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by William H. Benson

January 29, 2004

     The most well-remembered scene from Cervantes’s Don Quixote is the Man of La Mancha, a knight suited in steel armor, astride his horse in a full gallop, his lance tilted, in a full-throttled attack upon a giant.  Sancho Panza, his trusty pot-bellied sidekick, had warned him that it was not a giant but only a windmill, but Don Quixote had brushed aside his friend’s words.

     “It is easy to see that thou art not used to this business of adventure; those are giants. . . . Betake thyself to prayer. . . . For this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.”

     His lance broke upon impact, and Don Quixote and his horse went rolling across the Spanish plain, “in a sorry condition.”  And so they picked themselves up and set off on more extravagant follies that Quixote believed were heroic and chivalrous acts. 

     At one point he stabbed at some wineskins, believing that they were enemy soldiers, until he saw their “blood” cover the floor red.  Then, he watched a puppet show until  he was overcome with emotion at a battle scene such that he jumped up onto the stage with his sword lifted and then slashed downward “at the Moorish puppets, knocking some of them over, beheading others, crippling this one, mangling that one,” stunning the audience and the puppeteer.

     Another time Don Quixote and Sancho rescued some prisoners who, once they realized they were free, turned on their savior and on Sancho and stripped them of their clothes and pelted them and their horse and donkey with stones.  Cervantes described the scene after the prisoners had fled.

     “They were left alone now—the donkey and the horse, and Sancho and Don Quixote; the donkey, crestfallen and pensive, wagging its ears now and then, being under the impression that the hurricane of stones that had raged about them was not yet over; the horse, stretched alongside his master, for the hack also had been felled by a stone; Sancho, naked and fearful of the Holy Brotherhood, and Don Quixote, making wry faces at seeing himself so mishandled by those to whom he had done so much good.”

     Of that pitiful scene a critic remarked, “All of which should teach us to liberate galley slaves precisely because they will not be grateful to us for it.”

     Don Quixote is too mad, too idealistic, too much of a trouble-maker, and Sancho is too trusting and too willing to follow.  Across the Spanish landscape they travelled, meeting up with rich and poor, men and women, royalty and peasants, masters and slaves, and Don Quixote thought it best to interfere in their lives.  Invariably all parties turned on him, and no one, least of all Don and Sancho, were seemingly better off after.

     Today officials would probably recommend professional help for someone so “quixotic”, so idealistic, and so beyond the realm of reality, but four hundred years ago the Spanish rulers would either imprison such a person or simply allow him to suffer the indignities and misfortunes which he brought upon himself for his foolish behavior, which is what happened to Don Quixote.

     Scholars are still trying to decide if Cervantes wrote a comedy or a tragedy or an interplay of both.  We, the readers, at first laugh at the foolishness, and then later we feel saddened as we watch the poor man’s illusions and dreams repeatedly being mangled by the cold hard brutal facts of life.  The Man from La Mancha had a dream, and instead of seeing it as something off in the future to be pined for until achieved, Don Quixote seized it when he put on his steel armor, spurred his horse, and charged at the giant.

     At the end of Cervantes’s book, which is too long and yet ends too quickly, Don Quixote put his life’s mission in perspective.  “I have set injuries and insults straight, righted wrongs, punished arrogance, conquered giants, and trampled on monsters.”  Few readers then or ever since have been able to claim such startling personal victories.