finds the rest of the story written in Arabic and gets a Muslim translator who works on it for six weeks. Meanwhile, Quixote and his adversary remain frozen in attack mode.

The first part of the novel, published in 1604, begins with a prologue, the necessity for which Cervantes seemingly finds irksome, ‘I would have wished to present it (the novel) to you naked and unadorned, without ornament of a prologue or the countless train of customary sonnets, epigrams and eulogies it is fashion to place at the beginning of books.  For I can tell you that, much toil though it cost me to compose, I found none greater than the making of this preface that you are reading.'  (26) And right away you have to fall in love with Cervantes.  He is as much a maverick as his main character.  He complains of those traditional elements accepted as literary style for which he has no use and claims that he is struggling to write the prologue. He introduces a friend (an alter-ego?) who knows exactly how to write a prologue, sonnets, epigrams etc. and even offers to write them for him.  And so we read this tongue-in-cheek prologue and are well-prepared to meet his protagonist, who like the friend in the prologue, sets about restoring tradition, in Quixote's case the romantic tradition of chivalry.

His head filled with the tales of knights-errant from the numerous books in his library, ‘These writings drove the poor knight out of his wits'  (32), he decides to become a knight-errant, assumes the title and name Don Quixote, and proceeds to redefine the world in romantic terms, a reality that no one else can accept, especially as they have no idea what a knight-errant is. For everything which he saw he adapted with great facility to his wild, chivalrous and errant fancies. (162) As a result, he is generally regarded as mad and, after his initial adventure, the priest and the barber decide that the cure for his malady is to burn most of his books and hide the rest away.

For his first adventure, Knight-errant Don Quixote sets off on his horse, an emaciated, poor creature, renamed Rocinante, allows it to amble off at will and lead him into the deeds he must perform to change the world.  But he has one small problem; he has not been knighted.  So when he comes upon an inn, he sees it as a castle, sees the innkeeper as Lord of the Castle and requests the Lord to knight him.  To make fun of him, the innkeeper invents bogus rites for a ceremony, but the joke backfires on him when Quixote becomes violent and a threat to frequenters of the inn who interfere with his observation of the rites. The innkeeper is forced to knight him speedily and send him on his way before he can do further damage. 

As the people he meets do not relate to his reconstruction of reality, the Don becomes aggressive when challenged, casts the strangers he encounters in the roles of enemies and scoundrels, attacks them violently and comes off worst in the scuffles.  On the way back to his village, the destination that Rocinante has chosen, he has several encounters, one with a group of merchants and muleteers who mock him and so become the enemy.  As he rides forward to annihilate one of the muleteers, his trusty steed stumbles, falls and throws him.  The muleteer runs up to him, beats him up and leaves him to be found by a villager, who bundles him on his horse and leads him back home.  And this is our intrepid knight-errant and saviour in action.  After many such adventures, what Sancho Panza gathers ‘from all this is that these adventures which we are always seeking will lead us in the long run to such misadventures that we shan't know our right foot from our left.  It would be a good deal better and more proper, my little understanding tells me, for us to go home, now that it's harvest time, and look after our own affairs, and stop wandering from pillar to post, out of the frying pan into the fire, as they say.' (133)

Don Quixote is asked often what a knight-errant is and he replies:

‘... there was instituted that famous order of chivalry, the Knights of the Round Table, and there took place, exactly as they are recorded, the loves of Sir Lancelot of the Lake and Queen Guenevere, in which that honourable Lady Quintanona acted as intermediary and confidante.  Whence arose the ballad so widely known and so often sung in modern Spain:

                        Never was there knight

              By ladies so attended

As was Lancelot,

When he came from Britain.

-- with its sweet and charming story of his deeds of love and his bravery.  Now, from that time on, this order of chivalry has been gradually growing and spreading through many and various parts of the world.  Famous and renowned for their exploits in that order, were the valiant Amadis of Gaul with all his sons and grandsons to the fifth generation, the valorous Sir Belianis of Greece.  That, gentlemen, is what it is to be a knight-errant, and what I have described to you is the order of chivalry, in which, as I have already said, though a sinner, I have made my profession.  What the knights I have told you of professed I profess too; and that is why I am travelling through these wastes and deserts in quest of adventure, with mind resolved to oppose my arms and my person to the greatest perils which fortune may present, in aid of the weak and those in need.'  (97)

We get a different, but just as vague, explanation from Sancho Panza whose understanding is based on observation of the Don.

‘Are you so green that you don't know that?' replied Sancho Panza. ‘Then I'll tell you my girl, that a knight-errant - to cut a long story short - is beaten up one day and made Emperor the next.  To-day he's the most unfortunate and poverty-stricken creature in the world; to-morrow he'll have two or three kingdoms to give to his squire.' (119)

As a knight-errant embarks on adventures in the name of a mistress and Don Quixote dedicates his deeds to Dulcinea del Toboso, the name he has given to Aldonza Lorenzo, and it is Rocinante, the horse, that leads the way, the reader has no idea of where s/he is going.  So when the knight meets up with shepherds who take him with them to the funeral of a young man who has died of unrequited love in true romantic tradition, it is quite astonishing when his cruel mistress suddenly appears at the funeral and delivers a speech declaring her independence in twenty-first century terms. I as you know, have riches of my own, and covet no one else's.  I have a taste for freedom and no wish for subjection.  I neither love nor hate any man.  Amazing!   These sentiments uttered at the turn of the seventeenth century.  And more amazing - when the shepherds, won't accept her ‘no' and want to pursue her, it is Don Quixote, Knight-errant, protector of the fair and the fragile, who stands with sword raised threatening to dispatch anyone who goes after her.  He is the only one who respects and accepts her ‘no.' She in her unorthodox stance fits into his unorthodox construction of reality.  And to ensure that no one becomes too serious, this incident is followed by another situation of unrequited love - this time Rocinante is the unfortunate lover.

