The intriguing story of Don Quixote came to Cervantes—
The intriguing story of Don Quixote (if we read the Preface in a literal sense) came to Cervantes while he himself was incarcerated. Cervantes, however, never tells us why or how the whole notion of a Don Quixote ever came to him. Often writers will create a literary character out of personal experience and observation, and that may be the case here. Yet, whether it is or not, we cannot really say simply because Cervantes does not say. We should not put words into his mouth. Cervantes is quite capable of speaking for himself.
Most likely, however, Cervantes wrote from what he had seen and experienced, wrote from life itself. Those of us who have read the book can certainly identify with the on-goings and exaggerated adventures. The continuing popularity of the books is evidence enough that the characters in the book, though fictitious, are quite real on another dimension. We may never have seen a man charging a windmill on an old horse, but we have seen ourselves doing something like that. Something there is here that crosses the barrier between fiction and life, and that something accounts for the continuing popularity of the book, and the characters who impart life to its pages.
Another claim by Cervantes in the Preface is that the story of Don Quixote was easier to write than the opening words: “Muchas veces tomé la pluma para escribille, y muchas la dejé, por no saber lo que escribiría..” This admission may be mere literary convention, too. After all, Cervantes does tell us that he added Latin phrases to the Preface to enhance the affected ambiance of erudition in the book.
I appreciate Cervantes’ frankness about not knowing what to say. In fact, as I write this brief biography of Don Quixote, I am at a loss as to where to begin and what to include in this brief biography of the renowned hidalgo of La Mancha. And yet a biography must be written, let me limit my words to what Cervantes tells us about the middle-aged idealist named Don Quixote—
»En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordar-me, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.«
Even the very name, Don Quixote is somehow hidden in obscurity and doubt. In fact, once again according to Cervantes (and Cervantes should know since he is the very writer of the book) once again according to Cervantes—
»Frisaba la edad de nuestro hidalgo con los cincuenta años; era de complexión recia, seco de carnes, enjuto de rostro, gran madrugador y amigo de la caza. Quieren decir que tenía el sobrenombre de Quijada, o Quesada, que en esto hay alguna diferencia en los autores que deste caso escriben; aunque, por conjeturas verosímiles, se deja entender que se llamaba Quejana. Pero esto importa poco a nuestro cuento; basta que en la narración dél no se salga un punto de la verdad.«
We must, of course, take Cervantes at his word that whether Quixote, or Quexana, or some other name, the variant is unimportant to the tale. We know that he lived in some obscure village, and that he was middle-aged, that he was in his fifties.
We also know that Don Quixote was driven out of his mind by an incessant reading of ornate but poorly written novellas. Having filled his mind with an unrealistic idealism, Don Quixote ultimately bridles a broken-down hag and sets forth in search of great adventure, rescuing all damsels in distress and correcting all wrongs in the world.
Now, there is nothing wrong in reading late at night, or in rescuing damsels, or seeking to make every wrong right. There is nothing wrong in idealism, but an idealism that does not keep its feet on the ground will find itself skewed in the air on the vane of a windmill.
Having prepared his heart, Don Quixote next prepared his armor. After all, if one is going to be a knight, he must look and act the part. He must have some semblance of honor and armor, and Quixote does, by that I mean he wears some semblance of knightly armor. It is not the best, but it is armor and has been in his family as an heirloom. The armor is old, and the helmet needs a visor, which Quixote fashions out of some nearby cardboard. He worked intently to make the visor, spending an entire week, and then battle tested what he had made—
»Es verdad que para probar si era fuerte y podía estar al riesgo de una cuchillada, sacó su espada y le dio dos golpes, y con el primero y en un punto deshizo lo que había hecho en una semana; y no dejó de parecerle mal la facilidad con que la había hecho pedazos, y, por asegurarse deste peligro, la tornó a hacer de nuevo, poniéndole unas barras de hierro por de dentro, de tal manera que él quedó satisfecho de su fortaleza; y, sin querer hacer nueva experiencia della, la diputó y tuvo por celada finísima de encaje.«
Quixote’s refusal, of course, to further test his visor suggest some momentary brush with reality, but such reality was momentary at best, leaving Don Quixote undaunted and unconvinced of any danger his lofty idealism might bring.
Later, when he sallies forth to fight windmills, Don Quixote remains steadfast in his devotion to idealism even though the battle nearly cost him his life. Not even his appointed squire, Sancho Panza, can persuade Don Quixote to take a second look at what he perceives to be an impending threat. “Qué gigantes? dijo Sancho Panza.
Blinded by an inordinate idealism, Don Quixote charges forth with the bravery of a knight, and in so doing, putting his life at risk. We laugh at the antics of Don Quixote and even sympathize with the incredulous comments of Sancho Panza, and yet we understand the story because it is a familiar story, one which we ourselves have lived.
All of us have our windmills and our foolish moments.
If Don Quixote depends too much on lofty idealism, Sancho Panza will depend far too much on meager pragmatism. In both literary characters there is an imbalance and excess, but in opposite directions. Don Quixote can be faulted for his comical battle with windmills, but Sancho Panza can be charged for he never charged at all. The life lost in idealism may be foolish, but not any more so than the life that never dreams, that remains safely on its burro. If Don Quixote is the metaphor for rash idealism, Sancho Panza is the metaphor for paralyzed pragmatism. We need both, of course, in life— lofty dreams and pragmatic realism.
Near the last moments of his life, Don Quixote recovers from his idealistic illusions and finally realizes who is he, and the end of his life is near. But it is Sancho Panza who cannot accept reality. The roles are reversed—
»¡Ay! respondió Sancho, llorando: no se muera vuestra merced, señor mío, sino tome mi consejo y viva muchos años, porque la mayor locura que puede hacer un hombre en esta vida es dejarse morir, sin más ni más, sin que nadie le mate, ni otras manos le acaben que las de la melancolía. Mire no sea perezoso, sino levántese desa cama, y vámonos al campo vestidos de pastores, como tenemos concertado: quizá tras de alguna mata hallaremos a la señora doña Dulcinea desencantada, que no haya más que ver.«
Sancho Panza, of course, could not live without Don Quixote any more than Don Quixote could live without Sancho Panza. Idealism must have its foundation in pragmatism.
In many ways, the moment is unbearably sad, not only because of Don Quixote’s impending death, but also because the death of Cervantes’character closes the notion of high idealism. Nothing, I suppose, is worse than a dream that dies, and maybe that is Cervantes’ point as well. None of us can really live without dreams, not even a Sancho Panza.
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