Don Quixote. Hero or Religious Extremist?

Don Quixote is an hidalgo (minor noble), almost 50 years old living in the barren stretches of La Mancha towards the end of the 16th century. He decides to imitate the actions of the great knights-errant he has read about and revive the past glories of knight-errantry by redressing injustices and protecting the needy (including damsels, widows, and orphans, Part I, e.g. chapters 1, 9, 11).

However, knights-errant are fantasy figures living in a fantasy world of the past and Don Quixote’s decision to go out into the world and imitate those knights brings him face to face with reality. Still, as we read in the first chapter “so embedded in his imagination was the belief that all those resounding fictions he read were true, that for him no history in the world was more authentic.

Don Quixote: Hero?
Don Quixote’s fame is assured whether he is viewed as a hero faithful to the noble ideals of chivalry or as a well-meaning knight whose misadventures are a source of laughter. His intention to redress injustices etc. is admirable but the means he uses to justify that end are highly questionable. He imposes his views aggressively both by word and deed against the challenges of the world around him.

Indeed, he can be positively dangerous and attack innocent people with little or no provocation (e.g. merchants from Toledo Part I, 4; muleteers I, 15; mourners I, 19; a barber I, 21; penitents I, 52). He even assaults Sancho without warning (I, 30) and gets embroiled in a fight with him (Part II, 60).

He destroys property (killing sheep, I, 18; smashing a puppet theatre II, 26 and a boat II, 29).

He gets angry easily when he feels the truth of his chivalric world is questioned or ridiculed and can be verbally belligerent (e.g. in I, 4, the merchants are “despicable swine;” in I, 30 he labels anyone who disagrees with his actions in freeing the galley slaves as an “ill-begotten son of a bitch” –hideputa y mal nacido–; he describes the canon “deranged and enchanted” in I, 49; his niece is an ignorant child, II, 6; he frequently chides Sancho: e.g. II, 29 where he accuses him of cowardice: butter-heart, town mouse ).

He is vain and exaggerates his “conquests” (with the Gentleman of the Green Coat, II, 16; the duchess II, 32) and on one occasion (when he abandons Sancho to face an angry mob (II, 17) he is more cowardly than heroic.

Such less-than-ideal conduct hardly conforms to the views of Don Quixote as hero. To see him as an individual who heroically fights for his ideals is to miss the point, namely that his ideal is to get everyone to agree with his point of view, to believe and accept what he believes. He doesn’t stand up against the world around him but in fact insistently tries to impose his vision/belief/truth on it to such an extent that we might justifiably call him –in modern terms– an extremist or fundamentalist.

The Limits of Madness.
Nevertheless, Don Quixote’s violent and impetuous behaviour is limited to his actions when under the spell of the romances of chivalry, and there is a marked change in his behavior when he is not under that spell. In Part I, 30, 37, 38 and 49, we are informed in no uncertain terms that Don Quixote’s madness is confined to the world of chivalry and that in all other matters he is a man of sound mind and judgement.

The same point is made at the very beginning of Part II, 1 when the barber and priest decided 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.”

And in case we have forgotten, the narrator reminds us in II, 43 that “as has been said many times in the course of this great story, [Don Quixote] only went off the rails when touching upon knight-errantry, and in all other discussions he demonstrated a clear and measured understanding.” And finally in II, 65, the student, Sansón Carrasco –hoping to defeat Don Quixote in battle and thereby bring him back to his senses— confirms what others have said: “he (Don Quixote) is sane as long as he is free of the nonsense of knight errantry.

It’s not that Don Quixote’s madness disappears, but it is much reduced and his rational other-half comes more to the fore. There are numerous examples of this sane Don Quixote (e.g. on the Golden Age I, 11; on Arms y Letters I 1 37, 38; on Poetry II 16; on Marriage II, 22; on the difference between “offence” (agravio) and affront (afrenta) II, 32; on governance II 42, 43).

The point is that a perfectly clear-thinking individual can behave irrationally, even violently, when under the influence of a belief-system that demands unquestioning acceptance or faith. For the mad Don Quixote, chivalry is a religion, as we’ll see shortly.

