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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 6: The Symbolism of the Cave

donquixote_cave

On a hero’s journey, the hero often goes through a symbolic exploration of the subconscious mind. This can be represented by the hero going into water, the underworld, or a cave. For this reason, I was not surprised when Don Quixote entered a cave and explored the abyss within, emerging with an expanded consciousness.

Before undertaking a daunting task, heroes will summon strength from an outside source. Before entering the cave, Don Quixote calls upon Dulcinea for protection and guidance upon his journey into the underworld.

“O mistress of my actions and movements, illustrious and peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, if so be the prayers and supplications of this fortunate lover can reach thy ears, by thy incomparable beauty I entreat thee to listen to them, for they but ask thee not to refuse my favour and protection now that I stand in need of them. I am about to precipitate, to sink, to plunge myself into the abyss that is here before me, only to let the world know that while thou dost favour me there is no impossibility I will not attempt and accomplish.”

(p. 716)

After Don Quixote reemerges from the cave, he relates his experience to his companions. The visions he describes are consistent with altered states of consciousness. He actually describes how he slipped into a state of reverie prior to the shift in awareness that brought on the mystical visions.

“… and as I was thus deep in thought and perplexity, suddenly and without provocation a profound sleep fell upon me, and when I least expected it, I know not how, I awoke and found myself in the midst of the most beautiful, delightful meadow that nature could produce or the most lively human imagination conceive. I opened my eyes, I rubbed them, and found I was not asleep but thoroughly awake. Nevertheless, I felt my head and breast to satisfy myself whether it was I myself who was there or some empty delusive phantom; but touch, feeling, the collected thoughts that passed through my mind, all convinced me that I was the same then and there that I am this moment. Next there presented itself to my sight a stately royal palace or castle, with walls that seemed built of clear transparent crystal; and through two great doors that opened wide therein, I saw coming forth and advancing toward me a venerable old man, clad in a long gown of mulberry-coloured serge that trailed upon the ground.”

(pp. 719 – 720)

The old man that Don Quixote encountered was Montesinos, but I could not help but seeing him as a Merlin figure. In fact, Merlin is mentioned later in the chapter as having prophesized the arrival of Don Quixote (p. 723). And the castle being made of crystal corresponds to the crystal cave of the Merlin mythology.

The last thing I want to discuss is the distortion of time associated with altered states of consciousness.

“I cannot understand, Senor Don Quixote,” remarked the cousin here, “how it is that your worship, in such a short space of time as you have been below there, could have seen so many things, and said and answered so much.”

“How long is it since I went down?” asked Don Quixote.

“Little better than an hour,” replied Sancho.

“That cannot be,” returned Don Quixote, “because night overtook me while I was there, and day came, and it was night again and day again three times; so that, by my reckoning, I have been three days in those remote regions beyond our ken.”

“My master must be right,” replied Sancho, “for as everything that has happened to him is by enchantment, maybe what seems to us an hour would seem three days and nights there.”

(p. 725)

In addition to the distortion of time, there is some number mysticism woven in here. We have three days existing within one hour, or three comprising the one. I cannot help but wonder if this is a reference to the trinity forming the godhead (father, son, holy ghost), or the mind/body/spirit trinity within a human being. Additionally, it could be symbolic of the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone). Regardless, we have a situation where the hero travels to the underworld, encounters a mystical being, experiences time distortion, and is presented with the number three as being connected to the mystical experience.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 5: A Sonnet on Sancho Panza

sanchopanzastatue

The worthy Sancho Panza here you see;
A great soul once was in that body small,
Nor was there squire upon this earthly ball
So plain and simple, or of guile so free.
Within an ace of being Count was he,
And would have been but for the spite and gall
Of this vile age, mean and illiberal,
That cannot even let a donkey be.
For mounted on an ass (excuse the word),
By Rocinante’s side this gentle squire
Was wont his wandering master to attend.
Delusive hopes that lure the common herd
With promise of ease, the heart’s desire,
In shadows, dreams, and smoke ye always end.

