by Miguel De Cervantes
Don Quixote has always intimidated me. The novel is a literary giant, my own windmill to conquer. This year, over the course of a couple months, I finally read it. I was surprised by the gentle nature and sincerity of the famous knight. I’d always thought of him as a bit clownish, but in reality he is the most human of men, if that makes sense. He’s deeply flawed and so he’s deeply relatable.
I didn’t realize when I started the book that it consists of two separate volumes published 10 years apart. The first volume includes most of the well-known elements of the story, including Don Quixote’s famous attack on the windmills. In the second volume everyone knows who Don Quixote is because they've read the first volume. It adds an interesting element to the book, because he is now trying to live up to his own legend. He's become a celebrity and his cause and condition have become well known throughout the land.
Alonso Quixano is Don Quixote’s true name. He reads book after book dealing with stories of chivalry throughout the ages. He then becomes convinced that he is in fact a knight errant and he must go on a crusade to help the people who are suffering in Spain.
“It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight's sole responsibility is to succour them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.”
He saddles up his horse, Rocinante, and recruits a local farmer named Sancho Panza to embark on his travels with him. Sancho becomes his faithful squire. The two set off and along the way they “help” those who cross their path. The problem is that Don Quixote is delusional about who actually needs his help. The famous windmill scene comes about because he thinks he is fighting giants. He fights for the honor of a woman who barely knows him, Dulcinea del Toboso. The first volume contains a strange mix of stories. Everyone is able to see the Don’s madness except himself and his proverb-spouting squire. Though this is tragic in some ways, it’s also beautiful. There’s something about having complete faith in another person that gives you strength in your own life.
The first volume is entertaining, but lacks the depth I was expecting. It wasn’t until I got into the second volume that I really fell in love with the book. There’s such a wonderful exploration of motivation, delusion, loyalty, and more. Who is Don Quixote hurting with his quest? Is it wrong to allow him to remain convinced of his knighthood? The second volume also pokes playful fun at the first volume, joking that the author exaggerated stories, etc.
“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”
Don Quixote’s naïveté and earnestness about his field of knight errantry make him an easy target. People who want to play tricks on him or friendly jokes or even rob him are easily able to because they know exactly what his weaknesses are. He believes, without a doubt, in the code of knight errantry that he holds himself to. He's also wise about so many things while remaining blind to his own absurdity.
At times he reminded me of Polonius from “Hamlet” spouting off wisdom to anyone who will listen. Sometimes it's good advice, sometimes not but he believes it wholeheartedly. There's a purity in living a life so full of earnestness that you believe in your dreams without faltering and you hold yourself to a higher standard.
BOTTOM LINE: This isn’t a novel I’ll re-read every year or anything, but it was a richly rewarding experience for me. It made me want to believe in some of the magic in life and to not always question the motives of others. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza will be with me for years to come.
"Then the very same thing, said the knight, happens in the comedy and commerce of this world, where one meets with some people playing the parts of emperors, others in the characters of popes, and finally, all the different personages that can be introduced in a comedy; but, when the play is done, that is, when life is at an end, death strips them of the robes that distinguished their stations, and they become all equal in the grave.”
“Time ripens all things. No man is born wise.”