One night a few months ago, Stephen Trafton performed his one-man show, Encountering Colossians, in Nashville. As a bonus, he sang “The Impossible Dream” from the musical The Man from La Mancha. Stephen’s song and his remarks about Don Quixote sent me back to one of my favorite books of all time. This post first appeared on Justin Taylor’s blog on The Gospel Coalition.
It’s hard to know how to take Don Quixote. He is as thoroughgoing a fool as any figure in all of Western literature. Addled by many years’ obsessive reading of old stories of knight-errantry, Quixote is unfit for life in the (early) modern world where he finds himself. His foolishness is not entirely harmless, either. When he sallies forth with his sidekick Sancho Panza to enact his chivalric fantasies, they leave behind them a trail of property damage, bodily harm, and high dudgeon. At one point, Quixote frees a chain gang from their captors, releasing hardened criminals into the Spanish countryside to commit who knows what depredations. Cervantes makes it clear that his hero is a menace to civil order, however good his intentions.
Yet for all that, we cannot help but love Don Quixote. He is a man of vision; rather than getting comfortable with the world around him, he forever strives for another, better world. Where other people see squalor and ugliness, he sees dignity and beauty and hope.
Quixote’s first adventure after leaving his village sets a pattern that will persist throughout his story. When he arrives at a nasty little inn frequented by hog drovers and mule skinners, he believes that he has come to a grand castle. When he encounters a pair of prostitutes, he sees “two beauteous maidens or graceful ladies taking the air at the castle gate.” When he speaks to them with the high-flown courtesy of a knight addressing two ladies, they laugh in his face. Though he is stung by their mockery, he doesn’t insult them back, but calls them to something higher: “Civility befits the fair,” he reminds them.
Quixote, it is true, stands too much on his own dignity, but he also insists on the dignity of those around him, even when they don’t see it in themselves.
My favorite lines from Don Quixote come not from Don Quixote the book, but from the musical it inspired, The Man of La Mancha. “I hope to add some measure of grace to the world,” Quixote tells Aldonza, the hard-bitten, world-weary tavern prostitute.
She snarls back, “The world is a dung heap, and we are maggots that crawl on it.”
Quixote will have none of it. “My Lady knows better in her heart,” he insists.
I realize that it’s cheating to quote a musical based on the book when I claim to be talking about the book. I realize, too, that Dale Wasserman, who wrote the dialogue for The Man of La Mancha, may be misreading Don Quixote. I’m not entirely convinced that Cervantes saw his fool Quixote as a holy fool or as a true agent of grace. But if any literary character ever invited willful misreading, surely that character is Don Quixote.
I don’t recommend drawing too many specific lessons from the life of Quixote. If we try too hard to make him a “fool for Christ,” we will run into trouble, and soon. I do believe, however, that to experience Don Quixote is to feel—indeed, to love—the truth that God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. There are many sane characters in Don Quixote, but none of them know the true, the good, or the beautiful so well as the madman Quixote.
The saddest moment in Don Quixote comes not when he breathes his last, but just before. Lying on his deathbed, Don Quixote regains his sanity and repents of all the foolish acts he had committed in his madness. When he dies, it feels like losing a good friend twice.
That sadness is a clue—to the meaning of Quixote, and to more than that. The world insists that we take it as seriously as it takes itself. The madman and the believer both know that we don’t have to.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.