(p. 538)

I find this sonnet, which appears near the end of Volume 1 of the text, both sad and sweet. On one hand, there is something so admirable about Sancho. He is a faithful and steadfast friend, who is always seeking to do the right thing. But alas, Sancho, for all his kindness, has one human flaw—the desire for comfort and ease.

As is often the case, seeking quick and easy comfort can lead you down the road that culminates in broken dreams, ashes, and sadness. The idea of comfort, for too many people, is nothing but the smoke of a pipe dream. And this is the case with Sancho. And sadly, as I look around me, I see so many people who share Sancho’s flaw. They think that following this leader or that idea will bring quick happiness and contentment. “If this person is elected, then all my problems will vanish and I will enjoy the American Dream.” But that is all it is; a dream.

There is a lot we can learn from Sancho Panza. It is important to be truthful, to be a good friend, to be trustworthy, and to follow our dreams; but we should also be careful not to pursue shadows or let our dreams lead us down roads that take us nowhere. There needs to be a balance between dreams and reality, between hope and striving. If we are not willing to do the hard work, then our dreams will never become realities.

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“Gypsies on the Road” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Sir Alfred Munnings

Painting by Sir Alfred Munnings

The dark-eyed ancient tribe that never rests
Took up the age-old journey yesterday,
The young on the women’s backs, and—should they cry—
Treasure awaits them at the hanging breasts.

On foot, the men, whose shouldered weapons gleam,
Trudge by the waggons where their families lie,
Their gaze is heavy as the scan the sky
With nameless shadows of a distant dream.

The cricket, watching from its sandy bower,
Greets their approach with loudest eloquence;
Cybele makes earth greener for their sake;

The rock becomes a spring, the deserts flower
Before these wanderers, as they march to take
The constant empire of the unknown hence.

(Translation by Naomi Lewis)

I really enjoyed this poem and find it to be very relevant to events currently unfolding within our world. Basically, Baudelaire is establishing a correlation between the gypsies of his time and the archetype of the Wandering Jew, roaming the desert in search of the Promised Land. But I cannot help but see the plights of Syrian refugees or Mexican immigrants reflected in this sonnet. These people pack up their families and what few possessions they can carry, and set out in search of a better life. I try to imagine the desperation that brings people to this point, and it is difficult for me to grasp. Thankfully, I have not had to experience that level of despair in my life.

I really don’t have anything else to say about this poem. It seems pretty clear and unambiguous to me, but if you see something that I missed, feel free to comment in the section below.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 4: The Portrayal of Women

quixoteandwomen

So for this post, I wanted to look at the way women are portrayed in Don Quixote. I’ll start by sharing a few passages and then provide my thoughts.


If, then, the mine of her honour, beauty, virtue, and modesty yields thee without labour all the wealth it contains and thou canst wish for, why wilt thou dig the earth in search of fresh new veins, of new unknown treasure, risking the collapse of all, since it but rests on the feeble props of her weak nature?

(p. 337)


At these words Luscinda looked up at Cardenio, at first beginning to recognise him by his voice and then satisfying herself by her eyes that it was he, and hardly knowing what she did, and heedless of all considerations of decorum, she flung her arms around his neck and pressing her face close to his, said, “Yes, my dear lord, you are the true master of this your slave, even though adverse fate interpose again, and fresh dangers threaten this life that hangs on yours.”

(p. 377)


I follow another, easier, and to my mind wiser course, and that is to rail at the frivolity of women, at their inconstancy, their double dealing, their broken promises, their unkept pledges, and in short the want of reflection they show in fixing their affections and inclinations.

(p. 525)


At first, I felt disgusted and angered at the way women are depicted in this book. I find it deeply offensive to assert that anyone’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation makes that person less than equal. I understand that ideas shift throughout history, and what is considered an acceptable belief at one point can be completely rejected at another stage in history, but that still doesn’t make it any more palatable to me.

