Mark Van Doren
The Happy Critic
The whole of Don Quixote is either a series of adventures or a series of conversations. More properly, since many of the conversations are about the adventures, before as well as after they take place, it is both series intertwined. The book, that is to say, is neither all action nor all talk. It is not a yam, and it is not a philosophical dialogue. Its events are of deep interest to the intellect, and its discussions advance the plot. So it is dangerous to emphasize the one thing at the expense of the other, though more will be lost by ignoring the speeches than will be lost by overlooking the overt, the visible deeds. The deeds, in fact, are less likely to be overlooked than the commentaries upon them, and sometimes it appears that they are the only items a reader remembers: Don Quixote, by the common account, is nothing but a story of a foolish, fond old man who began by making a mistake about windmills and went on to make innumerable other mistakes of the same description.
But this is not what one finds if one reads the book with loving and continuous care. For then it turns out that the hero is quite as much a talking as a doing man. And the final memory may be of a voice, magnificent not merely for itself but for the mind that inspires it, which one will not expect to hear again in any book. The eloquence of Don Quixote is in a class by itself. No other hero ever talked as richly or as well. And this may seem strange if what he wanted to be, or to seem to be, was a knight at arms. The knights of the romances spoke handsomely upon occasion, but for the most part they rode and fought. If Palmerin of England, whom the barber and the curate ranked second to Amadis of Gaul, is an outstanding exception to this rule, he is also an outstanding bore. Don Quixote, who talks ten times as much, is anything you please but he is never a bore. He is busier talking about knights than being one; he contemplates rather than fulfills the role; but precisely there is where his charm comes in.
'A man that talks well,' remarks the Duke, 'can never talk too much.' He is speaking of Sancho, and he does not mean the compliment, though indeed he should; but any good reader will accept it for Sancho's master, whose resonant tones, matching so perfectly his resonant thoughts, make of the entire book a musical work distinguished for the depth and variety of its sound. The style of Don Quixote is perhaps the most delicious style in any literature. This man can say anything, short or long; he knows his way as genius does through the labyrinth of intellect and language; and there is endless learning at his command. He is never out of touch with his erudition, which certain of his interlocutors consider excessive but which all of them recognize as native to a mind both spacious and subtle, both full to overflowing and free to overflow. The slightest object can remind him of vast subjects for discourse: an acorn of the Golden Age, a millpond of the seven seas. And often he is wise. Men who see him coming and think him simply crazy remain in his path so that they may exchange words with him and extract amusement from the poor mad things he will say. But most of the things he says do not strike them as poor or mad, and they are puzzled. There is a soundness in his views that moves them almost to complain. Such a man has no right to be so interesting or so true. Of course he is false with respect to knighthood; he is clearly insane when it comes to that; yet of any other matter he has a gentleman's, a scholar's, understanding. He is acute and humane; and he evidently knows his Aristotle.
It never occurs to these men that because he is right about so many other things he may be right about knight-errantry too. Nor may it occur to us who have listened to him night and day since the book began. But the reason in our case is a little different. His wisdom has long since ceased to seem inconsistent with the rest of him, whatever the rest of him is. We have fallen so deeply in love with his manner that we have forgotten how to judge his matter; we have lost in large part our interest in the question of his madness. Would that all men could talk as he talks. He is king of his world, and he is perhaps the king of any world we can imagine. When we see him dressing for dinner, whether at the Duke's house or at the meanest inn, we know that he will descend to dominate a dinner table where others tolerantly await him. He will determine the topics to be discussed, and he will not only lead but ornament the discussion.
The topic he likes best is his beloved books of chivalry—were they true and are they true? And if they seem so real that we delight to read them, what is the meaning of our delight? Is it entertainment or instruction, is it belief or make-belief? He will pursue this theme with anybody: the barber and the curate, Don Vivaldo, the Canon of Toledo, Don Diego and his son, or the Duke's priest who is so sure that he himself is right. With the Canon of Toledo the discussion branches out until it takes in such subsidiary topics as the difference between poetry and history, and the difference too between learned and unlearned readers; for both have their claims, and the greatest writers condescend to neither. With Don Lorenzo, Don Diego's son, the talk is all of poetry, an art which the young man has practiced with but small success to date. He is encouraged by Don Quixote, whom he considers mad on every other subject, to believe himself a good poet; for the old stranger seems to know a great deal about the art, and who is to say whether he flatters or not the author of the specimens placed before him?