I am currently reading Don Quixote. It was recommended to me by the bookstore clerk who stated it was the greatest book in Spanish literature. His opinion isn’t without company as wikipedia affirms that Don Quixote is the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the entire Spanish literary canon. A founding work of Western literature, it is often labeled “the first modern novel” and is sometimes considered the best literary work ever written.
It was published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. The plot revolves around the adventures of a noble (hidalgo) from La Mancha named Alonso Quixano, who reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his mind and decides to become a knight-errant (caballero andante) to revive chivalry and serve his nation, under the name Don Quixote de la Mancha. He gets caught up in a fictional world created by his imagination and truly believes that not only is he a knight, but the inns he encounters are castles, the prostitutes are princesses, and the windmills are… giants.
The context is important here because, at the time of the novel, chivalry romances like Amadis De Gaula had become so popular in Spain that monarchs of the time feared the influence of them on the impressionable minds of young people. Cervantes responded by writing a parody of these knightly adventures.
To set the scene for today’s book quote – Sancho and Don Quixote fall in with a group of goat herders. Don Quixote tells Sancho and the goat herders about the “Golden Age” of man, in which property does not exist and men live in peace. The goatherders invite the Knight and Sancho to the funeral of Grisóstomo, a former student who left his studies to become a shepherd after reading pastoral novels (paralleling Don Quixote’s decision to become a knight), seeking the shepherdess Marcela. The following monologue by Quixote about what it means to be a ‘Knight Errant’ provides an illuminating, albeit amusing insight into the mindset of our protagonist. Also anyone unfamiliar with the novel will gain an appreciation of Don Quixote’s audaciousness; the tone, writing style and humour of this classic novel.
Vivaldo asked Don Quixote what was the reason that led him to go armed in that fashion in a country so peaceful. To which Don Quixote replied, “The pursuit of my calling does not allow or permit me to go in any other fashion; easy life, enjoyment, and repose were invented for soft courtiers, but toil, unrest, and arms were invented and made for those alone whom the world calls knights-errant, of whom I, though unworthy, am the least of all. “The instant they heard this all set him down as mad, and the better to settle the point and discover what kind of madness his was, Vivaldo proceeded to ask him what knights-errant meant.
“Have not your worships,” replied Don Quixote, “read the annals and histories of England, in which are recorded the famous deeds of King Arthur, whom we in our popular Castilian invariably call King Arturo, with regard to whom it is an ancient tradition, and commonly received all over that kingdom of Great Britain, that this king did not die, but was changed by magic art into a raven, and that in process of time he is to return to reign and recover his kingdom and scepter; for which reason it cannot be proved that from that time to this any Englishman ever killed a raven? Well, then, in the time of this good king that famous order of chivalry of the Knights of the Round Table was instituted, and the amour of Don Lancelot of the Lake with the Queen Guinevere occurred, precisely as is there related, the go-between and confidante therein being the highly honourable dame Quintanona, whence came that ballad so well known and widely spread in our Spain.
For never sure was any knight
So serv’d By Damsel, or by dame,
As Lancelot, that man of might,
When he at first from Britain came:
With all the sweet and delectable course of his achievements in love and war. Handed down from that time, then, this order of chivalry went on extending and spreading itself over many and various parts of the world; and in it, famous and renowned for their deeds, were the mighty Amadis of Gaul with all his sons and descendants to the fifth generation, and the valiant Felixmarte of Hircania, and the never sufficiently praised Tirante el Blanco, and in our own days almost we have seen and heard and talked with the invincible knight Don Belianis of Greece. This, then, sirs, is to be a knight-errant, and what I have spoken of is the order of his chivalry, of which, as I have already said, I, though a sinner, have made profession, and what the aforesaid knights professed that same do I profess, and so I go through these solitudes and wilds seeking adventures, resolved in soul to oppose my arm and person to the most perilous that fortune may offer me in aid of the weak and needy.”
By these words of his the travelers were able to satisfy themselves of Don Quixote’s being out of his senses and of the form of madness that over mastered him, at which they felt the same astonishment that all felt on first becoming acquainted with it; and Vivaldo, who was a person of great shrewdness and of a lively temperament, in order to beguile the short journey which they said was required to reach the mountain, the scene of the burial, sought to give him an opportunity of going on with his absurdities. So he said to him, “It seems to me, Senor Knight-errant, that your worship has made choice of one of the most austere professions in the world, and I imagine even that of the Carthusian monks is not so austere.”
“As austere it may perhaps be,” replied our Don Quixote, “but so necessary for the world I am very much inclined to doubt. For, if the truth is to be told, the soldier who executes what his captain orders does no less than the captain himself who gives the order. My meaning, is, that churchmen in peace and quiet pray to Heaven for the welfare of the world, but we soldiers and knights carry into effect what they pray for, defending it with the might of our arms and the edge of our swords, not under shelter but in the open air, a target for the intolerable rays of the sun in summer and the piercing frosts of winter. Thus are we God’s ministers on earth and the arms by which his justice is done therein. And as the business of war and all that relates and belongs to it cannot be conducted without exceeding great sweat, toil, and exertion, it follows that those who make it their profession have undoubtedly more labour than those who in tranquil peace and quiet are engaged in praying to God to help the weak. I do not mean to say, nor does it enter into my thoughts, that the knight-errant’s calling is as good as that of the monk in his cell; I would merely infer from what I endure myself that it is beyond a doubt a more laborious and a more belaboured one, a hungrier and thirstier, a wretcheder, raggeder, and lousier; for there is no reason to doubt that the knights-errant of yore endured much hardship in the course of their lives. And if some of them by the might of their arms did rise to be emperors, in faith it cost them dear in the matter of blood and sweat; and if those who attained to that rank had not had magicians and sages to help them they would have been completely baulked in their ambition and disappointed in their hopes.”