Saturday, December 25, 2021

Don Quixote de la Mancha

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 9 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

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Miguel de Cervantes's comic novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605-1615) has earned its place in the canon of world literature. Cervantes was a man of broad experience, almost as fascinating as the "knight errant" himself: wounded in battle, captured by pirates, five years a slave in North Africa, he may have started writing his classic while imprisoned for mishandling the King of Spain's money.

Nevertheless, his influence is so great that some people have called Spanish "the language of Cervantes." He is to Spanish as Shakespeare is to English. (Remarkable, then, that both men died on the same day.) And, like Shakespeare, he has given us new words: "quixotic" has come to mean impulsive and unpredictable, but also chivalrous, romantic, and visionary.

The story starts with Alonso Quixano, a (fictional) minor nobleman living in the 15th century--long after the days of chivalric culture--who reads so many novels about that romantic age that he loses his mind and fancies himself to be Don Quixote de la Mancha, a "knight-errant" who will wander the countryside with his trusty squire (actually a simple farmer), Sancho Panza--righting wrongs, freeing captive maidens, and slaying dragons. As is the custom with such "knights errant," he receives a nickname--but his, of course, is comical: "The Knight of the Sad Face" (sometimes rendered "the Woeful Countenance").

The whimsical Part I of the book's two parts is by far the more popular, and was published in 1605, ten years before the second, more serious and philosophical part.

In Part I, the nearly-50-year-old Quixano lives with his niece and his housekeeper, and believes every word of the romances he reads. He dons an old suit of armor and dubs his tired old horse "Rocinante," meaning, actually, a low-quality workhorse. He chooses a local farm girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, as his inspiration, his "lady love," and renames her "Dulcinea del Toboso." She is unaware of this social promotion.

After setting out alone--Sancho has not joined him yet--"Don Quixote" comes to an inn, which in his madness he takes for a castle. He insists that the innkeeper (the "Lord of the Castle") formally knight him. After he keeps his vigil, the innkeeper humors him by performing a mock ceremony and sends him on his way.

Next, he comes across a slave named Andres who is tied to a tree and being beaten by his master. Don Quixote makes the master swear to treat the slave fairly, but after he rides away, the master reneges and the beatings are doubled.

When some traveling merchants he encounters on the road insult his "Dulcinea," he attacks them. They beat him severely and the altercation ends with him lying by the side of the road. A neighboring peasant finds him and returns him to his home.

There, as he lies ill, his niece, the housekeeper, the local priest, and a barber (who in those days functioned as a kind of doctor) burn his library to prevent him from getting even more crazy ideas, telling Quixano/Quixote that the books were destroyed by an evil wizard. Cervantes uses this section to comment on many popular books of the day, including his own.

Feigning good health, the old knight sets out again, this time having recruited his trusty "squire" Sancho Panza. Sancho's earthy common sense provides balance to Don Quixote's head-in-the-clouds approach. It is on this, the second sally, that the famous story of the mad knight attacking some windmills, believing them to be giants, takes place. Even today, in English, "tilting at windmills" is used to mean "attacking imaginary enemies."

The two companions encounter a party that includes two Benedictine friars and a lady in a carriage--companions of the road, but not actually members of one party. Quixote takes the two for enchanters holding the lady hostage, and attacks, knocking one of the friars from his horse. An armed Basque takes up the fight, turning away the old man's ineffectual blows by using a pillow from the carriage as a shield (as he has none). In the end, the gracious lady commands those traveling with her to "surrender" to Don Quixote.

After further adventures with goat herders, a shepherdess, musketeers, muleteers, a dead body, a group of galley slaves, a spurned lover, a spurious princess, pilgrims, and others, Part I ends with a promise of more.

Part II takes a more serious turn. In the end, after recovering from a serious illness, Quixano awakes as from a dream with his sanity fully restored. The practical Sancho actually tries to convince him to maintain his illusions, but Quixano apologizes to all for the harm his fantasies have caused others. Before he dies, he dictates his will, which specifies that his niece will be disinherited if she marries a man who reads the books of chivalry which brought him so much mental distress.

Tilting at windmills...


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. altercation
  2. chivalric
  3. errant
  4. feigning
  5. humors
  6. rendered
  7. romances
  8. tilting
  9. vigil
  10. whimsical
  1. translated; interpreted
  2. lighthearted; humorous
  3. pertaining to the medieval practice of knighthood
  4. wandering; roving
  5. angry disagreement, sometimes leading to violence
  6. long period of watching, usually at night
  7. charging on horseback at something holding a long spear
  8. cooperates with someone to ease a disagreement
  9. pretending; faking
  10. early novels

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. How can we describe the importance of the author Miguel de Cervantes in Spanish culture?
  2. Describe Alonso Quixano.
  3. What does "quixotic" mean?
  4. Who was Sancho Panza?
  5. What is the most famous adventure of Don Quixote?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Why do you think Don Quixote was nicknamed "The Knight of the Sad Face" (or "the Woeful Countenance")?
  2. Don Quixote chose a squire, a "steed" or "charger," and a "lady love," like every good knight should have. But his was really a farmer, a broken-down old horse, and a simple farm girl. Why did Cervantes make these things so silly-looking?
  3. Quixano's niece, the housekeeper, the local priest, and the barber burned his books? Can you think of other ways to solve the problem of his behavior?

1 comment:


    Vocabulary: 1. E; 2. C; 3. D; 4. I; 5. H; 6. A; 7. J; 8. G; 9. F; 10. B

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)

    1. Spanish is sometimes called "the language of Cervantes," and Cervantes has a similar status in Spanish as Shakespeare does in English.
    2. Alonso Quixano was a minor nobleman who read too many books about knights.
    3. "Quixotic" describes a person or action which is romantic and full of courtesy, but at the same time impractical or even silly--like Don Quixote himself.
    4. Sancho Panza was a simple farmer that Quixano/Quixote took as his "squire."
    5. Don Quixote's most famous adventure is the one where he attacked some windmills, thinking they were giants.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").