I finished the first part of Don Quixote a few weeks ago. This is the second time I have attempted what literary critics call, “the first modern novel.” The first time was a little over a year ago and I did not get past the first forty pages. This time I was adamant that I was going to finish and I am glad that I stuck to my resolution. This is, as I have noted below, one of the greatest comedies I have ever read. For example:
The innkeeper told everyone in the inn about the lunacy of his guest, about his standing vigil over his armor and his expectation that he would be dubbed a knight. They marveled at so strange a form of madness and went to watch him from a distance, and saw that with a serene expression he sometimes paced back and forth; at other times, leaning on his lance, he turned his eyes to his armor and did not turn them away again for a very long time. Night had fallen, but the moon was so bright it would compete with the orb whose light it reflected, and therefore everything the new knight did was seen clearly by everyone. Just then it occurred to one of the muledrivers in the inn to water his pack of mules, and for this it was necessary to move Don Quixote’s armor, which was on the trough; our knight, seeing him approach, said in a booming voice:
O thou, whosoever thou art, rash knight, who cometh to touch the armor of the most valiant knight who e’er girded on a sword! Lookest thou to what thou dost and toucheth it not, if thou wanteth not to leave thy life in payment for thy audacity.
The muleteer cared nothing for these words-and it would have been better for him if he had, because it meant caring for his health and well-being; instead, he picked up the armor by the straps and threw it a good distance away. And seeing this, Don Quixote lifted his eyes to heaven and, turning his thoughts – or so it seemed to him to his lady Dulcinea, he said:
Help me, Senora, in this the first affront aimed at this thy servant’s bosom; in this my first challenge letteth not thy grace and protection fail me.
And saying these and other similar phrases, and dropping his shield, he raised his lance in both hands and gave the muledriver so heavy a blow on the head that he knocked him to the ground, and the man was so badly battered that if the first blow had been followed by a second, he would have had no need for a physician to care for his wounds. Having done this, Don Quixote picked up his armor and began to pace again with the same tranquility as before. A short while later, unaware of what had happened – for the first muledriver was still in a daze – a second approached, also intending to water his mules, and when he began to remove the armor to allow access to the trough, without saying a word or asking for anyone’s favor, Don Quixote again dropped his shield and again raised his lance, and did not shatter it but instead broke the head of the second muledriver into more than three pieces because he cracked his skull in at least four places. When they heard the noise, all the people in the inn hurried over, among them the innkeeper. When he saw this, Don Quixote took up his shield, placed his hand on his sword and said:
O beauteous lady, strength and vigor of my submissive heart! This is the moment when though needs must turn the eyes of they grandeur toward this thy captive knight, who awaitheth so great an adventure.
And with this he acquired, it seemed to him, so much courage that if all the muledrivers in the world had charged him, he would not have taken one step backward. (pg.32-33)
I am going to argue (at least through Part One) that the madness of Don Quixote serves as metaphor towards the converts to Christianity. The “madness” of Don Quixote is brought on by the intense reading of books of chivalry. Don Quixote responds to these books so intensely that he is converted. He travels on “adventures” of madness in order to save the downtrodden only to promote more problems than he solves. It should be noted that along the way he entraps Sancho Panza with tales of glory and his own governorship.
Towards the end of Part One, after Don Quixote is captured by his concerned priest and barber and all of the various subplots reach their conclusions, our valiant knight is debating with the canon who is introduced towards Part One’s conclusion:
Is it possible, Senor, that the grievous and idle reading of books of chivalry could have so affected your grace that it has unbalanced your judgment and made you believe that you are enchanted, along with other things of this nature, which are as far from being true as truth is from lies? How is it possible that any human mind could be persuaded that there has exited in the world that infinity of Amadises, and that throng of so many famous knights, so many emperors of Trebizond, so many Felixmartes of Hyrcania, so many palfreys and wandering damsels, so many serpents and dragons and giants, so many unparalleled adventures and different kinds of enchantments, so many battles and fierce encounters, so much splendid attire, so many enamored princesses and squires who are counts and dwarves who are charming, so many love letters, so much wooing, so many valiant women, and, finally, so many nonsensical matters as are contained in books of chivalry? For myself, I can say that when I read them, as long as I do not set my mind to thinking that they are all frivolous lies, I do derive some pleasure from them, but when I realize what they actually are, I throw even the best of them against the wall, I would even toss them in the fire if one were near, and think they richly deserved the punishment, for being deceptive and false and far beyond the limits of common sense, like the founders of new sects and new ways of life, and for giving the ignorant rabble a reason to believe and consider as true all the absurdities they contain. [emphasis mine] (pg. 423)
Don Quixote’s response:
Don Quixote listened very attentively to the canon’s words, and when he saw that he had concluded, he looked at him for a long time and said:
It seems to me, Senor, that the intention of your grace’s discourse has been to persuade me that there have been no knights errant in the world, and that all the books of chivalry are false, untrue, harmful, and of no value to the nation, and that I have done wrong to read them, and worse to believe them, and worse yet to imitate them by setting myself the task of following the extremely difficult profession of knight errantry which they teach, and you deny that there ever were Amadises in the world, whether of Gaul or of Greece, or any of the other knights that fill the writings.
That is precisely what I meant; what you have said is absolutely correct, said the canon.
To which Don Quixote responded:
Your grace also said that these books have done me a good deal of harm, for they turned my wits and put me in a cage, and it would be better for me to alter and change my reading and devote myself to books that are truer and more pleasant and more instructive.
That is true, said the canon. [emphasis mine] (pg 424-425)
I have had conversations with Christian zealots and must say that they have gone similarly to Don Quixote’s conversation with the cannon.
Most hardcore zealot converts are quick to fall back on thousands of examples from the Bible to serve as their refutation to anything said that may contradict their metaphysical belief structure. Don Quixote’s madness is something that the Western world has been struggling against the Christian ethic for two thousand years. To be sure there are “good things” that have evolved from the Christian ethic, but that does not excuse the harm.
Don Quixote’s adventures have him so twisted that he feels that he is the righter of wrongs and triumphant over inanimate objects while for the most part his squire sees the real insanity – to a point. Sancho also wants to believe in the end result, a kingdom for him to rule that his knight will give him so long as he remains faithful in Don Quixote’s abilities as a knight. Sound familiar?
In the end Don Quixote’s madness gets him into more trouble than it is worth, and Sancho also gets his fair share of beatings as a result of keeping faith. So what is Cervantes attempting to explain?
Are we to take away that his Don Quixote is a critique on faith? Is Cervantes attempting to sneak something past the power of the Catholic Church? I believe he is and I believe that what we are shown is the madness of zealous belief that harms the believer with a madness that insulates him from any outside criticism.