Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

The Liberation of the Galley Slaves and the Ethos of Don Quijote' Part I

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

The Liberation of the Galley Slaves and the Ethos of Don Quijote' Part I

Article excerpt

WITHIN THE ESSENTIAL CONTINUITY of the first Part of Don Quixote with the second, the two parts exhibit different characteristics, notably, the more polemical and robust nature of the comedy of the former, and the introverted, metafictional character of the latter. In this paper I wish to characterize the comic ethos of the first Part; (1) and for this purpose, propose to examine in some detail one of the hero's famous adventures: his liberation of the galley-slaves in 'Don Quixote I, 22.

The comedy of Part I is generated by the recurrent conflicts between the hero and the world around him, designed to ridicule the popular genre of chivalric romances, which have driven him mad to the point of resolving to imitate them. A continuation of the Medieval Lancelot, the genre paints a legendary age of chivalry set typically in misty Breton or Celtic regions not long after the death of Christ a phantasmagorical world somewhat similar to that of the Lord of the Rings, replete with monsters, bloodthirsty giants, beautiful princesses, damsels-in-distress, enchanters good and evil, castles, tourneys, battles, and in the foreground, heroic knights-errant, who ride through fields and forests in quest of adventure to prove their mettle and win fame. (2) The action of "Don Quixote turns on the opposition of two juxtaposed perspectives: that of the hero, for whom all that befalls him is in principle a glorious epic like that unfolded by Amadis de Gaula and its progeny, and that of Cervantes, the reader, and the sane fictional characters, for whom it is just a series of ordinary events, ruled by natural causality, which cast ridicule on the hero's delusions and the literary genre which inspires them. (3)

Accompanied by a simple-minded peasant from his own village who serves him as squire, the self-styled Don Quijote de la Mancha rides along the highways and through the sierras of southern Castile in search of adventure, interpreting each of his encounters with wayfarers, animals, or mechanical objects as a marvelous adventure like those recounted in Amadis, and expecting these third parties to fulfil the imaginary role he has assigned to them. To this insane, arbitrary interruption of their pursuits, they react with rage, blind panic, obtuse non-compliance, of mischievous mockery, as the case may be, typically provoking the choleric madman to heated altercation, then to belligerent action, which results in farcical mayhem and another humiliating reverse for him. The frenetic dynamism of these encounters is typical of farce or kindred genres, and presupposes the overthrow of the norms, courtesies, and common-sense assumptions on which civilized co-existence depends.

At the same time, unlike what happens in farce, this anarchy has an archetypal, thought-provoking resonance, which has contributed to the novel's seemingly limitless virtuality of meaning, its capacity to signify different things to different readers and generations, and also to what we might call the postmodernist reading of Don Quixote. This has been formulated by the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who claims that the novel begins by being a critique of reading, which then turns into a radical questioning of the ideological premises of its own age. I shall return to this opinion later, merely noting for the moment that it would have bewildered Cervantes, whose explicit pronouncements, so far from confirming it, do not remotely hint at it. (4)

The foregoing characterization of Don Quixote's adventures applies in particular to those of Part I, whose tone is established by the ones clustered in the first twenty two chapters. The adventure of the galley-slaves rounds off this series, and perfectly exemplifies its polemical brand of humor. It begins with a mock-heroic flourish typical of Cervantes's narrative strategy in the novel, a microcosm of his attitude to the subject-matter and to his fictitious chronicler:

   Cuenta Cide Hamete Benengeli, autor arabigo y manchego, en esta
   gravisima, altisonante, minima, dulce e imaginada historia, que
   desapues que entre el famoso don Quijote de la Mancha y Sancho
   Panza, su escudero, pasaron aquellas razones que en el fin del
   capitulo veinte y uno quedan referidas, que don Quijote alzo los
   ojos y vio que por el camino que llevaba venian hasta doce hombre
   a pie, ensartados como cuentas en una gran cadena de hierro por los
   cuellos, y todos con esposas a las manos; venian ansimismo con
   ellos dos hombres de a caballo y dos de a pie; los de a caballo, con
   escopetas de rueda, y los de a pie, con dardos y espadas. … 
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