In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing. An olla of rather more beef than mutton, a salad on most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so extra on Sundays, made away with three-quarters of his income. The rest of it went in a doublet of fine cloth and velvet breeches and shoes to match for holidays, while on week-days he made a brave figure in his best homespun.
Miguel de Cervantes lost the use of his left arm in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto and spent five years as a galley slave and prisoner in North Africa after being captured in 1575 by Ottoman corsairs. Once back in Spain, he struggled to make ends meet. His work as a tax collector led to several stays in jail for shortfalls in accounting: many speculate that he, like Malory, began his magnum opus in prison. His twenty plays (only two of which survive) failed to set the Spanish stage afire; his 1585 pastoral La Galatea received little attention; his verses led Spain’s pre-eminent dramatist, Lope de Vega, to declare that there was no poet as bad as Cervantes. But in January 1605 the fifty-seven-year-old Cervantes finally became an overnight sensation with his tale of Don Quixote.
As the 17th century dawned, chivalry looked decidedly dated. Copernicus, Brahe and Kepler had reshaped the heavens: Columbus and Magellan had remapped the world. The Colonial Era was more interested in profit than salvation. The Americas promised cities of gold while the Holy Land had nothing save sacred sites and well-entrenched Turks. The bravest knights in shining armor could be taken down with a volley of musket fire. The Church which promoted the Crusades was fast losing power as the Reformation bred new Christian sects united only in their distaste for Papal authority.
Alonso Quixano’s place was as unromantic as his times. The dusty plain of La Mancha is best known for its short-eared goats and its Manchego cheese. But after long nights spent reading books of chivalry, Alonso decides he is destined to become a knight-errant. With his grandfather’s rusty armor, his worn nag and a pasteboard helmet he becomes Don Quixote of La Mancha. And since every knight needs a lady fair, Quixote dedicates himself to a local farmgirl named Aldonza Lorenza – or as he renames her, Princess Dulcinea del Toboso – “a name, to his mind, musical, uncommon, and significant, like all those he had already bestowed upon himself and the things belonging to him.”
But just as he needs a lady, every knight needs a squire. And so Don Quixote avails himself of the service of a local farm worker named Sancho Panza. Lured by promises of glory (and governorship of an island), Sancho joins his new lord on a series of comic adventures. Sancho is unfamiliar with the chivalric tales that drive Quixote and cannot recognize the illusions which evil enchanters can cast. Where Quixote sees four-armed giants, his simple squire can only see windmills: Quixote’s castles appear to Sancho to be humble inns and Quixote’s magical “balsam of Fierabras” is to Sancho a mix of wine, salt, rosemary and olive oil that leaves him purging from both ends.
Quixote, like Cervantes, draws his inspiration primarily from 15th and 16th century Catalan and Castilian romances like Tirant lo Blanch and Amadis of Gaul. These later stories focused more on entertainment than moral instruction and replaced religious truisms with action-packed battles and beautiful maidens. Cervantes claims “my desire has been no other than to deliver over to the detestation of mankind the false and foolish tales of the books of chivalry.” But it is clear that Cervantes loves these tales even if he cannot believe them so fervently as his mad knight-errant. Separated lovers are reunited thanks to (or despite) Don Quixote’s heroic efforts. And like the romances which claimed descent from lost ancient manuscripts, Cervantes attributes his story to a Moorish historian named Cide Hamete Benengeli.
Cervantes was also influenced by then-popular picaresque novels like Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) and Guzmán de Alfareche (1599). Stories of travelling thieves, vagrants and scoundrels living by their wits struck a resonant chord with an increasingly impoverished population. Gold and silver from New World mines had led to a century of price inflation. Imports from the Spanish colonies made a few nobles and merchants rich, but very little of that wealth trickled down to the peasants and laborers. Picaresque novels pitted likeable rogues against greedy nobles, corrupt clergymen and bullying constables. They found a sympathetic audience in a country falling into financial and moral bankruptcy.
