Don Quixote. Hero or Fool?

Don Quixote: Hero or Fool?
Don Quixote is a heroic figure for many people nowadays, a dreamer who fights against odds and remains faithful to his noble goals. His death is the tragic end of an idealist crushed under the weight of reality.

When he first set out as knight-errant, Don Quixote wanted to revive the past glories of chivalry by imitating the deeds of famous knights (especially Amadís of Gaul), and thereby earn eternal fame. Implicit in this dream was the desire to be seen as a chivalresque hero who redressed injustices, and protected the needy, including damsels, widows, and orphans (Part I, e.g. chapters 1, 9, 11).

The trouble is that Don Quixote was following an impossible vision because knights-errant were youthful super humans from distant times and places, and he was a contemporary 50 year-old, low-born noble (hidalgo) from the arid wastes of La Mancha in Spain. As a result, his “chivalric” adventures are a parody and demythification of those encountered in romances of chivalry. Don Quixote did become famous, but for all the wrong reasons: for his misadventures rather than his heroic deeds.

Don Quixote’s adventures are in many cases pure slapstick and make us laugh, as they did early readers of the novel.  However, heroism –especially of the kind found in epic verse or in romances of chivalry— is serious business and laughter undermines it. Don Quixote wanted to be taken seriously, but people laughed at him or, at best, expressed amazement that a mad man could sometimes hold rational discussions.

Laughter in Don Quixote takes many forms, from the humour of bodily functions (e.g. Sancho vomiting and suffering diarrhoea at the same time, I, 17) to subtle irony (Sancho’s superiority as governor over his social superior, the duke, II, 44-55). 

At the time Cervantes was writing, laughter’s uplifting, therapeutic was widely recognised, but it was also commonly held that laughter could not issue from the actions of nobles but from lower members of society.  For example, Francisco de Cascales, a contemporary of Cervantes, wrote that los hechos de los principales y nobles caballeros no pueden induzir a risa. ?Pues quien? Los hombres humildes: el truhan, la alcahueta, el mozo, el vejete… Si un principe es burlado, se agravia y ofende… Todo lo qual es puramente tragico. Segun esto, la gente baxa es la que engendra risa. Tablas poéticas  (pub 1617).  “The deeds of the high-born and nobles cannot provoke laughter. Who can? Humble people: rogues or buffoons, go-betweens, young fellows, foolish old men…If a prince is mocked, he is insulted and offended… all of which leads to tragedy.  So, the low born are the ones who provoke laughter.” By the standards of the time, Don Quixote is a vejete, an old man whose actions are ridiculous.  And being an hidalgo –the lowest rank of nobility– was not a saving grace. By this time, hidalgos were a discredited lot, ridiculed for their pretensions and their general uselessness in society.

Heroes, for early 17th-century society by and large, were still expected to engage in valiant exploits. A dictionary by Cervantes’s contemporary, Sebastian de Covarrubias, the Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española1611, defines heroic action as follows: Como hecho heroico, vale ilustre, grande: dixose de la palabra “heros, herois” que cerca de los antiguos significava tanto como hombres que, no embargante fuesen mortals, eran sus hazañas tan grandiosas que parecian tener en si alguna divinidad (“Heroic action, i.e. illustrious or great, comes from the word ‘heros, herois,’ which for the ancients referred to men who, even if they were mortals, were so magnificent in their deeds that they seemed to partake of divinity.”  Such a description cannot apply to Don Quixote. His deeds are not magnificent however much he would like to think they were.

How is it, then, that Don Quixote is now viewed as a hero by so many?  It’s largely a change of taste and philosophy beginning with 18th-century rationalism.  In England the book was subject to several critical editions and a proliferation of translations.  English readers sided with Don Quixote, seeing him as a lovable, albeit flawed character, and their laughter is tinged with sympathy rather than ridicule.

These are the first steps leading to the 19th-century romantic view of Don Quixote as hero, a knight of indomitable spirit, firm in his noble beliefs against all odds. To be seen as a hero would undoubtedly please Don Quixote, and in view of his rejection of the world of chivalry and all it stood for on his deathbed, he might also be satisfied with the romantic interpretation of his heroism. (Don Quixote would undoubtedly object to the view that he is a dangerous fundamentalist. See Don Quixote: Hero or Religious Extremist?.)

Still, since the 1960s there have been many who urge a reappraisal of an uncritical acceptance of Don Quixote as a hero, and argue for a return to the view of the book’s earliest readers that Don Quixote is a comical figure.

They object to the disregard for the novel’s comic dimensions and to the downplaying of Cervantes’s stated purpose: to parody romances of chivalry. Followers of this position have been called “hard” critics, while those opposed are known as “soft” critics. There are those who fall into neither camp, who might be called “perspectivists” or “relativists.”

It is puzzling how readers can arrive at such diametrically opposed views of Don Quixote and by extension of the novel itself. Hero or fool? Does it have be either/or?  Cervantes himself , whether consciously or not, seems to suggest an answer in the episode of the barber’s shaving basin (bacía) Part I, 21. Don Quixote was convinced it was the magic helmet (yelmo) of Mambrino (the “soft” view),  Sancho that it was nothing more than a shaving basin (the “hard” position).

Later, Part I, 25, Don Quixote compromises and allows that “what looks like a barber’s basin to you, looks like Mambrino’s helmet to me, and it may look like something else to someone else.”  In Part I, 44, Sancho comes up with a clever solution, calling it a baciyelmo, a “basinhelmet.” Can we apply that analogy to Don Quixote itself? “What for you is a funny book is for me a serious book.” Or even better, it’s a “funnyserious” work.

Whether Don Quixote is hero or fool or something in between – “herofool?”–makes for a lively debate for which there is unlikely to be total agreement.

For those interested, there is another –radical– approach to what constitutes heroism in a novel that appeared almost contemporaneous with Don Quixote and was in fact more popular in the 17th century: Guzmán de Alfarache (Part I, 1599; Part II, 1604). The author was Mateo Alemán a Converso. The implications of being a Converso in Golden Age Spain were significant and are examined in the above post.

Allen, J. J  Don Quixote. Hero or Fool Gainesville,  Florida  Part I 1969, Part II 1979

Close, Anthony J  The Romantic Approach to Don Quixote: A Critical History of the Romantic Tradition in Quixote Criticism 1978
Close, Anthony J  A Companion to Don Quixote  London 2008
Mancing, Howard  Cervantes’ Don Quixote: A Reference Guide  Westport, CT 2006
Russell, Peter  “Don Quixote as a Funny Book” in Modern Language Review, 64(1969): 312-26