Volume III, Issue IV Winter 2004

A different kind of hero
400 years on, Don Quixote still has lessons to teach

I love how when I'm focusing on something to exclusion, everything else seems to be relevant to it.

I was at an awards ceremony a few nights ago because my daughter Katie won second place in an arts contest – the theme was "A Different Kind of Hero" – for a story she wrote about a snail named Slimy. Before the ceremony started, we were milling around and looking at the paintings, drawings, photographs, and other stories and essays. My latest reading project was Don Quixote, so when a photograph taken by a high-school student caught my eye, it was because something about it brought forth the images I'd been seeing in my head while reading. What the photo was actually showing was a young man removing a homemade mask. The lighting was somewhat dark and dramatic, and the mask cast shadows on the boy's face so that it appeared to me, in my Don Quixote-riddled brain, to be Don Quixote himself, pulling off his homemade helmet to reveal a poseur, a man who was trying to appear to be something he was not.

As my eyes adjusted and I was able to see that it was a mask and not a helmet, and a young man and not a 50-ish and defeated one, I still couldn't get the image I'd thought I'd been seeing out of my head. At that one moment, all 940 pages of text came together with one flash of understanding, and I felt this commonality with Don Quixote that I hadn't before. The eyes in the photograph had caught mine as if to challenge me: "Aren't we all pretending to be something we're not?" It chilled me.

Helmet So Don Quixote was reading his books of chivalry and really, really wanted to be a knight. He decides that he is a knight. When I was in 7th grade, I decided that I really, really wanted to stand onstage at the upcoming talent show and sing beautifully. I got up there and as the music teacher played the introductory strains of my song, I opened my mouth and ... all at once I realized that just wishing to be a beautiful singer would not make me one. My voice was off-key and weak. Everyone was staring at me in horror, but I had to press on and ignore the stifled laughter from the audience.

I suppose the difference is that I realized it. I have never again sung onstage or fancied myself to be a singer. What was so touching and pathetic about Don Quixote was that he didn't realize that he wasn't really a knight, even as people were laughing at him. At first I found this maddening. Why in the world does everyone laud this novel where this poor fool just doesn't get it?

There's a part in the story where Don Quixote sends Sancho off on an errand and says that in his absence, he will perform acts of craziness which will prove his love for his (mostly fictional) Dulcinea. As Sancho leaves, his parting vision is of his master stripped naked from the waist down and turning cartwheels. Once alone, Don Quixote "... climbed to the top of a high crag, and there he pondered what he had so often pondered without ever reaching a decision, which is whether it would be better and more appropriate for him to imitate Roland in his excessive madness or Amadis in his melancholy."

As I stared into the eyes of the man in the photograph, I remembered this scene and how I had been oddly affected by it, by how self-conscious and artificial Don Quixote had seemed. I was vaguely aware of the other parents milling around behind and around me. There were many familiar faces to me from the hallways of my children's school and PTA meetings. I have felt detached from all this lately. I have stepped back from my former involvement in the classrooms and PTA activities. In the past five years I had been trying to act the part of model stay-at-home mother and school volunteer. I had taken pride in the fact that I was one of the "in-crowd," if there can be such a thing at my age, made up of "good mothers" who live in "good families" and who "live for" their children.

When there was a field trip, I'd feel sorry for the kids whose mothers were too busy working to accompany them, and I'd dutifully drive out to far-flung pumpkin patches to watch kids gleefully choose which pumpkin would become their family's jack-o'-lantern. Each year I'd make the 20-minute walk to our museum with my kids' classes and watch the traveling show about the Oregon Trail until I could perform the show on my own, so many times had I sat through it. Throughout all this, I'd feel smug inside, confident that I was a "good mother."

This year, something shifted in me. I have been struggling with depression, getting counseling, experimenting with antidepressants. I have wallowed in self-pity. I have walked around feeling both numb and without a protective layer of skin simultaneously, as if nothing could touch me and yet everything touched me. When I found myself desperately wondering if I had taken a wrong turn many years ago, had married too young at a time when I should have been developing my professional life and abilities, I imagined what it would be like to extricate myself from this situation and live freely and according to my own needs and wants. With shame I then remembered how many times I had judged the divorced mothers whom I'd see dropping off their children each morning as I'd park my minivan and walk with my kids to their classrooms. I suddenly wondered what their stories were. Was it possible that they weren't selfish or "bad mothers," but just people who had taken a wrong turn and were fighting hard to make corrections?

Of course, over the years I've had a few illuminating conversations with the other "good mothers," conversations where shells were cracked to reveal other flawed, struggling-to-survive women. One mother had struggled in her twenties with her sexuality, experimenting with a homosexual lifestyle that her family's religion expressly forbade. Another mother, one whose beautiful and fashionable appearance turns heads daily and inspires a sense of inadequacy amongst the rest of us, confided in me once that her lack of organization and self-restraint regarding spending money has nearly sabotaged her marriage more than once.

