In April of this year, Spain commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of The Ingenious Don Quixote of La Mancha. Cervantes is arguably one of history’s most famous Spanish-language authors – and certainly Spain’s most well-known author – and his novel has become one of the most celebrated pieces of Spanish literature. To many, it is not only a seminal work but also one of the first examples of a modern literary narrative. Now, four hundred years after the death of its author, the book’s influence on Spanish popular culture and on the world is still being felt. From popular sayings, through film adaptations and language appropriations – the term ‘Quixotic’ originated from this novel – to even references in recent video games. With that in mind, it is worth re-visiting the main character of this tale and examining the madness that defines his character, as well as the underlying and inescapable tragedy surrounding the deranged knight and his adventures.
THE KNIGHT ERRANT
Written and published in 1605, Don Quixote tells the story of Alonso Quixano, a gentleman landowner – hidalgo in Spanish – from the region of La Mancha. Obsessed with tales of knightly quests and chivalric romances, Quixano reads so many books and tales on the subject that he ends up going mad and believing himself to be living one of those same tales. Determined to prove himself a knight errant, he dons a suit of armour, takes up a lance, and rides his steed to travel the land and right wrongs wherever he fights them as Don Quixote de la Mancha, later on acquiring a squire named Sancho Panza. As all knights must have a maiden fair in whose name they fight, he declares to be battling in the name of Dulcinea del Toboso, whom he believes to be superhumanly beautiful despite knowing next to nothing about her.
The problem is that Quixano is elderly and wiry, and his horse is worn-out. His armour is rusted and his shield his old. His adventures often result in his getting hurt more often than not. His lady love, Dulcinea, is in fact Aldonza Lorenzo, a girl from a homely farmgirl who occasionally prostitutes herself. The people Quixote encounters view him as either a laughingstock to be played practical jokes on, or a dangerous madman. His family go to increasingly desperate lengths to bring him home and restore his sanity, including at one point literally dragging him home in a cage.
In his own story, Don Quixote is a figure of ridicule. A madman who believes he’s in a fairy tale world, fighting for a noble lady as he jousts against giants and rights the many evils of the world, all while in reality he attacks innocent travellers, charges at windmills, never pays for staying nights and the inns he encounters, and wears a barber’s bowl on his head as though it were a great helmet.
And yet, as one reads through El Quixote, one cannot help but ask a question: What is it about his madness that makes him so laughable? That he lives in a fantasy land where evil is punished, and the world has a rhyme and reason to it? Quixano’s tragedy is indeed his madness, for it makes him believe that the world in which he inhabits is, at its core, fair and just and one in which he is able to make a difference. He sets out to do good, with arguably the noblest intentions of any character in the novel, and is instead rewarded with deception and harsh punishment.
NOBLE INTENTIONS IN A CRUEL WORLD
One remembers a specific instance of from the novel, wherein our main character comes across a youth tied to a tree and being beaten by his master. Quixote’s reaction is to reprimand the master and demand that he free the youth, and swear to never again raise his hand against him. The master does so, and yet as soon as Quixote leaves the youth is beaten again, harder than before.
Quixote’s reaction to seeing what he believes is a danger to others is to face it, in order to defeat it. Whenever he encounters travellers, he endeavours to treat with them honesty. He gains the aid of Sancho Panza as his squire by promising him lands and titles, and it seems he truly has every intention of keeping his promise. At his core, what the character attempts to do is to live the life of a knight errant: He travels the land to its farthest reaches, fights duels in the name of honour, and proclaims his love for his ‘maiden’ Dulcinea for all who can hear. The clearest case of his attempts to emulate a knight errant is his tilting against windmills – he honestly believes that they are terrible giants, and that by battling and defeating the he will help make the lands a safer place
But the reality that Cervantes places Alonso Quixano in is often a harsh one, and he is amongst the first to suffer the consequences of both his madness and his idealism. He is deceived on more than one occasion, such as by the master beating the youth, or when he is convinced by a group of convicted criminals that they are being unjustly led to the gallows. He frees them, and for his efforts he is rewarded with a severe beating that leaves him and Sancho Panza lying on the side of the road, nursing their injuries.
More poignantly, early in his adventures Quixote believes that he is officially knighted by a lord in his castle. In reality, it is a sham ceremony, improvised by a tavern-keeper whose tavern has already been the stage for a fight between several customers and Quixote – who had also ruined the horse’s water trough – and who carries out the ‘knighting’ only to be rid himself of the madman.
The cruel irony that if Quixano were, indeed, the protagonist of a knightly tale then he could very well be a great hero. Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov once famously observed that Don Quixote has a surprisingly long career as a knight errant, and is in fact quite dangerous in a fight. His attempts to emulate knightly virtues – honesty, piety, and defence of the weak – are sincere and well-meaning. If the world he lived in was actually the world of the knightly tales he obsesses over, he would be celebrated and honoured.
But that is not the world he lives in, and the tale ends perhaps the only way it could: Quixano recovers his sanity, and abandons the identity of Don Quixote, albeit not without reluctance, only to die shortly after.
At the end of the novel, when Quixano recovers his sanity and finally leaves behind the adventuring of Don Quixote, one cannot help but feel a sense of defeat. In following the character and his follies, there is a sense of genuine adventure behind his actions, even excitement. Don Quixote is a madman, yet he seems tireless in his quest to do good in the world and his way of seeing things even becomes endearing to the reader, despite the obvious damage he causes. So when reality is finally allowed to triumph, there is no real sense of relief, and the novel ultimately ends with Quixano falling ill and dying after returning home.
The feeling is that the final victory of the real world over Quixote’s fantasy robs it of a man whose ultimate aim was to do good. After all, what kind of world does Quixano truly live in? One in which he is lied to, tricked, ridiculed, humiliated, caged, his personal possessions destroyed and he himself attacked on multiple occasions. Is it any wonder that his return to sanity is so reluctant on his part, and so melancholic in its final result?
Cervantes intended Don Quixote to serve as a deconstruction of knightly tales by making his protagonist exceedingly vulnerable, and placing him into the harshness of the real world. So perhaps there is a further lesson to be taken from the novel and questions to be posed to ourselves, especially now as day by day we see more people retreating into conformist denial, cheap populist rhetoric, simple demagoguery, or even elaborate fantasy escapism, all while the world keeps turning and stark reality refuses to abandon us.
– Javier Alcover
Image: “Don Quijote y Sancho” by Pablo Picasso (1955), Fundación Picasso, free content.