It has been said that Don Quixote de la Mancha is “the best novel in the world, beyond comparison.” This belief was, is, and certainly will be shared by lovers of literary excellence everywhere. Miguel de Cervantes’ avowed purpose was to ridicule the books of chivalry that enjoyed popularity even in his day, but he soared beyond this satirical purpose in his wealth of fancy and in his irrepressible high spirits as he pokes fun at social and literary conventions of many kinds. The novel provides a cross-section of Spanish life, thought, and feeling at the end of the chivalric age. “For my absolute faith in the details of their histories and my knowledge of their deeds and their characters enable me by sound philosophy to deduce their features, their complexions and their statures,” says Don Quixote, declaring his expertise in knight-errantry. This declaration affords a key to understanding Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha, for it demonstrates both the literal and the symbolic levels of the novel—and the distinction between those levels is crucial to grasping the full import of the story. The literal level is superficial; it is about the misadventures of a nut and a fool.
The symbolic level, however, probes much deeper; it reveals the significance of these adventures. In fact, the symbolic level deals, as all good literature does, with values. Thus, Don Quixote’s declaration is ironic on the superficial level and, in context, on the level of its true thematic message. On the literal level, Don Quixote is eminently qualified by his extensive reading to assert familiarity with the history, the deeds, and the character of virtually every knight whose existence was recorded. Indeed, his penchant for reading books of chivalry is established on the first page of the first chapter of the book. Even his niece and his housekeeper refer frequently to his reading habits. Moreover, the inventory of the don’s library, made just before the books were burned, reveals the extent of his collection, and earlier mention of his omnivorous reading leads to the assumption that he had read all of them. Further evidence of Don Quixote’s erudition is his ready knowledge of the rules of knight-errantry and his recalling the legend of Mambrino’s helmet in connection with his oath of knighthood.
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Later, after an encounter with Yanguesan herdsmen, there is evidence, in a very lucid and pragmatic statement for a presumably insane old man, of Don Quixote’s having read Machiavelli, followed by the don’s citation of the misfortunes that befell his hero, Amadis of Gaul. Other adventures provide internal evidence of Quixote’s knowledge about the history of chivalry. A thrashing by muleteers jogs the don’s memory to analogies between his plight and similar outrages visited upon the Marquis of Mantua, Baldwin, Abindarraez, and Don Roderigo de Narvaez. After his lance is broken by a windmill, Don Quixote remembers the makeshift tree-limb weapon used by Diego Perez de Vargas when the latter’s primary weapon was broken in battle. At another time, he explains and defends the code of knight-errantry to fellow travelers, citing Arthurian legend, the ever-present Amadis of Gaul, the stricter-than-monastic rules of knight-errantry, and the noble families of Italy and Spain who contributed to the tradition. In fact, incredible as it may seem, just before the don attacks the herd of sheep, he attributes to each sheep a title and an estate culled from his reservoir of reading—or from his overactive imagination. In addition, to rationalize his own designation as the Knight of the Sorry Aspect, he recalls the sobriquets of other knights-errant. In an attempt to inculcate Sancho Panza with the proper respect for his master, Don Quixote even relates biographical incidents from the lives of the squires of Amadis of Gaul and Sir Galaor. Significantly, almost craftily, he mentions that Gandalin, Amadis’ squire, was also Count of the Firm Isle—a blatant inducement for Sancho to remain in the don’s service. Yet, all in all, on the literal level, Don Quixote’s mastery of chivalric lore seems to serve only as a rationalization for his ill luck. On the symbolic level, more questions are raised than are answered. Quixote claims to have reached a “sound philosophy.” Is, however, reliance on reading alone—as he has done—a valid basis for “sound philosophy,” or has the don become so absorbed in his books that he is unable to formulate or express the applicability of his reading?
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