If there's one thing that I learned from Don Quixote, it's that playing a part is exhausting. I'm at a point in my life where I find myself wondering if I got here of my own accord or just drifted along with the expectations of my parents, my friends and myself. Have I been acting a part? I can feel both content and settled and dissatisfied and like I took an entirely wrong turn within hours on the same day. Which feeling is "right"? Which role should I play along with? Is it possible to live without this affectation of roles?

It's also impossible for me to reflect on Don Quixote's homemade helmet without remembering the scene when he tests its strength and in two blows shatters it, ruining an entire day's work in one instant. He then modifies the design, making it stronger, only the second time he decides not to test it but to trust in its strength. The power of his faith, his trust in his inner convictions, is stronger in this scene than the material truth. Realizing this, in that moment in front of the photograph, finally endeared that knight to me.

Well into the second half of the book, I started to feel sympathy for him. He befriends a duke and duchess who take advantage of his delusional state and set him up to be the butt of the joke several times for their own amusement. I think this is where the tide started turning for me. I could bear watching him make a fool of himself, I guess, but I drew the line at other people making a fool of him. It's hard to watch him get beaten up time and time again, and get up and dust himself off with his dignity intact and his vision of himself as noble as ever, and not root for him, or even cheer inwardly at the passage, "... the deceivers were as mad as the deceived and ... the duke and duchess came very close to seeming like fools, since they went to such lengths to deceive two fools ..."

I asked myself more than once how it was that Don Quixote could convince himself that when reality just didn't match up with his vision, that it was a result not of his misunderstanding of the facts but of "evil enchanters" who made things change form in order to try to throw him off from his duties of saving the world. How much easier it would be accept the trials of life if the rest of us could believe that the spirits are just trying to fool us! In reality, though, Don Quixote's enemy isn't any enchanter, but reality. The harshness of the mundane everyday life is actually much harder to face for some of us than the concept of evil spirits who have it out for us.


There was another scene in the story that had intrigued me. Sancho and Don Quixote spend an anxious and fearful night listening to sounds in the dark that they can't identify. Their imaginations get the better of them, and when Don Quixote offers the explanation that the sounds are warring giants, Sancho huddles close to his master and refuses to leave his side. When in the morning it is made clear that the noises had merely been the sounds of fulling-mills, Sancho is quick to laugh at and mock the same man to whom he had been clinging desperately all night.

From the beginning of the story Sancho has been under the impression that his master is insane. He accompanies him on this quest because he has been promised "an insula" to govern, but he is constantly exasperated by Don Quixote's inability to clearly see what is right in front of him. So why does he cling to him for comfort and look to him for explanation as to the sounds in the night? Can it be that people of limited imagination need the so-called "out of touch with reality" when they have nothing else to go by? When you think of great leaders and heroes, don't they usually seem a bit mad, or possessed with their inner vision?

And when Don Quixote seems to be imposing his version of reality on the world, at least once it was the case that his reality was the truth, although he was the only one who could see it. When the knight and his squire come upon the beautiful Dorothea, she tells the story of how she was taken advantage of by Don Ferdinand, who promised to marry her afterward and then didn't. When she fabricates a story for Don Quixote in order to lure him back to his hometown where he can be treated for his "mental illness," she says that she is a princess who has been dispossessed of her lands by an evil giant. In fact, she is as good as a princess thanks to her beauty and goodness, and as good as dispossessed of her lands by a giant when she had her virginity stolen by a powerful aristocrat. While the others in their party are amused at how Don Quixote so easily accepted her story as the truth, the joke is on them. Don Quixote is no fool. He can see the truth underneath the fabrication. So who's crazy?

A few pages from the end of the novel, Don Quixote at last realizes that he has been insane at intervals. In the beginning of the book I had wanted him to see this, and had been frustrated that he couldn't. By the end, I found it heartbreaking when he did. His friends, the very same people who had tricked him into coming home for "treatment," appear to share this sense of ambivalence because they try to lure him back into his former state by telling him they have news of Dulcinea. The former knight has at last achieved a state of dignity, but the loss of his ideals and fantasies will be the death of him. As I closed the book with a satisfying snap of the binding, I realized that in the course of all the adventures and misadventures, somewhere I had

moved from frustrated and alienated to saddened and sympatico.

Yes, Don Quixote was as much "A Different Kind of Hero" as Slimy the Snail was when he outsmarted the evil Aunt Mimi Min, and as much as Katie is when she holds onto her passion for the snail who loves mail in spite of the derisive laughter and puzzled faces of her classmates. A hero can be someone who has an inner reality that they hold onto in spite of the disbelief of others. A hero can be someone who inspires us to look at our own realities with new eyes. And it's amazing how if you allow yourself to become swept away by a work of art, a 400-year-old book, a child's story about a snail, and a teenager's misinterpreted photograph can all come together to make you believe in the dreams of a misguided, self-proclaimed knight.

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