While Cervantes casts a jaundiced eye at the society through which his knight-errant travels, Quixote suffers from a surfeit of morality rather than a deficit. He does not succeed by breaking the rules, but rather fails from his rigid adherence to an outdated and impractical code. Quixote and Sancho’s quests typically end with the knight-errant and his squire battered and bruised. To Sancho – and to everyone else, including the reader – Quixote is a man caught in a delusion. Yet Sancho follows him through various and sundry misadventures. He deals with Quixote’s absurdities the way the poor have always dealt with the world’s absurdities: humor, resignation and dreams which he knows will never come true. The farmer who cannot see giants and enchanters can still recognize something special in Quixote’s cracked visions.
The 1605 volume ended with Don Quixote back in his home and a vague promise that there were more stories to be told. But Cervantes only returned to La Mancha when 1614 saw a second Don Quixote published by a pseudonymous “Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda.” To Avellaneda Quixote was simply a madman, Sancho simply a fool, and chivalric romances simply an occasion to sin. His humor was leaden where Cervantes was sprightly: his efforts to ape Cervantes’ style lost both the notes and the music. Avellaneda’s book attracted little attention from Spanish readers. But it spurred an outraged Cervantes to finish Quixote’s story.
In Part II, the knight-errant’s fame has spread across the land. Quixote and Sancho are regularly greeted by people who have read of their adventures. But they are disheartened by the lies which another author has spread and remind them that only the work of Cide Hamete Benengeli is to be trusted. The first part ends with a reference to a joust which Quixote attends in Zaragossa – but in Part II Quixote refuses to go because Avellaneda has written of it. Quixote and Sancho even meet Don Álvaro Tarfe, a character from Avellanada’s book: after a brief conversation with the duo, Tarfe acknowledges that they are the real Don Quixote of La Mancha and Sancho Panza. They then ask Tarfe to make a notarized statement before an alcade (local official) that Don Quixote of La Mancha “was not the one that was in print in a history entitled Second Part of Don Quixote of La Mancha, by one Avellaneda of Tordesillas.”
Berkeley professor Robert Alter credits Don Quixote with simultaneously birthing realism and metafiction. His juxtaposition of high-blown fantasies with harsh realities pointed the way for realists, while his breaking of the fourth wall helps pave the way for later self-conscious works like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. As Alter puts it:
Don Quixote… exists simultaneously on two very different plains of being. On the one hand, the gaunt knight on his emaciated hack rides into the mind’s eye across the plains of a very real La Mancha, appearing as a possible if bizarre figure of his time and place who in fact succeeds in becoming a general image of mankind in all the stubbornness of its idealism and the hopeless futility of its blind misdirections. Cervantes takes pains, on the other hand, to make us aware also that the knight is merely a lifelike model of papier-maché, a design in words, images, invented gestures and actions which exists between the covers of a book by Miguel de Cervantes.Robert Alter. Partial Magic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. 4.
Don Quixote is at last freed of his delusions, but the cure proves worse than the disease. After being vanquished by the Knight of the White Moon, he is ordered to return home for a year and cease his knight errantry. The “Knight,” a bachelor from Quixote’s home town, hopes the sojourn might give his embarrassing neighbor a chance to recover his lost wits. Instead Quixote falls into despair. He toys with the idea of becoming a shepherd (a shift from chivalric to pastoral romance), but ultimately takes to his bed. In his final hours Quixote repudiates all his adventures, saying:
My reason is now free and clear, rid of the dark shadows of ignorance that my unhappy constant study of those detestable books of chivalry cast over it. Now I see through their absurdities and deceptions, and it only grieves me that this destruction of my illusions has come so late that it leaves me no time to make some amends by reading other books that might be a light to my soul. Niece, I feel myself at the point of death, and I would fain meet it in such a way as to show that my life has not been so ill that I should leave behind me the name of a madman; for though I have been one, I would not that the fact should be made plainer at my death.
Alonso Quixano did not become Don Quixote: he is, was, and always will be Don Quixote. We are our own stories. Our stories may transmute absurdity into truth and truth into absurdity. They may put us at odds with our critics: they may not have a happy ending. But when we reject our story, or let someone else write it for us, we reject ourselves. In mocking the artifices of decadent romance, Cervantes shows us the Grail. Quixote, like Lancelot, fails to achieve his goal. But by his quest he still has proven himself the worthiest of all knights.