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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
In his prologue, the author explains that he has written this book in order to parody "books of chivalry."
Books of chivalry were very popular in Cervantes' day. The plots typically concerned a pair of star-crossed lovers, a knight and his fair lady. Often, but not always, such loves were platonic. When the lovers did actually make love, however, they had to suffer a great deal for their sin. Chivalric romances also included elements of magic, myths, and fairy tales, and were written in stilted, absurdly flowery prose.
In the story that follows, Cervantes makes fun of all of these characteristics. The chivalric romance best known to Cervantes' readers was Amadis of Gaul, which is mentioned many times in Don Quixote. You may be more familiar with the story of Tristan and Iseult, or of the various tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. However, modern versions of these stories may not give you an accurate conception of the florid, overwrought prose which was enjoyed by readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In the opening chapter of the story you are introduced to a middle-aged gentleman who lives in the district known as La Mancha in southern Spain. Like many of his social class, this gentleman has to stretch his pennies. He eats beef stew and beans and an occasional meal of bacon and eggs. His diet may be plain, but his head is stuffed with rich fantasies. In fact, the gentleman has read so many romances about knights and their adventures that he finally goes completely mad. Imagining that he is living in the bygone days of chivalry, he decides that he himself will become a knight-errant!
The gentleman begins by polishing an old, rickety suit of armor that once belonged to his great-grandfather. Unfortunately, the helmet is broken, but he fixes it with a makeshift visor made of pasteboard. Next, he decides to give his broken-down old horse a high-class name-Rozinante. He also decides to change his own name from Alonso Quixano to Don Quixote de la Mancha.
In taking the title "Don," Quixano is promoting himself to a higher grade of the nobility-from gentleman (hidalgo) to knight (caballero). In the seventeenth century, there were still Spanish noblemen who called themselves knights, just as there are still men in England today who use the knightly title "Sir." However, such knights bore little resemblance to the knights-errant of the Middle Ages-knights who took to the road in search of adventures that would enable them to put their ideals of courage and honor into practice.
In all the stories Don Quixote has read, the knight-errant is always in love with a fair and noble lady. It is love, however hopeless, that inspires the knight to do so many brave deeds. Don Quixote has no sweetheart of his own, but a certain farm girl in the nearby town of Toboso is reputed to be very good-looking. (She, however, has no idea that he even exists.) The Don decides to dedicate his adventures to this girl. And since she, too, will need a more romantic name than her real one, he will call her Dulcinea of El Toboso.