But as I sat and pondered on this, an idea struck me that changed my view of how Cervantes was portraying women. This text is a complete farce. It is meant to be ridiculous and comical, while addressing truths between the lines. This made me begin to wonder if Cervantes was putting these beliefs out there as being ludicrous, in the same way that Don Quixote’s beliefs regarding chivalry are completely insane and comical. And the more I thought about this, the more it seemed to ring true for me. I believe that Cervantes was pointing out just how silly the established belief of women being lesser than men actually is. He basically used comedy as a form of social criticism, and I love that.

When artists challenge the paradigms of their time, humor is a great tool. It is less threatening, but still forces people to face their prejudices and biases, a tradition that is still alive and well thanks to SNL and Stephen Colbert.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 3: Saintly Sancho Panza, a Christ Symbol

sanchopanzastatue

Sancho Panza is a very complex character. At first, I envisioned him as a manifestation of the fool archetype. He reminded me a lot of the fool in King Lear, cloaking wise perspective amid jokes, puns, and antics. But as I read on, the image of Sancho broadened and he appeared more and more as a saint. It could even be argued that he is a symbol of Christ himself.

First, consider that Sancho rides an ass and not a horse. When we remember that Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, we have an initial parallel between the two.

Sancho describes himself as a man of peace, embodying saintly and Christ-like attributes. He also emphasizes his capacity to forgive others unconditionally, just as Christ was able to forgive.

“Senor, I am a man of peace, meek and quiet, and I can put up with any affront because I have a wife and children to support and bring up; so let it be likewise a hint to your worship, as it cannot be a mandate, that on no account will I draw sword either against clown or against knight, and that here before God I forgive the insults that have been offered me, whether they have been, are, or shall be offered me by high or low, rich or poor, noble or commoner, not excepting any rank or condition whatsoever.”

(p. 109)

Shortly afterwards, Sancho describes to Don Quixote how he was given the sign of the cross on his back, and how he endured the suffering with the same acceptance as Christ and other saintly martyrs.

“They gave me no time to see that much,” answered Sancho, “for hardly had I laid hand on my tizona when they signed the cross on my shoulders with their sticks in such a style that they took the sight out of my eyes and the strength out of my feet, stretching me where I now lie, and where thinking of whether all those stake-strokes were an indignity or not gives me no uneasiness, which the pain of the blow does, for they will remain as deeply impressed on my memory as on my shoulders.”

(p. 111)

At the wedding in Cana, Christ famously turned water into wine. In this text, Sancho Panza also exchanges water for wine, strengthening the correlation between him and Christ.

… but as at the first sup he perceived it was water he did not care to go with it, and begged Maritornes to fetch him some wine, which she did with right good will, and paid for it with her own money; for indeed they say of her that, though she was in that line of life, there was some faint and distant resemblance to a Christian about her.

(p. 131)

It is also worth noting the similarity here between Maritornes and Mary Magdalene. Both were women of “ill repute” who exhibited true spiritual values of compassion and caring.

So far, I find Sancho Panza a much more interesting and multifaceted character that Don Quixote, but I still have a way to go in the book. Thanks for stopping by, and as always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 2: At the Crossroads

Painting by Wilhelm Marstrand

Painting by Wilhelm Marstrand

One of the symbols that I have always found fascinating is the crossroads. Not only is it a representation of a point in our lives where we must choose a direction, but it is also an intersection between two realms: the conscious and subconscious, life and death, past and present. Maya Deren’s exploration of voudou offers great insights into the powerful symbolism of the crossroads.

Anyway, as I am continuing to read through Cervantes, I have noticed the symbol appearing in the text. In fact, Don Quixote states in no uncertain terms how important the crossroads are.

To which Don Quixote replied, “Thou must take notice, brother Sancho, that this adventure and those like it are not adventures of islands, but of crossroads, in which nothing is got except a broken head or an ear the less: have patience, for adventures will present themselves from which I may make you, not only a governor, but something more.”

