As Don Quixote teaches us, there is nothing wrong with the world that can’t be cured by reading books and then pretending that you are the characters in them. Have we not all be doing this since childhood? Most of us grew out of it, but old D.Q. is like the 17th century Spanish version of the Star Wars Kid: still out there spinning his fake lightsaber for all the world to see.
Don Quixote has what is politely referred to as an “overactive imagination,” and he is what is scientifically referred to as “nutty as a Scientologist.” His library is well stocked with stories of knighthood and chivalry, and these books convince him to become a knight-errant. Hey, I have lots of Hardy Boys books, but that doesn’t mean I’m about to become a teen detective. For one thing, I don’t own a jalopy.
The novel by Miguel de Cervantes is at once both high adventure and ludicrous comedy, aptly aided by sly pretentions that it is historically accurate, or at least based on historical accuracies. Cervantes even goes so far as to acknowledge that the book is much more simple than traditional stories of high adventure, in that it contains no ballads or Latin phrases. These, he explains, can always be added later—instantly endearing himself to those of us who find such pretenses absurd.
No matter Quixote’s lofty goals for himself, the predicaments that he finds himself in are hysterical. Witness his dinner with the prostitutes, who he thinks are princesses. They remove his armor, but his helmet is stuck, so he eats with it on, presumably with the flimsy makeshift visor open.
People are constantly trying to swindle him, only to find out he has no money. When his family frets about what to do with some 50-year-old uncle gallivanting across the countryside and crashing his old plow horse into windmills, their solution is to burn the library so that he’ll give up this nonsense.
Only one problem with that: The library is extensive and stocked with rare and priceless tales. In the end, they merely decide to burn only the poetry books, because the only thing worse than an uncle who thinks he’s a knight is an uncle who thinks he is a poet.
Now about those windmills… It is perhaps the most famous scene from the book, and represents everything that is magical about Don Quixote, because he mistakes them for giants. They are the perfect foe for a crazy person because presumably they can’t fight back. That doesn’t stop D.Q. from making a fool of himself by getting his lance caught in the windmill’s sails and getting thrown off his horse. But everyone covers nicely by telling him that an evil enchanter turned the giant into a windmill at the last second.
In fact, this seems to be their excuse for everything. An enchanter sealed off his library, an enchanter magicked the inn, an enchanter took his lunch money. People, take this to heart: If your family ever invokes the idea of an “evil enchanter” in order to protect your dignity, then it is a good sign that they probably think you are bonkers.
The story has its down moments, so it is not a straight up comedy. There is definitely something pathetic about a grown man crushing on the neighborhood stable girl (who he names Dulcinea, as if she were royalty), and embarrassing everyone he knows. Don Quixote gets beat up a lot, ruthlessly mocked, and the only reason he isn’t taken for everything he’s worth is because he isn’t worth much, in spite of the rare books.
Even his loyal squire Sancho Panza, to whom D.Q. has promised the rulership of an imaginary island (apparently this neighborhood has a wealth of idiots), is forced to admit that his master is a bit of a dunce. You can only defend your friends so much, before their tackling of random pilgrims or insulting of goatherds begins to make you look bad too.
Mental issues of the hero aside, none of this changes the fact that Don Quixote of La Mancha sees the world not as it is, but as we would like it to be: A place of fantastic adventures and lady fairs and galloping steeds. And sometimes it’s worth it to just venture out into that fantasy world for a moment, even if our armor is made of cardboard and the stable girl is sort of ugly.
Next up, #91!