Don Quixote and the Real World Part I

Don Quixote and Reality Transformed: Part I

Alonso Quijano, a low-born nobleman (“hidalgo”) from La Mancha spent so much time reading romances of chivalry that he lost his mind and decided to become a knight-errant.  Under his chivalric illusion, he reshaped the world around him, creating his own reality. He began by changing his name to Don Quixote de La Mancha, giving his nag a comically pretentious name --Rocinante-- and choosing a peasant girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, as his peerless lady --Dulcinea del Toboso.  And then, as he went out into the world,  inns changed into castles, windmills became giants, tavern wenches were maidens and flocks of sheep armies, and so on. Google Ads PlaceHolder

Let’s take a closer look at this Don Quixote.  1. We’ll look at the importance of his initial encounters with reality (i.e. the world around him); then (2) consider an important change in his character in the second half of Part I, and finally (3) see how people and circumstances, and sensory susceptibility, contrive to sustain Don Quixote’s belief in knight-errantry. 

1.    Once Don Quixote decided to become a knight-errant, he cleaned and repaired some rusty, mouldy armour belonging to his ancestors (I, 1).  Noting, however, that the helmet had no visor, Don Quixote fashioned a piece of cardboard like a visor so that the helmet looked complete. Then testing it for strength with his sword, he destroyed in a flash what had taken him a week to put together. He repaired the helmet but did not test it again.  Why not? Was he afraid of destroying his illusions after this first contact with reality?

Don Quixote sets out on his chivalric adventures early one morning, without telling anyone of his intentions (I, 2). He is suddenly horrified by the thought that has not been dubbed a knight, something essential for any knight-errant. He arrives at an inn, which he transforms into a castle. The sound of a pig herder’s horn he takes as a trumpet call announcing his arrival. The two prostitutes at the door are to him two graceful maidens whom he addresses in an archaic language they do not understand. The innkeeper becomes the lord of the castle, who duly dubs him knight (I, 3).  These are critical moments for the new and untested knight, but fortunately for him all the people at the inn play along with his fantasy albeit for motives of their own, primarily fun. No-one tells Don Quixote he is mad, no-one shatters his illusions, no-one threatens this recently created world of his, so that when he departs he feels “so happy, so dashing, and so exhilarated at seeing himself dubbed knight…” (I, 4).  All that remains now is to find a squire, so returns to his village because he has in mind a neighbour, Sancho Panza.

What could be better at this time than an adventure to confirm his knightly status! It comes immediately  (I, 4) on his way home when he hears cries and sees a young boy, tied to a tree, being flogged by his master, a farmer. Challenged, the farmer –addressing Don Quixote as “Caballero” ("Sir Knight")—agrees to free the boy and accept the terms imposed by his “vanquisher”. Off goes Don Quixote “extremely happy with what had happened for it seemed to him that he had made a most happy beginning to his chivalric life.” (The outcome for the young boy, however, was anything but happy once Don Quixote was on his way ... more flogging!!)

Almost immediately after, Don Quixote runs into some merchants  (I, 4) whom he challenges to admit that his lady, Dulcinea, is the most beautiful damsel in the world. Not sure where the situation is leading, they address him as “Sir Knight” (“Señor caballero”) but anger him by some facetious comments regarding Dulcinea’s beauty. On hearing these remarks, Don Quixote charges but unfortunately Rocinante slips and our knight ends up beaten by a muleteer. What might be construed as a setback for Don Quixote is easily explained: it was Rocinante’s fault.  But equally important is the fact that the merchants addressed Don Quixote in chivalric terms.

The reality of his chivalric world is now so firmly embedded in Don Quixote’s mind by these early events, that he is certain he is a knight-errant.  “Sé quien soy," ("I know who I am”) he insists (I, 5) to a neighbour who found him on the side of the road following the beating by the muleteer.

