Cervantes opens the first book with a prologue, together with a series of poems allegedly dedicated to Don Quixote and other characters, to give them an air of reality. He then takes us to a village in La Mancha, a dry but fertile plain in central Spain, where there lived not long ago a hidalgo, a country gentleman of minor nobility. He was bordering on poverty, but still dressed in keeping with his status. His surname is said to have been Quixada or Quesada, and he was nearing fifty at the time of these adventures. Cervantes alludes to others having written about the man.
This hidalgo took to reading tales of chivalry, which became an obsession sufficient for him to sell some of his land to afford them. He read those books all night, then read on during the day as well. He became possessed by their every detail until they became true in his mind, and he went mad with them. In that madness he decided to become a knight himself.
He found and cleaned an old set of armour, but it lacked a full helmet, and he only had a basic steel cap, which he augmented with a cardboard visor and mask. He then spent days deciding what to name his old horse before settling on Rocinante, and that he would henceforth be known as Don Quixote de la Mancha. He also needed a lady, and chose a pretty peasant girl from a nearby village, who he called Dulcinea del Toboso, from the place where she was born.
Without further delay, early one July morning, he donned his armour and rode away on Rocinante with his lance and shield. Realising that he hadn’t been formally made a knight, he decided that could be performed by the first person that he met on this, his first sally as Don Quixote. He let his mount wander on in no particular direction through the long hot day.
As night approached, he saw an inn and headed for that.
He took this inn for a castle, and two prostitutes at its door were fine maidens in his mind. When they saw this old man in armour, they naturally fled, but he reassured them. They burst into laughter when he referred to them as fine maidens. The landlord then appeared, and offered him accommodation for the night, but without a bed. With the innkeeper’s assistance, the knight dismounted and entered the inn, where the women helped him out of his armour.
Being a Friday, the food on offer was limited to small salted cod and some mouldy bread. As Don Quixote’s hands were fully occupied holding his cardboard visor up to expose his mouth, the women had to feed him. He was also unable to drink properly, so the landlord poured wine into his mouth through a hollowed-out length of cane. Don Quixote happily misread all that was going on around him in chivalric terms, but remained concerned that he still hadn’t been knighted.
Once his meal was over, Don Quixote fell on his knees in front of the fat innkeeper, and implored him to dub him a knight. This only puzzled his host, and the would-be knight refused to stand until the publican agreed.
After humouring the madman, his host asked him if he had any money, to which Don Quixote replied that knights errant never carried any.
The innkeeper told Don Quixote to keep a vigil of arms out in a large yard beside the inn. Then the landlord discussed the situation, and Don Quixote’s obvious madness, with the others in his inn. Night fell, and the would-be knight stood outside and paced around in the bright moonlight.
One of the muleteers staying at the inn went out to water his animals, and hurled Don Quixote’s armour aside. This prompted the knight to charge at the muleteer with his lance, which struck his head and knocked him to the ground.
The second muleteer came out and also moved the armour. At that, Don Quixote dealt him multiple blows with his lance, and those in the inn came out to see what was happening. The friends of the two muleteers started to throw stones at Don Quixote, as the innkeeper shouted at them to leave the knight alone in his madness. The innkeeper’s only option was to apologise to Don Quixote, and comply with his request to knight him.
The innkeeper hurriedly improvised a ceremony in which he read from his accounts book while accompanied by a young lad holding a candle, and the two prostitutes. He then struck Don Quixote with his own sword, and one of the women girded that sword on. Don Quixote named her Doña Tolosa, and the other Doña Molinera.
Don Quixote couldn’t wait to get on with his adventures, so saddled and mounted Rocinante. Thanking everyone involved, he left the inn on horseback, as a proper knight, the innkeeper happy for him not to pay, as long as he would now see the last of him.
That completes the third chapter of the first book of Don Quixote.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, trans John Rutherford (1604, 2000) Don Quixote, Penguin, ISBN 978 0 140 44909 9.
Roberto González Echevarría (2015) Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Yale UP, ISBN 978 0 300 19864 5.
Roberto González Echevarría (ed) (2005) Cervantes’ Don Quixote, A Casebook, Oxford UP, ISBN 978 0 19 516938 6.