My first article on Why You Should Read Don Quixote was the text for a Toastmasters’ talk. And in this task, I was supposed to take the feedback on the talk and improve the speech. But it would be pretty dull to hear the same speech again. So I decided to take a new approach.
Before, I fear that I focused too much on the “great books” aspects of Don Quixote — how it was the first modern novel and the first postmodern novel. But really: I think you should read Don Quixote because it is enormously entertaining. It is The Twilight Zone of the 17th century. And so I thought I would spend a little time going over some of the amusing bits in the first book.
The novel starts with a discussion of this silly old man who has been driven crazy by the literary tales of knights errant. So he decides to become one.
In the past, you’ve probably seen movies where rich people have a knight’s suit of armor in their house as decoration. Well, lucky for Don Quixote, he too has one. So went he decides to hit the road and find glory by righting wrongs, he has a suit of armor waiting. Except…
The helmet has no visor on it. What to do? Make one out of pasteboard!
This shows, from the very start, that he understands, at some level, this is all play acting. He’s a knight errant in the same way that child who dresses up for Halloween as a pirate is a pirate.
The fact that pasteboard would not protect him doesn’t matter! As long as it looks like it will protect him!
Andres the Slave Boy
In his first real adventure, Don Quixote comes upon a farmer whipping a boy, Andres. He soon discovers that Andres has been working for the farmer. But the farmer abuses the boy and never pays him.
Don Quixote is outraged and demands that the farmer pay the boy. At first, the boy is happy to have this hero on his side. But Don Quixote simply instructs the farmer to take the boy home and pay him.
When Andres protests that if Don Quixote isn’t around, the farmer will just beat him further, Don Quixote dismisses him. Of course, the farmer will be a man of his word! And Don Quixote rides away, assured that he has done a good deed.
The Helmet of Mambrino
Later on, Don Quixote and Sancho are traveling in the rain. They see a man with a wash basin on his head. Or rather, Sancho sees a man with a wash basin on his head. Don Quixote sees a man wearing the mythical helmet of Mambrino! It makes whoever wears it invincible! So Don Quixote is keen to have it.
He rushes toward the man who, seeing a crazy man coming at him with ill-intent, drops the wash basin/helmet and runs off. A thrilled Don Quixote picks it up.
But he makes a rare admission to Sancho. He says that it does indeed appear to be a wash basin. Someone must have melted down the helmet of Mambrino, not knowing its value, and reformed it into a wash basin.
Reality Rears Its Ugly Head
At the end of the first book, Don Quixote and Sancho find themselves in a village they had visited earlier. There many of the earlier plots come back to haunt the Great Knight of La Mancha. But they don’t haunt us at all, because we are not crazy.
As we expected, after Don Quixote left the slave boy, the farmer beat the poor boy more savagely than he had ever before. The boy was no longer under the farmer’s control. Just the same, he had never been paid.
The man wearing the helmet of Mambrino was actually just a barber who was wearing his wash basin to shield his head from the rain.
It seems that everyone in the village has a story of how this crazy old man who thought he was a knight had ruined their lives. I think Andres, the slave boy, sums up the consensus, “Look here, mister knight-errant, if you ever come across me again, even if you can see that I’m being torn to pieces, for God’s sake don’t come to my rescue — just leave me alone with my troubles, because they can’t possibly be so great that your help won’t make them much worse!”
Many other exciting “adventures” come together at the end to turn Don Quixote’s world upside down. I’ve just highlighted two of my favorites, but I could go on.
If it sounds crazy, it should! You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of shadow and substance — of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into Don Quixote.