Reading Don Quixote and crying
Ford K. Brown, a highly esteemed tutor when I was a student at St. John’s in the late 50’s, told of attending a function at the Spanish Embassy in DC (only 25 miles from the college) and asking a member of the Embassy what people in Spain thought of Don Quixote. He said that the person he asked looked casually around to make sure that no one would overhear him (this was while Franco still ran Spain as an iron-fisted (and iron-hearted) dictator) and said, “So long as they read it and laugh, all will be well; but if they read it and weep, we are in trouble.”
Brown then ended his anecdote by asking us, “What in this novel could make the Spanish Ambassador, for it was he, take such care not to be overheard?”
I’ve often wondered, and today in Chapter 21 I think I might see one reason. By this point Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have had many (painful) adventures: the windmills/giants, Panza being tossed in a blanket, Don Quixote badly hurt by stones from shepherds’ slingshots (in the great battle of the two armies of sheep), the terrors induced by the fulling mill, and so on. And by this point they have grown close, developing a trust in and fondness for each other. Sancho Panza continues to hope for his insula (island kingdom) and Don Quixote for chivalric adventures. Here’s the passage, from the Edith Grossman translation, locations 3597-3656 in the Kindle edition. UPDATE: I highly recommend that you find a spot where you can read the passage aloud, in Don Quixote’s voice, as it were, and giving it the serious tone and the pure and utter belief that Don Quixote brought to it. This exercise will, I believe, give a deeper understanding—certainly worth a shot. – LG
“Señor, does your grace wish to give me leave to talk a little? After you gave me that harsh order of silence, more than a few things have been spoiling in my stomach, and one that I have now on the tip of my tongue I wouldn’t want to go to waste.”
“Say it,” Don Quixote said, “and be brief, for no speech is pleasing if it is long.”
“What I have to say, Señor,” responded Sancho, “is that for the past few days I’ve been thinking how little gain or profit there is in looking for the adventures that your grace looks for in these deserted places and crossroads, because even when you conquer and conclude the most dangerous, there’s nobody to see them or know about them, and so they remain in perpetual silence, which isn’t your grace’s intention or what they deserve. And so it seems to me it would be better, unless your grace thinks otherwise, if we went to serve some emperor or other great prince who’s involved in some war, and in his service your grace could demonstrate the valor of your person, your great strength, and even greater understanding; and when the lord we serve sees this, he’ll have to reward us, each according to his merits, and there’s sure to be somebody there who’ll put into writing your grace’s great deeds so they can be remembered forever. About mine I don’t say anything, for they won’t go beyond squirely limits, though I can say that if it’s customary in chivalry to write about the deeds of squires, I don’t think mine will be forgotten.”
“You speak sensibly, Sancho,” responded Don Quixote, “but before one reaches that point, it is necessary to wander the world as a kind of test, seeking adventures, so that by concluding some of them, the knight acquires a reputation and fame, and when he goes to the court of some great monarch he is known by his deeds, and as soon as the boys see him ride through the gate of the city, they all follow and surround him, shouting and saying: ‘Here is the Knight of the Sun,’ or of the Serpent, or of some other device under which he accomplished great feats. ‘Here is,’ they will say, ‘the one who conquered in singular combat the gigantic Brocabruno the Mighty; the one who freed the Great Mameluke of Persia from the long enchantment he suffered for almost nine hundred years.’
“In this manner, news of his deeds passes from person to person, and then, to the cheers of the boys and the rest of the populace, the king of the land will appear at the windows of his royal palace, and as soon as he sees the knight, knowing him by his armor or the device on his shield, he perforce will say: ‘Hark, look lively! Go forth, my knights, all who are in my court, to greet the flower of chivalry who now comes riding!’ At this command all will go forth, and the king will come halfway down the stairs, and embrace the knight warmly, and bid him welcome, kissing him on the face, and then he will lead him by the hand to the chamber of my lady the queen, where the knight will find her with the princess, their daughter, who is, beyond any doubt, one of the most beauteous and perfect damsels that one could find anywhere in the known regions of the earth. After this she will very chastely turn her eyes to the knight, and he will turn his eyes to hers, and each will seem to the other more divine than human, and without knowing how or why, they will be captured and caught in the intricate nets of love, with great affliction in their hearts because they do not know how they will speak and reveal to one another their yearnings and desires.