How is it that Don Quixote can stand the assaults of the real world when he so often suffers at its hands? His principal defence is to blame enchanters, whose existence was confirmed by none other than his niece, the village priest and the barber (I, 7).  Rather than admit they have just walled up Don Quixote’s library so that he wouldn’t be able to read his romances, they attribute the library’s disappearance to the machinations of an enchanter. But by doing so, they ironically and inadvertently corroborate the existence of enchanters and strengthen Don Quixote’s belief in them.  Don Quixote uses this belief in enchanters in the very first adventure Sancho and he have together: the iconic windmill episode.  Don Quixote attributes his defeat to “that magician Freston who robbed me of my room and books [and] changed these giants into windmills” (I, 8).  But he also tells Sancho to shut up “Calla, amigo Sancho,” a useful way to cut short any comment by Sancho!

It's easy to overlook, in our laughter, Don Quixote's vanity and dogmatic certainty about his
chivalric life, especially in his early adventures.  In many instances, he is the author of his mishaps as he tries to impose his version of reality on those he meets.  We have seen two examples in I, 4, and I, 8, above. Other instances include I, 15, when Don Quixote attacks a group of Galicians who have just upended his horse, Rocinante, for having cavorted with their mares.  Don Quixote ignores Sancho's warning that they are only two against more than twenty. "I am worth more than a hundred," he pronounces, but of course, he isn't and ends up stretched on the ground beside Rocinante. In I, 16, he and Sancho arrive at an inn. During the night, Don Quixote is pounded by a muleteer after presumptuously dreaming that the innkeeper's daughter --a damsel in his eyes--is madly in love with him.  In I, 18, the dust created by two flocks of sheep are easily transformed by Don Quixote into two armies. Addressing Sancho, Don Quixote boasts that "This is the day ... that I shall perform deeds that will be written in the Book of Fame for all future generations." Pride leads to yet another fall.

How long can we keep laughing at these antics, which include vomiting, broken teeth, and in Sancho's case diarrhoea and flatulence, before we become bored? It is difficult in these early adventures to feel too sorry for Don Quixote because in most cases his vanity "sets him up" for a fall.  However, this succession of slapstick episodes (in most of which Sancho also suffers) can lead to boredom if continued too long. Something has to change, and this is what Cervantes does in the second half of Part I.

2.    It’s very easy to enjoy the mad antics of Don Quixote, especially in the early chapters, and overlook an important change that occurs in his character in the second half of Part I: Cervantes limits the madness of Don Quixote to matters of chivalry. The slapstick is reduced (not eliminated!) and other characters now pointedly comment on Don Quixote’s good sense and judgement in everything except on the subject of knight-errantry.  

The same point is made at the very beginning of Part II.
In II, 1, the barber and priest decide to test Don Quixote
to see if he was still mad, but he answered their questions
with such good sense in everything they discussed that they
believed without doubt that he was completely recovered
and entirely sane and in his right mind
.” Also II, 43, 843:
“as has been said many times in the course of this great
story, [he, Don Quixote] only went off the rails when
touching upon knight errantry, and in all other discussions
he demonstrated a clear and measured understanding")

The detail is clearly important to Cervantes because he refers to it on several occasions in Part I.. In I, 30, for example, the village priest observes that if people talk to him on anything other than chivalry, “he speaks very rationally and shows a clear and complete understanding of everything; indeed, as long as they didn’t touch on knight-errantry, no-one would take him for anything but a man of sound judgement.” The same sentiment is echoed in I, 37, 38 and 49.  For instance, we read in I, 49: “The canon looked at him, and was amazed at the strangeness of his way-out madness, and at the excellent sense he showed in his conversation and his answers, only losing his marbles when talking of knight-errantry, as we’ve said before.

At the same time, Don Quixote becomes more passive and more inclined to engage in conversation than in rash attacks. Even the withering criticisms of knight-errantry by the canon (I, 49, 50) elicit a verbal rather than physical counterattack, during which Don Quixote twice accuses his adversary of “blasphemy” (as well as telling him to be quiet “Calle, vuestra merced,” I, 50).  Gradually, we laugh less at Don Quixote as his other qualities become more evident, and we feel a stirring sympathy for him as he is tied up and placed in a cage on a cart to return home (I, 46). He immediately assumes that he has been enchanted, a conclusion easily reached thanks to the disguises worn by the priest and barber of his village and their co-conspirators.

