Sunday, March 19, 2006

Don Quixote, Book II by Miguel de Cervantes

Because Don Quixote de la Mancha is packaged as a single work these days, some people might not realize that the two volumes it contains were written at least a decade apart. The first book was such a huge hit at the time that the author couldn't help but write another volume. People were clamoring for it, and, because there was such a long interval between the two volumes, someone actually went and published a fake version of Volume Two. Cervantes immediately made it clear that the book was not his own, of course, but people nevertheless read (and enjoyed) it.

As Book II opens, Cervantes again mixes his fact and fiction by working some of what's going on in the real world into his story of would-be knight errant Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza. There is some discussion of the fake volume, as well as of Book I.

Don Quixote and Sancho have returned from their lengthy journey. Quixote is in bed recovering from an illness, while Sancho has gone home to see his wife and daughter. Soon, however, Sancho seeks out Don Quixote because he has been promised an island in return for his service, and he intends to collect. Even though Sancho has traveled for such a long time with the knight, he still doesn't see Quixote as a madman or as someone who has gotten carried away with his imagination. Instead, he actually believes that Quixote can come through with an island for him.

When Sancho finally gets in to see Quixote, who is laid up in bed, he also has some other news to tell his former master. There has been a book written about their previous exploits, and now the two men are famous. Again, this is Cervantes' technique of mixing fact and fiction. The person who told Sancho about the book is a young man named Sampson Carrasco, who has promised to come and talk to both Sancho and Quixote about it. When Carrasco arrives, he starts telling the two adventurers about the details contained in the book. Don Quixote and Sancho listen in amazement and bewilderment, mostly because they think the stories in the book have been exaggerated or are just flat-out wrong. Carrasco wraps up by telling Quixote and Sancho about a jousting tournament and hints that this would be an excellent event for Quixote and Sancho to attend.

There is a bit of debate between knight and squire about whether they should go or not, but Quixote wins out in the end. Sancho then goes home to tell his wife that he must leave again, while Quixote tries to convince his niece and housekeeper that he is perfectly capable of traveling. Because the women now fear for Quixote's health as well as for his safety, they ask Carrasco to help them keep Quixote at home. But Carrasco has his own agenda, and actually bolsters Quixote's resolve to leave.

Before heading to the tournament, Quixote and Sancho decide to make some stops along the way. The first one will be in the town of Toboso, which is purported to be the home of the "peerless" Dulcinea, the woman in whose service Quixote performs all of his actions. At this point, Quixote confesses that he has never laid eyes on Dulcinea (which seems to me to be a contradiction of the events in Chapter 2 of Volume I), so Sancho will have to point her out. In Volume I, Sancho was sent on an errand in which he supposedly met Dulcinea to give her a letter from Quixote. He was lying about the encounter, though, so he doesn't know what she looks like either.

By this time, though, Sancho knows enough of his master to be able to get out of this tough spot. Instead of admitting that he lied earlier, Sancho claims that Dulcinea must currently be under enchantment, which is why he can't see her. He finally settles on an ugly peasant girl and insists that it is Dulcinea. Don Quixote is taken aback by her appearance, and readily agrees with Sancho that there is a very strong enchantment at work.

The rest of the book deals with the different people that Quixote and Sancho meet and the different adventures that they have while traveling. Just as in the first book, the two men get into a lot of sticky situations because of Quixote's actions and beliefs, but they are always delivered to safety at the last moment.

Overall, I personally felt that Book I was much more interesting than Book II. In Book II, the characters have undergone some changes, and I found that I didn't like them as much. Quixote was as stubborn and persistent in his imagination as ever, but this time he had the book of his exploits to back him up, so there was no chance of anyone ever convincing him that he was wrong. Sancho went beyond the white lies that he told in Book I and actively sought to deceive his master just like everyone else did, thus providing even more fuel for Quixote's madness.

Another thing I didn't particularly enjoy about Book II were the interruptions to tell very long stories about other people. I know that storytelling, not only by the author, but by the characters themselves, is a theme in the book, but I didn't think the stories were interesting at all, and I just wanted Cervantes to get back to the main action.

Supposedly, there are a quite a few religious themes in this book as well. I wasn't looking for them, so I'm sure I missed many of the allusions, but there were a couple that everyone will be able to pick up. For example, when Don Quixote believes that he was away in a cave for three days and nights, that's obviously supposed to be a parallel to Christ. In addition, Quixote's firm belief in the existence of Dulcinea even though he has never actually seen her is supposed to parallel religious faith.

I didn't read this book as part of a literature class or anything like that, so I had the benefit of taking the stories just as they were, without tying them into any of the political or religious events of 1615. Because of this, I was able to enjoy it as entertainment without trying to figure out whether Cervantes was "correct" with his views or whatever. And that's how I recommend that you read the book: strictly as entertainment and for the satisfaction that comes with being able to say that you've read one of the greatest novels ever written.

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