“Then he will no doubt be taken to a sumptuously appointed room in the palace, where, having removed his armor, they will bring him a rich scarlet cloak and drape it around him; and if he looked comely in armor, he looks just as comely and even more so in his quilted doublet. When night falls, he will have supper with the king, queen, and princess, and he will never take his eyes off the maiden, his looks hidden from the rest, and she will do the same with the same sagacity because, as I have said, she is a very discreet damsel. The tables will be cleared and then suddenly, through the door of the chamber, an ugly dwarf will enter, followed by a beauteous duenna between two giants, who tells of a certain adventure devised by an extremely ancient wise man, and whosoever brings it to a conclusion will be deemed the greatest knight in the world. Then the king will command all those present to attempt it, and none will end or finish it except the knight who is his guest, which will add greatly to his fame and make the princess extremely happy, and she will think of herself as exceedingly well-rewarded and compensated for having placed her affections so high. And the fortunate part is that this king, or prince, or whatever he is, is waging a fierce war with another as powerful as he, and the knight who is his guest asks him (after spending a few days in his court) for permission to serve him in that war. The king will give it willingly, and the knight will courteously kiss his hands in gratitude for the boon he has granted him.
“And that night he will take his leave of his lady the princess through the grillework at the window of the bedchamber where she sleeps, which overlooks a garden, and through this grillework he has already spoken to her many times, their go-between and confidante being a lady-in-waiting greatly trusted by the princess. He will sigh, she will swoon, the lady-in-waiting will bring water, sorely troubled because morning is coming and, for the sake of her lady’s honor, she does not wish them to be discovered. Finally the princess will regain consciousness and pass her white hands through the grillework to the knight, who will kiss them over and over again and bathe them in his tears. The two of them will agree on the manner in which they will keep each other informed of their fortunes and misfortunes, and the princess will beg him to tarry as little as possible; he will promise, making many vows; he will kiss her hands one more time and say goodbye with so much emotion that his life will almost come to an end. Then he goes to his room, throws himself on the bed, cannot sleep because of the pain of their parting, arises very early in the morning, and goes to take his leave of the king, the queen, and the princess; they tell him, when he has bade farewell to the first two, that her highness the princess is indisposed and cannot receive visitors; the knight thinks it is because of her sorrow at his leaving, his heart is wounded, and it is all he can do not to show clear signs of his suffering. The lady-in-waiting, their confidante, is present, and she will take note of everything and recount it all to her lady, who receives her in tears and tells her that one of her greatest griefs is not knowing who her knight is, or if he is of royal lineage; the lady-in-waiting assures her that the degree of courtesy, gallantry, and valor displayed by her knight can exist only in a royal and illustrious person; the suffering princess consoles herself with this; she attempts to find consolation so as not to appear in a bad light before her parents, and after two days she appears in public.
“The knight has already gone; he does battle in the war, conquers the king’s enemy, takes many cities, emerges victorious from many combats, returns to court, sees his lady in the customary place, and they agree that he will ask her father for her hand in marriage in return for his services. The king does not wish to grant his request because he does not know who the knight is, but despite this, either because he abducts her or by some other means, the princess becomes his wife, and her father comes to consider this his great good fortune because he learns that this knight is the son of a valiant king, ruler of some kingdom I am not certain of because I do not believe it is on the map. The father dies, the princess inherits the kingdom, the knight, in a word, becomes king, and this is where his granting favors to his squire and to all those who helped him rise to so high an estate, comes in: he marries his squire to one of the princess’s ladies-in-waiting, the one, no doubt, who acted as mediator in his love affair, and who is the daughter of a very prominent duke.”
(Note in passing Quixote’s initial warning to Sancho Panza on the importance of brevity.🙂 )
As I listened to this on my walk, I felt that it was unutterably sad. Don Quixote truly expected that all that would happen—and of course Sancho believes what his master tells him. And I can imagine that in Franco’s Spain the people harbored hopes of a better time, a good ending to their current sufferings, a life free from fear, and those hopes must have been intense—just as Quixote’s dreams are so intense and seem to him so real and so likely to happen. And we the readers know that these dreams will never be realized and indeed cannot be realized. Don Quixote is mad, and however real his dreams are to him, we recognize them as impossible.
Once you have fallen under the spell of the novel and have come to love Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—the former for his undoubted courage, his honor, his unfailingly good intentions, and, yes, his dreams, and the latter for his shrewd practicality combined with a sublime trust in the dreams of his master—this passage is indeed enough to make one weep. And just as the Trojan women at Hector’s funeral in the Iliad were, I think, grieving not simply for Hector, but also for their own losses—husbands, brothers, sons, and the lives they had thought they would have but now utterly lost—we weep both because Don Quixote will never have what he seeks and because we recognize that we, too, have had dreams that we know will never be realized—and that, as we now can see, never could have been realized.