There are two Don Quixote’s.
There is the wise man, dispensing philosophy and wisdom to anyone who will listen; astounding people with his insight when they witness the second Don Quixote, a madman absolutely certain he is a knight errant, pursued by evil enchanters and engaging in combat with giants and beasts.
There’s literally two different Don Quixote’s. The books, I mean. Not just in the two parts, written 10 years apart after Cervantes finally succumbed to fan demand and wrote a sequel, but an actual second one written by a different man — Avellaneda — and ridiculed by Cervantes in part 2 of the official text. Before the modern novel was even truly established, Cervantes was writing postmodern: self-referential work, breaking the fourth wall, a string of narrators deeper than House of Leaves.
And of course, we have the character as he exists in the text, jousting windmills and pining for non-existent maidens and traipsing all over Spain. But also the archetype, the towering figure that spans four hundred years of literary culture. Without reading the novel, you know him, a gaunt figure atop a skinny nag, his plump squire not far behind. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are singular figures, even reading this book in the 21st century when they’ve been parodied and copied and rehashed so many times it’s difficult to even envision a time before them.
I thought the first part of Don Quixote was merely pretty good. The pacing was bizarre and it frequently split off entirely from the titular hero for random characters to tell side-stories about other random characters. Iconic scenes like the windmill-mishap just weren’t quite as striking as I hoped. It was humorous though. After I finished it, I put it on my shelf and forgot about it for several years. Disappointed with what I had been reading recently, and not really knowing what to take on next, I found it on my bookshelf and started part 2 on a whim.
Unlike part 1, the story focused entirely on Don Quixote and Sancho; Cervantes had grown as a writer and had a finer touch on what he wanted those characters to be, likely in part due to the imposter text written by Avellaneda that had turned up in the interim. The latter writer insisted Sancho was a glutton and Cervantes couldn’t stand it! There’s multiple scenes where Sancho explains he’s a hungry man, but not a gluttonous one. The story continues to have a very strange pacing — the characters just sort of bound from one adventure to another without much continuity or focus, they have muddled goals and then their quest just sort of ends, abruptly. But the charm is unmistakable and I found myself deeply sad when Don Quixote comes to his senses, proclaims his madness, and finally croaks.