In the previous episode, Don Quixote mistook driven flocks of sheep as armies about to join in battle. When he killed those sheep with his lance he was injured by the retaliating drovers, who knocked out several of his teeth with their slingshot. He and Sancho Panza ended up covered in each another’s vomit, then discovered that Sancho had left his donkey’s saddle-bags at the inn, leaving them without food. They rode on through the night, meeting ghostly lights, which Don Quixote took to be evil spirits, instead of a party taking a body back for burial. While his master was attacking the unfortunate mourners, Sancho helped himself to their food. Once that party had got on its way again, the pair gorged themselves in a nearby valley.
Having eaten at last, they went in search of water to quench their thirst. As it was still pitch black, all they could hear was the sound of water thundering down a cliff, then pounding and metallic clanking. As Sancho grew more fearful, Don Quixote mounted his horse and told his squire to wait for him there – no more than three days – while he went to discover what was going on. Sancho pleaded with him to stay safe with him. When tightening Rocinante’s girth, the squire carefully tied the horse’s hind legs together to prevent it from moving far. When Don Quixote realised he was unable to make any useful forward progress, he abandoned his mission, and decided to await the dawn.
Sancho told a story as they waited for first light. His master couldn’t help but keep interrupting him, and the tale ended abruptly and without any real conclusion. Don Quixote then tried to get Rocinante to move again, while Sancho suddenly had an overwhelming need to defaecate. Afraid to move from his master’s side, the squire dropped his breeches where he was, and soon enjoyed great relief.
Don Quixote immediately noticed the smell, and asked his squire whether he was scared. The two remained unpleasantly close until it started to grow light, when Sancho secured his breeches again and released the ties on Rocinante’s hind legs. As the knight started to move, he noticed they were in the shade of tall chestnut trees, but couldn’t see what was making the din. Don Quixote rode towards that noise, as Sancho followed on foot, leading his donkey.
They soon reached the foot of a high cliff, down which a waterfall was thundering. Nearby were tumbledown buildings, which they approached with great trepidation. They discovered the fearsome noise was coming from six large wooden hammers beating cloth in the deserted mill. Sancho laughed at the knight, he became enraged and struck him with his pike. They fell to bickering, even over the delicate matter of a squire’s wages, before Sancho undertook not to make fun of his master ever again.
Just then it started to rain. While Sancho wanted to take shelter in the mill, Don Quixote led them back onto the road, where they shortly met a rider wearing something on his head which glistened like gold. Don Quixote was pleased to inform his squire that this was another opportunity for them, as the approaching knight was wearing Mambrino’s helmet. Sancho wasn’t convinced, though, and could only see an ordinary guy with something shiny on his head and riding a donkey.
Cervantes explains that the man approaching them was in fact a barber on his way to a small village with a brass basin, to shave one man and bleed another. As it had started to rain, the barber had put the basin on his head to keep his hat dry.
Don Quixote was in no mind for such prosaic explanations, and charged at the barber with his lance at the ready, demanding the man hand over the helmet. His victim threw himself from his donkey, and leaving the basin where it fell, he ran away. Sancho came over, picked the basin up and handed it to his master, who complained at its large size and missing visor. Sancho stifled his laughter, prompting Don Quixote to speculate on how Mambrino’s helmet came to be in such a sorry state, resembling a barber’s basin.
Sancho had a go at his master over his notorious balsam, to which Don Quixote accused him of never forgetting, once he’d taken offence. Their talk then turned to the barber’s donkey, which they agreed Sancho would take as his mount. They next enjoyed a hearty breakfast on the food they’d plundered from the funeral party and drank water they’d drawn from the river by the mill.
It was then that Sancho broached the sensitive topic of Don Quixote’s adventures, their purpose, and whether he’d be better off serving a powerful ruler instead. This prompted the knight to launch into a courtly fantasy concerning a knight and princess. His squire played along with this, and concluded by inviting his master to see to the knight becoming a king, and Sancho a Count.
That completes the twenty-first 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.