This is the first of two articles which provide a table of contents, summary and selected paintings for the first book of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Cervantes 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.
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. Don Quixote then left his home on his first sally. Realising that he hadn’t been dubbed a knight yet, he found an inn at sunset where he rested and begged its landlord to invest him. Following a fracas with two muleteers, the landlord dubbed Don Quixote, and he rode off at dawn on his horse Rocinante to continue his quest for chivalric adventure.
Don Quixote tried ineffectively to stop a youth being beaten, and picked a fight with a party of merchants from Toledo. Just as he was charging one of them, his horse Rocinante tripped and fell. One of the group then broke his lance and used it to beat him black and blue. He was taken home on a neighbour’s donkey, and took to his bed to recover. While he was asleep, his friend the priest and others raided his library and piled almost all of his books out in the yard for burning, in a bid to rescue him from his madness.
Don Quixote stayed at home for a fortnight, during which he recruited his squire Sancho Panza. They rode off and the knight attacked windmills, believing them to be giants. After a night sleeping under some trees, they next attacked a couple of friars on mules, and a party escorting a Basque lady in a coach. She was travelling to rejoin her husband, but Don Quixote believed she was being abducted. Sancho Panza was given a good kicking by one of the friar’s servants before his knight was confronted by one of the lady’s Basque escorts. His battle with that escort intensified to the point where they both charged at one another with their swords raised, ready to kill.
Don Quixote scored his first success in combat, when he knocked down the Basque escort with his sword, at the cost of part of his helmet and some of his left ear. As the day was getting late, he and Sancho Panza accepted the hospitality of a group of goatherds, who were then mystified when the knight gave an account of the golden age of chivalry as they were eating boiled goat meat together. They were then entertained by a young fiddler, before Don Quixote’s ear was dressed by one of the peasants.
After they stayed the night with the goatherds, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza attended the burial of a local scholar and shepherd who died as a result of his unrequited love for a young shepherdess. She appeared at the burial and denied responsibility for his death, asserting that no woman should be compelled to love someone just because they had fallen in love with her. She then disappeared into the forest. Those attending the burial dispersed, with Don Quixote in pursuit of the young woman, intending to offer her his services as a knight errant.
Don Quixote, his horse Rocinante, and Sancho Panza were left battered and bruised after being beaten by muleteers. They made their way to an inn, which the knight believed to be a castle, where they stayed the night. In a collision of misunderstandings, they became involved in a brawl, only worsening their injuries. Don Quixote brewed up a balsam to cure his bruising, but it wiped Sancho out completely. The following morning, the knight departed without paying, leaving some of the guests at the inn tossing his squire into the air. They finally got away scot free, leaving Sancho’s saddle-bags behind.
Don Quixote next 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.
The pair spent the night building their courage to investigate fearsome noises which turned out to be a waterfall and cloth mill. As they came away from there, they saw a barber wearing his brass basin on his head to keep his hat dry in the rain. Don Quixote took this to be Mambrino’s helmet, which held great significance to him that was lost on his squire. The knight drove the barber away and took the basin, and Sancho Panza the man’s donkey.
Next Don Quixote and Sancho Panza freed a dozen convicts who were being marched to crew the King’s galleys, but the convicts turned on the pair and bombarded them with rocks before running away. Fearing that they’d soon be visited by officers from the Holy Brotherhood of Toledo, they rode off to hide in the mountains. There they found gold coins abandoned in a travel bag, and a dead mule, belonging to a young nobleman who had arrived six months ago, apparently to do penance. After they had searched for the young man, he appeared near them and approached. Don Quixote embraced the man, who prepared to speak.
Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and a goatherd listened to the story told by the young nobleman, Cardenio, explaining how he’d come to be making penance in the mountains. When he inadvertently mentioned a book of chivalry, Don Quixote interrupted him and they argued, quickly coming to blows. Don Quixote was knocked down by Cardenio, who then disappeared again, his story incomplete. The following night, Sancho’s donkey was stolen, and his master decided to lament and feign madness for his Lady Dulcinea. Don Quixote wrote a warrant for his squire to be provided with three replacement donkeys, and Sancho Panza then rode from the mountains on Rocinante to obtain them, and deliver his master’s letter to the Lady Dulcinea.
The knight remained in the mountains, in melancholic madness for his lady. Sancho Panza met the village priest and barber at an inn on the road, and they decided to return with him to the mountains, where the barber would dress up in women’s clothing and try to persuade Don Quixote to return to his village and be treated for his madness. Cardenio, the young noble, told them the conclusion of his story, in which he had been tricked by Luscinda, his one true love, and his master’s son Fernando, who married, driving him to flee to the mountains to end his life there.
The mission to rescue Don Quixote from the mountains had almost reached him when they met up with Cardenio, the distressed young nobleman. While Sancho went on ahead to find his master, the others came across the young and beautiful Dorotea, who had also fled there. She had been tricked and seduced by the same Fernando who had stolen Cardenio’s true love Luscinda and married her, driving Cardenio to flee. Dorotea dressed as a fictional princess, and persuaded Don Quixote to come to her aid by killing a giant. All six of them left the Sierra, rotating between riding and walking. As they descended, the priest revealed that the barber had been robbed by criminals whom Don Quixote had previously freed from their guards, to which the knight said not a word.
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.