Belief and Confession.
Belief in the world of knight-errantry is fine as long as Don Quixote remains at home reading, but it becomes a problem when he leaves and starts to impose his belief verbally or by force on those around him.

In one of his first adventures (I, 4) he demands that some Toledan merchants, en route to Murcia to buy silk, believe that Dulcinea is the most beautiful maiden in the world. When they demur, saying that they do not know her, Don Quixote insists that what matters is that “without having seen her, you must believe, confess, affirm, swear and defend [her beauty].” In fact, he himself has never seen Dulcinea (II, 9), but accepts her beauty as peerless because that is how maidens are described in romances of chivalry. He believes without seeing.

It was common for knights-errant to insist on the peerless beauty of their ladies, but Don Quixote’s demand of confession, affirmation and acceptance is the language of religion in the social context of Spain at the end of the 16th century.

It would not have escaped readers of the day that the reference to silk trade and merchants from Toledo would almost certainly signal activities associated with Conversos (i.e. Jews who converted to Christianity or their descendants). Don Quixote’s demands are those of a fundamentalist: believe and confess.

The merchants’ response is comical but ends with a telling phrase “to please your honour, we’ll say whatever you want in her favour. Conversos, caught in the net of social stigma and distrust of being required to believe in a new (for them) religion –with its prominent Virgin— regularly said what was publicly necessary while in many cases practicing Judaism at home.

Blasphemy and Error.
The comically disrespectful description of Dulcinea (squinting with one eye and dripping sulphur from the other) offered by one of the Toledan merchants infuriates Don Quixote who after insulting them accuses the group of blasfemia (blasphemy).

This is a loaded word; in the land of the Inquisition, the accusation of blasphemy would weigh heavily on the accused, whether ConversoMorisco (converted Muslims or their descendants) or anyone suspected of heresy.

In I, 49, 50, Don Quixote accuses a much more significant figure of blasphemy, none other than a member of the church hierarchy, the canon of Toledo (a canon is a priest, member of a cathedral). Both he and the canon engage in a long discussion over the truth of romances of chivalry.

The canon ridicules the knight’s belief in books of chivalry, and accuses their authors of being “creators of new sects and new ways of life …which lead ignorant masses to believe in and hold true all the absurdities that they contain.” He further suggests that Don Quixote should read the Book of Judges from the Bible and the deeds of historic heroes. Don Quixote’s response is to accuse the canon of being the one who is deranged and enchanted “for daring to utter so many blasphemies against something that is so widely accepted in the world.” He repeats the accusation a short time later: “Be quiet, your honour, and don’t utter such blasphemy” before launching into a long defence of the romances. 

Here, as elsewhere, Don Quixote insists on the truth of the novels of chivalry with the zeal of a religious fundamentalist defending the inerrant truth of the Bible. Ironically, the canon cannot prove the truth of his assertions any more than Don Quixote can his.

Don Quixote is called upon again, in the first chapter of Part II, to defend his world, this time against the assertions of his village priest and the barber that knights-errant did not exist and that the novels were pure fiction and lies. “That is another error,” replies Don Quixote, “in which many have fallen.”

Like “blasphemy,” “error” –a departure from the truth– was another common accusation made of unbelievers (Don Quixote makes the same accusation in II, 32 directed at the priest in the duke and duchess’s palace; the priest is in “error” for denying the existence of knights-errant). To support his argument, Don Quixote then proceeds to describe what Amadís and other knights looked like (II, 1).

Of course, all this is the fruit of his imagination, but aren’t images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the apostles or saints also fruits of the imagination and have no more historical truth than Don Quixote’s descriptions of the knights?

In II, 6, it is Don Quixote’s niece who calls the romances of chivalry “fictions and lies” which, she continues, if not burned they should be made to “wear a sambenito” (a yellow woolen shirt with a red cross worn by penitents sentenced by the Inquisition). Furious, Don Quixote reprimands her “for the blasphemy that you have uttered.”

