When a Reader Enters a Book: Sampson and Quixote

How would you feel if you heard that a book had been written about you without your knowledge or permission? You would worry, I’m sure, about how it portrayed you. Unfortunately, Don Quixote has just learned from Sancho Panza that a book of their exploits is spreading across Europe and the book portrays him a madman and Sancho a fool. The knight dispatches his chubby squire to fetch the bachelor who has read the book El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha.

The bachelor, a reader of the first half of Don Quixote, becomes a character in the second. (After the second part was printed, did he get to read his own chapter? Very meta.) Does the character represent a typical reader of the first years of its publication? In other words, how does Cervantes represent the readers of his book and their reactions to it? The scholar, studying at Salamanca, is “about twenty-four years of age, round-faced, flatnosed, and wide-mouthed; all signs of his being of a waggish disposition, and a lover of wit and humour” (484).

Does this young man, with his first beard upon his chin, in some way represent me as a reader? I may not be so round-faced and flatnosed, but the rest of the description fits. All readers of Don Quixote must be lovers of wit and humor in order to read such a fat book (about a skinny man).

The bachelor (quite attractive I should mention) shows his “waggish disposition” by throwing himself at Don Quixote’s feet and saying, “‘Señor Don Quixote de la Mancha, let me have the honour of kissing your grandeur’s hand, . . . your worship is one of the most famous kinghts-errant, that have been, or shall be, upon the whole circumference of the earth. A blessing light on Cid Hamet Ben Engeli, who has left us the history of your mighty deeds; and blessings upon blessing light on that virtuoso, who took care to have them translated out of Arabic into our vulgar Castilian, for the universal entertainment of all sorts of people!'” (485). While the scholar is announcing the fame of the knight-errant, he is also proclaiming the success of the book, and he blesses its Arabic author, and especially the very humble translator, “that virtuoso,” who presumably also translated (or wrote) the line I have just quoted, the line about himself.

It’s interesting to note, however, alongside the bravada of calling himself a virtuosos, Cervantes labels himself a translator, and rather than creator of the work, perhaps indicating that he was channeling inspiration, rather than creating something from scratch.  The narrator (or is the author) often says that he will “leave nothing in the ink well,” as if it is his job to somehow give shape to ideas that already exist somewhere, perhaps in the ink. Also, notice that the scholar speaks of the “universal entertainment” provided by the book, but says nothing of its instructive aspects. Perhaps Cervantes is critiquing his own failure to get his deeper message across or the readers’ failure to see it.

Whether there is implicit criticism here, Cervantes is clearly pleased with the book’s popularity. The scholar gives some publication facts to date: “above twelve thousand books published of that history: witness, Portugal, Barcelona, and Valencia, where they have been printed; and there is a rumour that it is now printing at Antwerp and I foresee that no nation of language will be without a translation of it” (485). The narrator’s predictions turn out to be accurate; the Wikipedia List of Literary Works by Number of Languages Translated Into (not a very catchy title I’m afraid) says Don Quixote has been translated into at least 48 languages and probably many more and is regarded popularly as the most translated book after the bible.

Popularity is not enough for our hero, however, reputation matters more. Don Quixote said, “‘One of the things which ought to afford the highest satisfaction to a virtuous and eminent man, is, to find, while he is living, his good name published and in print, in everybody’s mouth, and in everybody’s hand: I say, his good name: for if it be the contrary, no death can equal it'” (485). Much as a knight of yore needed a bard to sing his feats or else they would be not be remembered, Don Quixote needs his story told, in more modern terms published and in print, in everybody’s hand, in other words in the form of a modern book. Keep in mind that Don Quixote is called the first modern novelist, because Don Quixote — I mean Cervantes, recognized the value of the new medium. The problem becomes then what gets printed. We can also hear Cervantes’ own concern for his reputation in the quavering voice of the knight.

The bachelor reassures the knight, “‘If fame and a good name are to carry it, . . . your worship alone bears away the palm from all knights-errant: for the Moor in his language, and the Castilian in his, have taken care to paint to the life that gallant deportment of your worship, that greatness of soul in confronting dangers, that constancy in adversity, and patient endurance of mischances, that modesty and continence in love, so very platonic, as that between your worship and my lady Dona Dulcinea del Toboso'” (485).

Here the narrator identifies the greatness of the character Don Quixote. Although he is a madman, and the madman is confronted with the knowledge that he is so portrayed, his gallant deportment, his greatness of soul, his constancy, his patient endurance and his continence in love are what make Don Quixote so deeply loved. (I love you, Don Quixote! You too, Sancho Panza!) You may have noticed I left “modesty” off the list of Don Quixote’s qualities, since neither knight nor writer are at all modest. (Alas that the world can not be as humble as the writer of this unimaginative, mind-stiffening blog!)

