The Amazing Godwin | FATE Sep/Oct 2011

The 17th-century Spanish novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel Cervantes, is a fascinating read, albeit modern translations tend to exceed 900 pages. One thing that makes it interesting to me is that it seems to anticipate today’s conflict between the True Believer (Quixote) and the materialistic skeptic (Sancho Panza).

To recapitulate the well-known plot, an hidalgo named Alonso Quijano spends all his time reading books of chivalry, tales of knight errantry and heroic fantasy. They eventually affect his mind to the extent that he decides to make the world a better place by becoming a knight errant himself. There is a close parallel with all the superhero stories ever invented and with films such as Death Wish.

Quijano assumes the name of Don Quixote and, after a few minor episodes, conscripts a local peasant, Sancho Panza, to be his squire. The two set off on a fabulous quest for adventure.

Quixote, driven mad by his reading and obsession, has an unfortunate tendency to see things not as they are, but (like all of us) as the framework of his world-view demands. Hence he sees windmills as giants, a barber as a knight who has stolen a famous helmet (i.e., his barber’s basin), and a procession of monks bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary as malefactors who have kidnapped a prin­cess. These mistakes have unfortunate consequences, but Quixote refuses to listen to the more realistic and prosaic cautioning of Sancho, who is primarily interested in food and money. Quixote defends his visions against this skepticism by using whatever fantastic rationalizations seem necessary, usually blaming his misperceptions on unseen, evil enchanters.

And, of course, since a knight must serve a lady, Quixote singles out a local peasant girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, and idealizes her as the lady Dulcinea of Toboso. They never meet and she never appears.

One can easily imagine that, had he lived today, Quixote might have had encounters with Bigfoot and have been taken for a ride in a flying saucer.

Yet Quixote’s idealism comes off as more wholesome, realistic, and useful than Sancho’s “noisy negativism.” And here’s the joke: By the end of the book, Quixote has become a disillusioned realist while Sancho has become a true believer in knight errantry! — David F. Godwin