The niece, however, is a spirited young woman and responds telling her uncle that at a pinch he could “climb a pulpit or preach in the streets” so blind is he and so foolish. This is a telling observation, because Don Quixote is indeed a preacher who defends his belief with the zeal of a convert, which is what he is!

At the very beginning of Part I, Alonso Quijano (Don Quixote’s real name) undergoes a life changing conversion from a sedentary hidalgo to a knight, changes his name to Don Quixote and leaves his village with a mission.

He is “reborn” with a new name, a new belief or faith, blind insistence on the truth of that faith, and a missionary zeal … all common traits in converts transformed into fundamentalists, extremists or ideologues. Is Don Quixote, when caught up in the world of knight-errantry, any madder than religious fanatics caught in the grip of religious zeal?

Knight-errantry and Religion.
The world of knight-errantry was not alien to religion or vice versa. For example, in the Spanish romances (novels) of chivalry of the 16th century the Christian piety of knights-errant and the crusading spirit and conversion episodes of pagans to Christianity resonated with Spanish readers.

Among those who were avid readers of the romances in their youth were famous religious figures such as the mystic St Theresa of Avila, the energetic reformer and founder of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, and St Ignatius of Loyola, former soldier (i.e. knight!) and founder of the Jesuit Order.

There were also romances of chivalry a lo divino, i.e.  knightly adventures in which the protagonists were religious figures. One often cited example is the Caballería celestial de la rosa fragrante (1554) in which Christ appears as the Caballero del León (Knight of the Lion), the apostles as the twelve knights of the Round Table and the devil as the Knight of the Serpent.

In Don Quixote, Pero Pérez, priest and friend of Don Quixote, is well acquainted with romances of chivalry, discusses them with Don Quixote (I, 1; and the innkeeper I, 47), and appreciates the artistry of the best of them (I, 6: the examination of Don Quixote’s library).

He is far more interested in reading about knightly pursuits than in religious or devotional works. In fact, he mentions no religious texts –the Bible, lives of saints etc.—, is never seen in church and only once engages in a religious duty –when he hears Don Quixote’s confession in the last chapter of the book. Furthermore, in order to return Don Quixote to his village, it is the priest who first volunteers to dress up as a “maiden-errant” in distress in search of Don Quixote’s help (I, 26).

However, he changes his mind when he sees how ridiculous he looks and urges the barber to take over the role of maiden in distress. A timely encounter with Dorotea allows both of them to avoid the embarrassment, since she will take on the role of the princess. But it is the priest who invents the name “Micomicona” for the disguised Dorotea (I, 29).

The canon of Toledo is similarly attracted to the world of chivalry. He even confesses to have written some 200 pages of a chivalric romance (I, 48), but mentions no similar interest in writing a religious work. Furthermore, he also alludes to the similarity in the calling of knight-errantry and religion when referring to three Spanish military religious orders (religión militar): Santiago, Calatrava and Alcántara (created in the late 12th century, I, 49). Later, Don Quixote identifies Saints George, James (Santiago) and Paul –venerated by the church—as fellow knights-errant (11, 58).

Don Quixote obeys the same ethos as religious knights; he considers himself a Christian knight-errant (See I, 19), doing his Christian duty.  For example, justifying his release of the galley slaves (I, 22), Don Quixote claims (I, 30) that he was only doing what mi religión (my religion) demanded of him.

The “religion” he refers to is clearly the belief system he has created from the world of knight-errantry. In case the similarity between religion and knight-errantry is not clear, Don Quixote is quite unequivocal in Part II, 8, 596, when Sancho Panza suggests that they become saints. His reply is: Religión es la caballería (“Chivalry is religion:” II, 8, 596).

The Dangers of Knight-errantry/ Religion.
What Cervantes suggests through Don Quixote’s madness and militant zeal is the danger inherent in religious fanaticism and the blind faith that it demands. It results in violence and/or verbal aggression to achieve its aims. Don Quixote’s madness is a means of questioning blind, uncritical faith.