Momentarily released from his cage, Don Quixote’s last adventures in Part I are an attack on a goatherd, followed immediately by an assault on a group of penitents praying for rain and carrying an image of a weeping Virgin Mary (I, 52).  In his attempts to free the Virgin –whose tears are proof for Don Quixote of her captivity—he is knocked off Rocinante and left unconscious on the ground. This finale of slapstick reminds us that, although he has journeyed a long way and has changed in the meantime, Don Quixote is still in the grip of his chivalric fantasy.  The very popularity of Part I after it was published in 1605 suggests that readers wanted to know more about this unusual knight-errant.  They had to wait ten years, but they were not to be disappointed.

3.    There is no doubt that Don Quixote is mad from having read too many romances of chivalry.  What is literature is for him real, but at the same time from the very beginning of the book, people and circumstances also contrive to help Don Quixote reshape what he sees and sustain his belief in his chivalric world. We’ve seen how in I, 2, 3, the innkeeper and the prostitutes play along with Don Quixote for fun, and in I, 7, how the priest, barber and Don Quixote’s niece unwittingly and ironically confirm the existence of enchanters.  The most complicated example begins in I, 29, when Dorotea and her companions conspire with the priest and barber to get Don Quixote to return to his village. Dorotea dresses as the princess Micomicona who has come in search of Don Quixote because she needs his help against the threatened invasion of her kingdom by the monstrous giant Pandafilando. Later, in I, 46, when a sleepy and bewildered Don Quixote is tied up and placed in a cart for his journey back to the village, he is assured by a prophetic voice (the barber’s) that he will marry Dulcinea. In other words, the Dorotea and her companions and the priest and barber create a "chivalric world" compatible with Don Quixote’s. He has plenty of help in transforming reality.

In other cases, circumstances together with sensory susceptibility combine to fortify Don Quixote's fantasy. At a time when the evidence of the senses was seriously questioned under the influence of skepticism, the eyes were considered the most likely to be deceived.  In the famous windmill adventure (I, 8), distance lends some credence to Don Quixote's transformation.

In I, 18, Don Quixote believes he sees --through huge clouds of dust-- two armies approaching each other, whereas in reality they are two flocks of sheep.

One of the best known expositions of skepticism in the
16th century is succinctly summarised by its title:
Quod nihil scitur (1581) (Nothing is known). It was
written by the Galician-Portuguese philosopher and
physician, Francisco Sanchez, a relative of the great
French skeptic, Michel de Montaigne. 

(Even Sancho gets caught up in Don Quixote's illusion until the flocks come closer!)  In I, 19, darkness and an isolated spot make it easy for Don  Quixote to transform a black-draped coffin escorted by several mourners dressed in white into a fantastical adventure. In I, 35, Don Quixote attacks some wine skins believing he is fighting a giant.  Here sight cannot be blamed but the power of his untramelled imagination because Don Quixote is asleep and dreaming that he has arrived at the kingdom of Princess Micomicona. 

In our laughter, it’s easy to be complacent about Don Quixote`s madness, but we should recognise at the same time that there is something familiar in his fantasy. His chivalric world is a projection of a particular obsession, and who of us can say that our obsessions haven’t at some time or other reshaped what we see or think!

Ten years after publishing Part I (1605), Cervantes published Part II.  As he says in the Prologue to Part II, the content is “cut by the same creator and from the same cloth as the first part.”  That is true, but both creator and cloth have undergone some significant alterations in those 10 years.


Allen, J. J Don Quixote: Hero or Fool Gainesville, Florida Part I 1969, Part II 1979
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Mancing, Howard  Cervantes’ "Don Quixote": A Reference Guide Westport, CT 2006
Riley, E. C. Don Quixote  London 1986
Russell, Peter  Cervantes Oxford 1985