Here Sancho interrupts me and says that he has never heard Dulcinea called “Dona,” so the history is already mistaken. The bachelor answers that his objection is of no importance. The truth of the matter is by no means decided, however, and Sancho picks up the issue of truth further down the screen.

Don Quixote then asks which of his exploits are most esteemed. The lanky Spaniard names the adventure of the windmills. The episode with the windmills is still the archetypal Quixotic adventure, appearing in the majority of images of the knight; the exploit has even worked its way into proverb: “tilting at windmills.” The scholar notice does not try to play to Don Quixote’s madness here as he did earlier when he spoke of his “mighty deeds.” He refers to the windmills, “which your worship took for so many Briareuses and giants” (486), mentioning the reality before the delusion, then turns to speak of another adventure as frankly and realistically: “that of the fulling-hammers: these to the description of the two armies, which afterwards fell out to be two flocks of sheep” (486). Nothing trips up Don Quixote, however, he defends his misadventures by saying, “there is no history in the world that hath not its ups and downs, especially those which treat of chivalry; for such can never be altogether filled with prosperous events” (486).

Some readers, the bachelor says, “would have been better pleased, if the authors thereof had forgot some of those numberless drubbings given to Senor Don Quixote in different encounters” (486). Sancho objects. “Therein . . . consists the truth of the history” (486). However, Quixote feels the authors might as well have omitted them, “‘since there is no necessity of recording those actions, which do not change nor alter the truth of the story, and especially if they redound to the discredit of the hero. In good faith, Aeneas was not altogether so pious as Virgil paints him, nor Ulysses so prudent as Homer describes him'” (486). In other words, it is the idealist Don Quixote who lies, by allowing a more noble representation of events as an example to the reader, rather than the pragmatist Sancho Panza who states pragmatically that the truth lies in the beatings.

The scholar, however, steps in to distinguish between writing as a poet and writing as a historian. “‘The poet may say, or sing, not as things were, but as they ought to have been; but the historian must pen them, not as they ought to have been, but as they really were, without adding to, or diminishing anything from the truth'” (486). Sancho acknowledges then the Arabic writer, Señor Moor, is writing in the vein of truth, his only complaint is that “among my master’s rib-roastings, mine are to be found also: for they never took measure of his worship’s shoulder, but at the same they took the dimensions of my whole body” (487). Sancho has been complaining in the second book that the squire should not share in the beatings of his master. He seems to suggest that if Señor Moor did not write about Sancho getting beaten along with his master, it wouldn’t happen.

Don Quixote calls Sancho a sly wag and says he has no want of memory when he wants to have one. Even if he wanted to forget the beatings, Sancho protests, he could not for “‘the tokens, that are still fresh on my ribs, would not let me'” (487). The truth of the matter is printed on his skin in bruises, no matter what the historical account may say.

Sancho is also concerned about his reputation. Of Sancho the bachelor says, “‘Let me die, Sancho,’ answered the bachelor, ‘if you are not the second person of the history: nay, there are some, who had rather hear you talk, than the finest fellow of them all: though there are also some, who say you was a little too credulous in the matter of the government of that island promised you by Seno Don Quixote here present'” (487). Again, the reader in the form of the bachelor is challenging the credulity of the Sancho Panza, as he did with Don Quixote.

Like his master, nothing trips up Sancho. The problem, he says, is not how to govern, which he could do as well today as when a Methusala with gray hair, the problem is where to find the island. Don Quixote recommends Sancho place his hopes in God, which Sampson supports him by saying, “and if it pleases God, Sancho will not want a thousand islands to govern” (487). Either Sampson has been led through his belief in God to admit logically that God may give a thousand islands to Sancho or he wants to encourage Sancho to continue his quest.

Sancho points out, rightly, that he has seen governors who do not come up to “the sole of my shoe; and yet they are called your lordship, and are served on a plate” (488). Sampson, back in a realistic frame of mind, says those are governors of other governments, for to govern an island you must at least understand grammar. That is all Greek to me, Sancho says then offers to leave the matter in God’s hands. Sancho can be gracious about the matter of the island, because he is pleased that the history has spoken of him in such a manner, that he is not tiresome, for if it had portrayed him as a bore, then the deaf would have heard of it!

That would be a miracle, Sampson says. “Miracles, or no miracles,’ quote Sancho, ‘let every one take heed how they talk, or write, of people, and not set down at random the first thing that comes into their imaginations” (488). And the story turns to the critics. Some complain, Sampson says, about the inclusion of the apocryphal episode, Curious Impertinent, not that it was badly written, but that he had no relation to that place or to the story. Don Quixote avers then that “the author of my history could not be a sage, but some ignorant pretender, who, at random, and without any judgement, has set himself to write, it, come of it what would” (488).

(Read more about Don Quixote in my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com and Amazon.)

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