If you like satire and parody, the activities of Don Quixote provide much fun and entertainment and allow you to ponder on the relationship between fantasy and reality, truth and illusion, fact and fiction.  The stories that do not involve Don Quixote are not as interesting.  In this Cervantes is not like Henry Fielding whose novels Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, also parodies in which paradox, irony, and satire remain strong throughout.

I cannot claim any knowledge of the translator's craft, but I believe JM Cohen's translation is superlative.  In his introduction, he gives us a brief look at the life of Cervantes and one realises that had Cervantes written his autobiography, it would have been an intriguing read. 

Part II  (1614)

While Cervantes was writing Part II, another author, Avellaneda, attempted a sequel to Part I.  Cervantes makes satiric reference to this attempt at the beginning of Part II and at the end.

Quotes from Part II

Chapter IX.  The contents of which shall be seen as the chapter progresses. (520)

Sancho Panza:  The famous knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, who rights wrongs, gives meat to the thirsty, and drink to the hungry. (526)

...he saw three peasant girls coming in his direction, riding on three young asses or fillies - our author does not tell us which - though it is more credible that they were she-asses, as these are the ordinary mounts of village women; but as nothing much hangs on it, there is no reason to stop and clear the point. (527)

(Description of a furious single combat)

...the Knight of the Mirrors fetched the circuit of the field that seemed to him necessary; and supposing Don Quixote has done the same, waited for no trumpet sound or other signal to stat them, but turned the head of his horse, which was no swifter nor better-looking that Rocinante, and rode forward to encounter his opponent at his full speed, which was a moderate trot.  Seeing him, however, occupied with Sancho's ascent, he checked his rein and halted in mid-career, for which his horse was most grateful, being incapable of further movement.  But Don Quixote imagined that his enemy was now flying down on him, and dug his spurs stoutly into Rocinante's lean flanks, which made him leap forward in such a fashion, that the history relates, on this single occasion in his life he went at something like a gallop - for at all other times his pace was a plain trot; and with this remarkable fury the knight came down upon his opponent of the mirrors, who drove his spurs rowel-deep into his horse, without being able to make him budge a single inch from the place where he had come to a halt in his career.  (557)

(Words of a faithful squire)

Sancho Panza:  I pray God to deliver me out of mortal sin - that's to say to deliver me from this perilous office of squire, into which I've run for a second time, through being enticed by a purse of a hundred ducats which I found one day in the heart of the Sierra Morena.  For the Devil's always dangling a bag full of doubloons before my eyes here, there and everywhere. At every step I seem to be laying my hands on it, hugging it, and taking it home, then making investments and settling rents, and living like a prince.  And while this runs in my head all the toils I endure with my idiot of a master become light and bearable, though I know he is more of a madman than a knight.' (547)

In Part II of his novel, written in 1614, Cervantes places Don Quixote at the centre of people's attempt to disabuse him of his belief in chivalric romance by humouring him.  Sancho Panza now believes that he is mad and plays on his self-delusion. He emulates his Don and transforms situations and people into romantic fiction, but the Don is only confused by the versions that Sancho presents and rationalises them as the work of enchanters trying to confuse him and prevent him from continuing with his noble work.  Through his association with the Don, Sancho also becomes confused and is presented as a parody of his master.

Towards the end of Part II, the Don and his Squire meet up with a Duke and Duchess who invite them to stay at their castle.  They invent all kinds of ridiculous situations that challenge the Don to take up arms.  They do this for their own amusement and eventually the Don is defeated and is disabused of the notion of romantic chivalry and the novel ends with him inveighing against romantic literature.

As I am old, I totally identify with the chivalric Don Quixote. He is a person who will not give up on life and goes on creating his existence even though he has been marginalised by society, which does that to the elderly.  He has created for himself a reason to go on celebrating life.  His vision, however, is childlike in that he permanently suspends disbelief so that he can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy.  That isolates him even further since he cannot be taken seriously and his adventures seem more ludicrous than brave and heroic.  His obsession with the romantic, chivalric tradition, which is outdated, sets him apart from others who live in the present and feel no affinity with an old man who sees that life is precious and demands that he not ‘go gentle into that goodnight' but ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light.'  Once he gives up on his dream, he dies.

Perhaps this novel written at the beginning of the seventeenth century may seem daunting.  If so a modern novel, which draws its inspiration from Don Quixote, may be more appealing.  Freak the Mighty (1993) by Rodman Philbrick is a twentieth century version of Don Quixote.  It was made into a film The Mighty.  The boy Kevin Avery (Kevin Dillon in the film) is a modern day Don Quixote and his friend Max Kane is Sancho Panza.  They read the stories of the Knights of the Round Table and emulate the Knights in righting wrongs and defending the vulnerable.  In the film, the Knights of the Round Table are shown watching over the Kevin and Max.

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