Don Quixote: A Famous Failure.

Don Quixote and Fame.
Don Quixote is one of the world’s most famous and beloved literary creations.  Most people have heard of him even if only through the adventure of the windmills (Part I, chapter 8) or as the protagonist following his impossible dream in the musical Man of la Mancha

Some may also recognise that the adjective “quixotic” and the expression “tilting at windmills” have their origins in the actions of Don Quixote.  And yet, how many people realise that his fame is paradoxically predicated on failure?

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Gustave Doré.

We know that after reading so many romances of chivalry, a certain hidalgo (i.e. low-born noble) from La Mancha took it into his head to become a knight-errant so that he could achieve eternal renown and fame (cobrase eterno nombre y fama Part I, 1).

By imitating those knights-errant who embodied the noble virtues of chivalry, Don Quixote (as the hidalgo called himself) would redress wrongs, protect damsels, widows, orphans and the needy and  revive the past glories of chivalry etc. (Part I, e.g. chapters 1, 9, 11).  Implicit in this, of course, is Don Quixote’s wish to become –himself– a hero, a model for others to imitate.

Of all the knights Don Quixote admired and wanted to imitate, the greatest and most famous was Amadís of Gaul. Don Quixote makes this clear to Sancho while they are in the Sierra Morena (Part I, 25), where Don Quixote has withdrawn to do penance à la Amadis: “I want you to know, Sancho, that the famous Amadís de Gaula was one of the greatest of knights-errant. No, I’m wrong in saying ‘one of,’ he was the only one, the best, he was unique … He was the guiding light, the star of all brave and enamoured knights, and all of us who fight under the banner of love and chivalry should imitate him … I want to imitate Amadís.”

However, Don Quixote forgets or doesn’t realise that the world of knight-errantry is an exaggerated and distorted creation in which heroes are superhuman. They are youthful, high-born adventurers from some vague time in the past who travel and fight in distant, exotic places. 

So how, in 1600, could Don Quixote, a roughly 50 years-old, low-born noble of modest means from some nameless village in the arid wilds of La Mancha ever hope to compete with the feats of these youthful knights? They simply did not behave like ordinary people, and yet Don Quixote believes that they are “like us,” as he points in Part I, 10. 

After telling Sancho that knights-errant could go for a month without eating or ate whatever they could find on their travels, he admits that in the all the many romances of chivalry he has read he has never come across knights eating (except in sumptuous banquets) nor satisfying other natural needs. 

Nevertheless, he concludes, they are hombres como nosotros (men like us”). The fact is that knights-errant were not like Don Quixote. It’s ironic that if Don Quixote had been successful in imitating Amadís, then he would be no more than another in the long list of forgotten knights-errant.  Who, apart from academics, has heard of Amadís, let alone the hundreds of other knights wandering the dusty pages of romances of chivalry?  Don Quixote is famous precisely because he is a failure… he failed in his attempt to be a knight-errant!

Nevertheless, the fame that Don Quixote now enjoys is not the same as the fame he achieved in Spain and other European countries during the 17th century and most of the 18th.  During that time, his fame was based not on his noble ideals and heroic steadfastness but on his comical misadventures. We can see the kind of things that appealed to the novel’s earliest readers in chapter 3 of Part II (published 1615). Don Quixote has just been informed that a book (i.e. Part I, 1605) has just been published about him. 

Just like his chivalric heroes, his exploits have appeared in print. What more could he ask for?  “Which deeds of mine are most talked about?” he  asks eagerly. The reply is hardly comforting, because there is nothing heroic about the “deeds” referred to (they come from chapters 8, 9, 18, 19, 20 and 22 of Part I); they are all burlesque episodes in which Don Quixote is ridiculed in some form or other.

According to an early biographer of
Felipe/ Philip III (ruled 1598-1621),
the king once heard a student
laughing uproariously at something,
upon which he said: “either that young
man is out of his mind or he is reading
Don Quixote

In other words, Don Quixote is famous for all the wrong reasons, as far as he is concerned. (Interestingly, Don Quixote never reads Part I nor asks to see a copy!)

