Don Quixote in Pieces on the Ground

Don Quixote is roughly a half-million words long. The average modern novel is about 100,000 words. My first novel was 60,000 words. My current novel was supposed to 120,000 words, but it is becoming clear that it will have to be roughly double that length. The point is that Don Quixote is long. It is the longest novel I know of, and this presents a problem. Just yesterday morning, I pulled out my Putnam translation from my backpack, and found it in pieces. In one way, this is a good thing: I only have to carry around the half of it at a time because the book broke almost exactly in half (with some individual pages floating about). But this does not compensate for this book being destroyed. And it does not bode well. All of my copies of Don Quixote are in paperback, and I’m sure they too will fall apart when I get around to manhandling them.

I have been neglecting my discussions of Don Quixote because I have been working on a comparison of all my translations of Chapter 6. It is a daunting task. It took me some time to compare various translations of a single sentence in the book. Doing a whole chapter—and a long one at that—takes forever. For now, idling reader, we will just have to continue on with Putnam.

The Traveling Merchants

When last we encountered our hero, I compared him to Henry Bergh—finding him quite wanting. Bergh was a true hero—a great man. The Ingenious Gentleman is just a nut who, while trying to do good, does very bad things indeed. After leaving a peasant boy to be brutalized by his master, our hero rides off feeling very good about himself. Then he runs into some merchants who he will not let pass, “Unless everyone will confess that there is not in all the world a more beauteous damsel than the Empress of La Mancha, the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso.”[1] When they insist upon seeing at least some likeness of her, Don Quixote attacks. Luckily, Rocinante—Don Quixote’s old, skinny horse—falls. The merchants take the opportunity to beat up Don Quixote and then go on their way. Apparently because of the weight of his armor (and being in bad physical shape because of the beating), Don Quixote is forced to lie on the ground over night until a local farmer finds him and helps him home.

There is an interlude at this point: Chapter 6. Mostly, it is a way for Cervantes to have some fun with the chivalric books of his time—even his own. I am waiting for the compendium of all the issues from 1940 of More Books, The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library. It contains an article by Esther B. Sylvia called “Don Quixote’s Library.” Putnam does an excellent job of annotating this chapter, but I expect Sylvia’s paper to be far more enlightening. So I will not discuss this chapter, except to say that as Don Quixote sleeps, his friends burn most of his library.

On the Road Again

As soon as he is recovered, Don Quixote slips away at night. He has managed to get a local farmer named Sancho Panza to be his squire by promising to make him governor of an island—or something similar. Then we get to the windmills. It is remarkable that this section of the book is so well known, because it really doesn’t stand out. Don Quixote sees a bunch of windmills, mistakes them for giants, and attacks them. There really isn’t much to say about this episode. If you joust with a windmill, you will lose. Don Quixote lost. Sancho warns him before and chastises him afterwards:

“God help us!” exclaimed Sancho, “did I not tell your Grace to look well, that those were nothing but windmills, a fact which no one could fail to see unless he had other mills of the same sort in his head?”

“Be quiet, friend Sancho,” said Don Quixote. “Such are the fortunes of war, which more than any other are subject to constant change. What is more, when I come to think of it, I am sure that this must be the work of that magician Frestón[2], the one who robbed me of my study and my books, and who has thus changed the giants into windmills in order to deprive me of the glory of overcoming them, so great is the enmity that he bears me; but in the end his evil arts shall not prevail against this trusty sword of mine.”

The one interesting part of this episode is that it is the first indication that while Sancho is an illiterate and gullible farmer, he’s pretty smart and very grounded.

The Murderous Nut

After this fiasco, the pair meet up with a couple of friars followed by a lady in a coach accompanied by six or seven guards, it would seem. Don Quixote thinks the friars have kidnapped the lady and so attacks them. They flea for their lives. Then Don Quixote goes to the coach and tells the lady that she need not pay him for not saving her. All he wants is for her to go back to La Mancha and tell Dulcinea del Toboso about the heroic deed that he just didn’t do. One of her companions says this is ridiculous—the lady was on her way to Seville to say good-bye to her husband who had been appointed some kind of high post in India. As a result, the two begin to fight. Don Quixote gets the better of the other man and would have killed him if not for the ladies in the coach begging him to spare the man’s life.

This episode was much less enjoyable than that of the merchants, because in this case, Don Quixote got what he wanted. He attacked two friars and would have killed one of them had he not fallen off his mount. Then he would have killed another man when he was prone. There is nothing chivalric about his behavior. Later that evening, Sancho suggests that they take refuge in a church because they might be arrested. Don Quixote will have none of it; he sums up very well what it means to be a knight-errant:

“Be quiet,” said Don Quixote. “And where have you ever seen, or read of, a knight being brought to justice no matter how many homicides he might have committed?”

It is a shocking statement that jumps off the page. Up to that point, one can see all of Don Quixote as farce, but this statement is too true. In general, knights were not the good men of movies and novels; they were murdering rouges, more like Mickey Knox from Natural Born Killers than Robin Hood. So after but ten chapters, we find that our hero is nothing more than a murderous madman who talks pretty. I already know that in the end, Don Quixote dies feeling bad and embarrassed about the things that he has done. But there is a long way to go, and I find I am not enjoying the book as much as I had. Like Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel I can understand and even appreciate the comedy, but it does not make me laugh. Don Quixote is serious business indeed. And it is in pieces on the ground in more ways than one.

[1] Dulcinea del Toboso is a peasant girl. She has no idea who Don Quixote is. And Sancho lies to Don Quixote when they meet. Don Quixote sees just a dirty peasant girl (which she is). But Sancho convinces him that she is really a beautiful princess and that Don Quixote must be under an evil curse by Frestón to make him unable to see this.

[2] Frestón is a magician Don Quixote’s friends made up to explain how his study (they walled over the door) and books went missing. Like so much in Don Quixote’s mind, Frestón does not exist.

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