The target here is likely to be the Catholic Church with its absolute demand for religious orthodoxy throughout the country and persecution (through the Inquisition) of all suspected of heresy.

Of course, Cervantes cannot be openly critical of the Church or religion for to do so would be to invite the unwanted attention of the Inquisition or the sharp eyes of censors**.

**As it is, a few details were censored, e.g. I, 26 the reference to Don Quixote using his shirt tails to make a rosary to say a “million Avemarias” (which suggested rote repetition attacked by the humanist Erasmus). However, the censors overlooked the parody inherent in the use of the shirt tail, which in the past was frequently used in place of toilet paper! Another example occurs in II, 36, where the duchess refers to works of charity “done half-heartedly and in a lax way [as being] of no value.” What mattered in Catholic thought was that charity was done, and the reference to “half-heartedly and in a lax way” smacked too much of Protestantism (Johnson 14-15).

Cervantes generally avoids the problems of censorship under the veil of comedy as we laugh at the comical antics of a madman. But laughter can be very subversive and Cervantes is the master of irony and ambiguity. This is why the world of Don Quixote is complex, multilayered, ambivalent, contradictory, ever changing, and always challenging.

The questioning of religious authority and certainty is just one example of the book’s constant questioning of the nature of truth and the search for meaning.  Is it right to demand obedience to a belief system that cannot sustain its “truth” when subjected to critical judgement? Simply put, can there be just one voice, one truth imposed on others? Cervantes objects to such an extremist view. In the Quixote and indeed in all of Cervantes’s works there are many voices, many “truths” which are no more than opinions.

The Church’s insistence that it holds the key to truth is as unacceptable as Don Quixote’s view that romances of chivalry are true and must be believed. The Church has no more claim to la verdadera religión than the novel’s claim to be the verdadera historia of Don Quixote (see The True Story of Don Quixote).

At the end of the novel (II, 74), Don Quixote dies in bed attended by his friends, the priest, barber, the student Sansón Carrasco, his niece, housekeeper, and of course Sancho Panza. At the same time, he repents in the strongest terms having read the “detestable” romances of chivalry, and admits to their “absurdities and deceits.” “I was mad,” he concedes, “but now I am sane. I was Don Quixote of La Mancha and I am now … Alonso Quijano, the Good.” Significantly, then, he rejects  the chivalresque name he selected in the opening chapter of the novel and returns to his pre-conversion self. It is, in fact, the first time we know his full name. Now, no longer mad, he asks for confession, makes his will and receives the last sacrament. This is the only time that Don Quixote openly turns to the church; during his adventures he never attends mass or takes confession despite frequently being in the company of priests.  And the only blessing he seeks is Dulcinea’s (II, 8)!

The death scene is in fact conventional, following the prescribed ritual of the Catholic Church. It is also an expedient way for Cervantes to disarm any potential criticism of unorthodoxy … or blasphemy.

Cervantes: Converso.
Cervantes’s critique of religious truth in Don Quixote may owe something to the probability that he himself had Jewish blood (i.e. was a Converso or Cristiano nuevo). There is no direct proof that Cervantes was a Converso, but there is compelling circumstantial evidence that suggests that he was: 1. there is a 15th-century document that lists a Cervantes family as being Converso; 2. on his paternal side, Cervantes’s ancestors had been cloth merchants, a trade pursued almost exclusively by Conversos; 3. his father was an itinerant barber surgeon, another business overwhelmingly occupied by Conversos; 4. Conversos were barred from emigrating to Las Indias (America)… Cervantes’s request to emigrate to the Indias was twice turned down (some Conversos did make it to the New World by signing on as crew members and then jumping ship); 5. Cervantes’s Entremés (Interlude Play), El Retablo de las Maravillas pokes fun at the obsession with limpieza de sangre (purity of blood, i.e. having no Jewish –or Moorish– blood), and reveals it to be no more than a ridiculous sham.

Close, Anthony “Miguel de Cervantes” in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed. David T. Gies, Cambridge 2009, pp. 201-21.
Johnson, Carroll B.  Don Quixote: The Quest for Modern Fiction. Boston 1990.