(p. 65)

What is being expressed here is that the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza conveys more than what appears on the surface. It is not just an island in the vast sea of literature. It is a mystical place where the spiritual and the physical meet, where the veil between reality and the imagination is torn away.

Not long after this passage, Don Quixote and Sancho meet a group of shepherds at a crossroads who are on their way to a funeral.

They had not gone a quarter of a league when at the meeting of two paths they saw coming towards them some six shepherds dressed in black sheepskins and with their heads crowned with garlands of cypress and bitter oleander, Each of them carried a stout holly staff in his hand and along with them came two men of quality on horseback in handsome travelling dress, with three servants on foot accompanying them. Courteous salutations were exchanged on meeting, and inquiring one of the other which way each party was going, they learned that all were bound for the scene of the burial, so they went on all together.

(p. 86)

Here we have the intersection between life and death. The three plants that are mentioned—cypress, oleander, and holly—are all evergreens and symbolize the cycles of life, death, and rebirth.

I still have a long way to go in this book, and I suspect that Don Quixote and Sancho will find themselves at many other crossroads along their journey. I look forward to seeing which pathways they choose.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 1: On the Addictive Power of Books

Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix

I recently decided to read Cervantes’ famous book, Don Quixote, mainly because I am planning a trip to Spain and figured I should read it before I visit. Also, it’s been on my reading list for a long time, but I’ve put it off, mainly due to the length. But I figured, now is a good time to read it. Since it is long and probably would not work as a single blog post, I decided to do a series of posts as I work my way through the text. For my first post, I wanted to write about the addictive power of books.

Cervantes begins the book by explaining that the protagonist is a person who is addicted to books, which is something I can relate to. Someone may ask: Can you really become addicted to books? I’d say yes. Addiction is the constant search for something that changes how you feel inside and ultimately serves as an escape from reality.

As is often the case with addiction, the obsession and constant immersion in the vehicle of escape causes one to lose touch with reality, which happens to the protagonist in this book.

In short, he became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits. His fancy grew full of what he used to read about in his books, enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, agonies, and all sorts of impossible nonsense; and it so possessed his mind that the whole fabric of invention and fancy he read of was true, that to him no history in the world had more reality in it.

(p. 4)

As the barriers between reality and fantasy crumble, the protagonist decides to live the life described in the books he reads. He takes on the persona of Don Quixote and allows the literary realm of chivalry to become his dominant paradigm in real life.

In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honour as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armour and on horseback in quest of adventures, and putting in practice himself all that he had read of as being the usual practices of knights-errant; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame.

(p. 5)

While this may seem extreme, there is a universal truth here that needs addressing. As thinking, sentient beings, we are the sum product of our experiences, and reading is an experience that directly impacts who we are as individuals. This leads to the question: Is it better to focus your reading on a single topic or idea, or should one read broadly and diversely? It appears that Cervantes is asserting that one should read broadly, that reading only one type of book will instill a myopic view of life and ultimately become a singular obsession.

As is often the case with addiction, family and friends will often attempt an intervention to help the suffering addict. This happens to Don Quixote. People close to him try to intervene by ridding Don Quixote of his books, essentially, trying to cure the addiction by taking away the drug.

But I take all the blame upon myself for never having told your worships of my uncle’s vagaries, that you might put a stop to them before things had come to pass, and burn these accursed books—for he has a great number—that richly deserve to be burned like heretics.

(p. 33)

So, at this point, I want to conclude by saying: “Hi. My name is Jeff, and I’m a book addict.” And yes, like Don Quixote, I often imagine myself in the realm of the books I read. I love losing myself in the world of imagination. But I think it’s a healthy addiction, as long as you maintain a firm foot in reality and read broadly. So to all my book-addict friends, go out and read something different and new.

Thanks for stopping by, and look for another post about Don Quixote soon.

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