The Knight and Chivalry
Don Quixote, 'verging on fifty, of tough constitution, lean-bodied, thin-faced; a great early riser and lover of hunting,' is not so different from Lancelot when he sets out on the quest for the Grail, except that the romances know nothing of age, and toughness and early rising are equally unromantic. His habits are exactly those of the knight-errant: he is careful to regulate his sleeping hours by the approved rules; each time he sleeps beneath the open sky 'it seemed to him that he was confirming his tide to knighthood by a new act of possession,' and he is careful to do his duty as a lover: 'He spent the rest of the night in thoughts of his lady Dulcinea.' All that divides Don Quixote's actions from those of the real knights-errant of romance is his awareness of correct behaviour: he always feels that this or that ought to happen to him, and makes certain that it does, while in the romances from which he draws his inspiration it goes without saying that the adventures appear of their own accord, and the knights are really sleepless for love.
This perpetual self-consciousness is sharply contrasted with Sancho Panza's natural earthiness. Don Quixote lies in self-imposed wakefulness, 'while Sancho Panza's sleep, as he settled down between Rosinante and his ass was not that of a rejected lover, but of a soundly kicked human being.' Cervantes subtly underlines the unnatural life of the romances, which is one of his chief objections to them, and whenever Quixote threatens to become too fantastic, Sancho is there at hand to bring him back to earth—or at least to somewhere near it.
Sancho, being unaffected by Don Quixote's madness, sees windmills as windmills and sheep as sheep, but if he believes his own eyes, he believes his master's interpretation of what he sees. And Don Quixote lives in a world which is almost permanently under the enchanter's spell. Windmills become giants, sheep opposing armies, a barber's basin Mambrino's helmet. But such a device palls quickly enough, and Cervantes is prepared for this. Having made his initial point about the absurdity of the romantic setting, he turns the enchantments into the key to his hero's development. In this, again, he is offering an unfavourable contrast to the romances, where a perfect knight is always a 'perfect knight, and like some comic-strip hero, always emerges victorious and Unchanged in the end. Life is riot like that; Don Quixote is a more subtle and resilient character than we at first suspect. True, he remains steadfastly convinced of the reality of knight-errantry as he imagines it; but he manages to reconcile the everyday world and his own vision to a remarkable extent. When in the second part enchantments are contrived by Samson Carrasco and by the Duke and Duchess, who have read of his adventures of the first part in print, he overcomes their ingenious attempts to mock him by a high idealism which no amount of ridicule can touch. Even when Sancho deliberately deceives him for reasons of his own, and presents 'three peasant girls...riding on three young asses or fillies' as Dulcinea and her attendants, and seems to have the upper hand over his master, Don Quixote goes surely on his way: and in the episode of his dream in the Cave of Montesinos he makes such an enchantment a commonplace and natural event which troubles him not one whit. He says that one of the peasant girls borrowed money of him, and by ways of thanks 'leaps two yards, by measure, into the air'; at which Sancho breaks in to demand: 'Are such things possible in the world? Can there be enchanters and enchantments so strong as to have changed my master's sound wits into this raving madness?' Yet despite the author's pretended doubts as to the authenticity of this episode, it is all of a piece with Don Quixote's way of thought; and as the knight resists all attempts to shake his belief, we begin to wonder if he is not a lone sane voice in a world gone mad.
For from the enchantments, his own logic produces greater truths. When he defends himself before the Duke and Duchess, he speaks of these enchanters, and especially of Dulcinea's transformation, which is the cruellest blow of all, 'for to rob a knight-errant of his lady is to rob him of the eyes with which he sees, of the sun by which he is lighted, and of the prop by which he is sustained'. The Duchess objects 'that your worship never saw the lady Dulcinea, and that this same lady does not exist on earth, but is a fantastic mistress, whom your worship engendered and bore in your mind, and painted with every grace and perfection you desired'. '"There is much to say on that score," replies Don Quixote. "God knows whether Dulcinea exists on earth or no, or whether she is fantastic or not fantastic. These are not matters whose verification can be carried out to the full. I neither engendered or bore my lady, though I contemplate her in ideal form"...' Cervantes sums up the place of the lady in chivalry perfectly.
But Cervantes also moves far outside the world of chivalric romances. Don Quixote starts out as a symbolic figure of folly with human traits added, and ends stripped of his symbolism as an entirely living character, vindicated in his apparent folly. Sancho grows in stature as his native wit takes him safely through situations beyond his experience. For Cervantes has lived up to the versatility to be found in the ideal chivalric novel of the canon of Toledo; and he has made of it something quite new as a result. If he began by satirising the mere formulae of chivalry, he ends by hinting at alternative views of life, based on his experience and reading.