Don Quixote did achieve the kind of immortality he craved although ironically not for his chivalric deeds but as a failed knight-errant. It was only in the 19th century, under the influence of Romanticism, that Don Quixote –the hero of indomitable courage, faithful to his noble ideals– came to the fore. 

Since then, he has passed into myth, his fame reflected in books, film, theatre, opera, ballet, musical compositions, painting, sculpture, radio, cartoons, television, even computer games. In 2002, the Norwegian Book Club (an affiliate of the Nobel Institute) organised a survey in which it asked 100 authors from around the world to list the 10 greatest works of literature ever written. Don Quixote gained 50% more votes than any other book, beating out works by Shakespeare, Homer, Goethe, Tolstoy and others!

You can, if interested, follow a Don Quixote route (Ruta de Don Quijote) through the region of Castile-La Mancha where naturally much has been made of Don Quixote’s fame.

Marker along the Route of Don Quixote, on a minor road just north of Manzanares.

The route was officially inaugurated in 2005, following the 400th anniversary of the publication of Part I of Don Quixote, and is now recognised by the Council of Europe as a European Cultural Route.

This route is based primarily on Don Quixote’s journeys in Part I, and does not include those chapters of Part II where Don Quixote’s travels take him to Aragon and Barcelona. There are maps, from the 18th century to the 20th, which trace more completely Don Quixote’s trips, although given the somewhat oblique references to place names the itinerary through Aragón to Barcelona and back to Don Quixote’s village are speculative. For more on the Route of Don Quixote, see

And what about Sancho Panza?
Don Quixote tends to overshadow his inseparable companion, Sancho Panza, and yet Sancho is clearly an extraordinarily interesting figure. A fat, garrulous peasant, he has no preoccupation with fame when he first sets out with Don Quixote, and his reason for accompanying his master is the promise of an island to govern (Part I, 7).

And yet, when he finds out at the beginning of Part II that he too plays an important role in Part I, he is delighted. Unlike Don Quixote who is troubled by what has been written about him, Sancho becomes very conscious of his fame as co-protagonist of the novel.  See his excited reaction, for example, in chapters 2 and 3 of Part II, when news has just arrived of the publication of Part I:  “They say I’m mentioned in it,” he says proudly (II, 2), “They say that I am one of the main ‘presonages’ in it” (II, 3).  

It is significant that it is Sancho who first suggests that he and Don Quixote undertake further adventures to provide  material for another book,(II, 4): “I and my master will easily give the author more than enough material to write about (note how Sancho places himself first!)…  What I can say is that if my master were to take my advice, we would be out in the fields now undoing injuries and righting wrongs.”

Of course, Sancho doesn’t aim as high as Don Quixote, but enough of the allure of knight-errantry has rubbed off on him –despite the beatings and discomfort suffered in Part I— that he does want to be famous as the best squire to have ever served a knight: “I’m not thinking of being famous for my valour but as the best and most loyal squire that ever served a knight-errant” (no pienso granjearme fama de valiente, sino del mejor y más leal escudero que jamás sirvió a caballero andante.) And so it turns out, and although Sancho doesn’t forget his promised island, fame becomes a major motivation.

For the view that Don Quixote is a dangerous extremist, see Don Quixote:Hero or religious extremist?
The literature is vast. The following are very good introductions in English to various aspects of the novel.
Bjornson, Richard ed.  Approaches to Teaching Cervantes’ Don Quixote  New York 1984
Johnson, Carroll B.  Don Quixote: The Quest for Modern  Fiction Boston 1990 
Mancing, Howard The Cervantes Encyclopedia  Westport, CT 2004
Riley, E. C. Don Quixote  London 1986
Russell, Peter  Cervantes Oxford 1985
Schmidt, Rachel  Critical Images: The Canonization of Don Quixote through Illustrated Editions of the Eighteenth Century Montreal 1998
Image of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Gustave Dore: