An Exploration of Armor in Don Quixote by Reyther Ortega

This essay written by Newark Academy faculty member Reyther Ortega of the Language Department was presented at a May 2016 graduate student panel at Montclair State University where she studied in the Department of Spanish and Italian. Enjoy this thought-provoking inquiry.

Writing the Wardrobe, Fashioning the Text:

A Study of the Armor in Don Quixote

Reyther OrtegaIn reading Don Quixote, one cannot help noting the extensive description Cervantes gives of his characters’ attire. Cervantes enriches the narrative with minute details about fabrics, embroidery, decorations, threads, and accessories. He was fascinated by the idea of playing with the various narrative possibilities implicit in dressing and undressing a character.

Many studies have sought to interpret how Cervantes plays with wardrobe in the novel. Wardrobe is an expression of identity, a reflection of social class, and a code that others interpret and process in order to categorize an individual. Everything in Don Quixote is complex, with many layers of meaning, so it may be suggested that Cervantes uses these concepts about fashion, costume, and identity to play with them, to alter them, to manipulate them, and to create diverse connotations.

Reyther OrtegaThis paper will take up an idea that Barthes developed in The Fashion System: given that it is a written text, it is not actual clothing that one is analyzing, but rather written clothing, or even described clothing, as he explains: “In literature, description is to bear upon a hidden object (whether real or imaginary): it must make that object exist” (12). Unlike actual clothing, written clothing has no practical function, as it is a representation meant to produce meaning: “Real clothing is burdened with practical considerations (protection, modesty, adornment); these finalities disappear from “represented” clothing, [which now serves] to signify protection, modesty, adornment” (Barthes 8). Of interest here is the concept of freedom that Barthes suggests by its status as written and not real clothing; in literature, the writer has unlimited freedom to play with the possibilities of clothing, which is exactly what Cervantes does.

It thus bears asking: What is Cervantes suggesting when he describes clothing in Don Quixote? Some items of clothing lend themselves to speaking of social class, to reflecting a character’s psychological state, to functioning on a symbolic level, to subverting an established code, or to exploring some of the work’s recurring themes. I will examine here one fundamental item of attire: armor.

The armor is crucial for the itinerant knight. It is what Alonso Quixano must wear to turn himself into Don Quixote and to undertake his adventures.

In the first chapter, the hidalgo, absorbed from the world of the knight through his readings, and eager to become his own version of Amadís de Gaula or Orlando Furioso, sets out first of all to find his ancestors’ forgotten arms. This introduction of armor shows the use of parody for comic effect: arms are described as “stained with rust and covered with mildew, has spent many long years stored and forgotten in a corner” (I, I, 22). Moreover, they are incomplete, as “instead of a full sallet with an attached neckguard, there was only a simple headpiece” or in Spanish a mere casco or morrión. The hidalgo’s reaction to his incomplete, incongruous attire helps establish his character:

He compensated for this with his industry, and out of pasteboard he fashioned a kind of half-helmet that, when attached to the headpiece, took on the appearance of a full sallet. It is true that in order to test if it was strong and could withstand a blow he took out his sword and struck it twice, and with the first blow he undid in a moment what it had taken him a week to create; he could not help being disappointed at the ease with which he had hacked it to pieces, and to protect against that danger, he made another one, placing strips of iron on the inside so he was satisfied with its strength; and not wanting to put it to the test again, he designated and accepted it as an extremely fine sallet. (I, I, 22).

The novel contains a consistent theme: Don Quixote is oblivious to whether objects or people – the reality that surrounds him – actually meet the knightly code, as the mere fact of imagining them makes them part of his fantasy regardless of how they react to him. So a rusty, incomplete suit of armor becomes “extremely fine,” ordinary mills become giants to combat, prostitutes become beautiful damsels, and a modest inn becomes a sumptuous castle. The hidalgo’s relationship to his armor is the first indication of the strategy, and the preamble to the debate of the basin-helmet from Chapter XLV (45) that reflects the theme of perspectivism or different perspectives. Who can deny that an ordinary object such as a barber’s basin is the marvelous helmet of Mambrino if someone imagines or perceives it that way?

Donning the armor is the first step Alonso Quixano takes to become Don Quixote, his new persona. In the Sierra Morena episode (Chapter XXVI -26), he takes it off to copy Cardenio in his role as the rejected lover. Don Quixote decides to try out a different self, imitating situations in his readings or people he has met along his way. Macías-Rodríguez emphasizes that becoming naked, as Cardenio, is a sign that he would not change his self-defined identity, he just wants to lift it for a short period of time. (Macías-Rodríguez 14). It may thus be assumed that his fantasy will go on, as the hidalgo is not ready to abandon his identity as Quixote.

At the inn, the armor functions to show us the impression that this itinerant knight now called Don Quixote makes on other people. In some cases this pathetic figure will inspire others to take part in the imaginative adventure, if only ironically and even cruelly. A situation recurs in which those who meet Don Quixote on his way play along with him, seeking to manipulate or mock him, with the most extreme case involving the Dukes in the second part. The reactions of the innkeeper and the prostitutes are the most benign: “…When he saw that grotesque figure armed with arms as incongruous as is bridle, lance, shield, and corselet, he was ready to join the maidens in their displays of hilarity. But fearing the countless difficulties that might ensue, he decided to speak to him politely…” (and offers him food and to stay overnight) (I, II, 38).

With his laughter, the innkeeper becomes part of Quixote’s adventure, and he proceeds to put Don Quixote’s armor on him. Following the knightly tradition, Don Quixote explains that he must follow the ritual of deposing the arms before being knighted at dawn. This shows how the protagonist’s fantasy affects the reality of those around him, but as noted, the innkeeper rearticulates the knightly code of conduct to mock the hidalgo.

The innkeeper … had already some inkling of his guest’s madness … he proposed to humor him, and so he told him that his desire and request were exemplary and his purpose right and proper in knights who were as illustrious as he appeared to be and as his gallant presence demonstrated; and that he himself, in the years of his youth, had dedicated himself to that honorable profession, travelling to many parts of the world in search of many adventures (I, III, 42).

Soon afterward, Don Quixote appears dressed as a knight by this innkeeper, and in a few lines Cervantes expounds some of the work’s main themes: an ordinary book used to keep records about straw and barley is turned into a prayer book (duality, perspectivism), the innkeeper is turned into a nobleman, the prostitutes into ladies, and the hidalgo into a knight (hybridity, mutual permeability of fiction and reality). Crucial to developing these themes are thus the armor and the situations originated by wearing it.

Cervantes also uses the armor to put his protagonist into difficult situations and elicit laughter in the reader. In Chapter IV, Don Quixote wishes to confront some merchants who dare to doubt Dulcinea’s beauty, but Rocinante falls and “his master rolled some distance on the ground, and when he tried to get up, he could not: he was too burdened by the lance, shield, spurs, helmet and the weight of his ancient armor. And as he struggled to stand and failed, he exclaimed: “Flee not cowards, wretches, attend; for it is not fault of mine but of my mount that I lie here” (I, IV, 40). This kind of physical, scatological humor, using falls, blows, abuse, vomit, and feces pervades the first part of Don Quixote, and offers grounds for discussing the influence of the picaresque novel and even for drawing parallels with cinematic slapstick. The author uses armor as an element in his strategy of intertextuality: armor is crucial to satirizing chivalric and picaresque novels.

In light of Barthes’s ideas about the significance of description, it bears noting that the detailed, minute, extensive description of each element of the suit of armor recreates for the reader a sort of sensory experience – “lance, shield, spurs, helmet and the weight of his ancient armor” – for it allows the reader to empathize with Don Quixote’s feelings as he tries to bear up under such great weight.

Playing with the concept of identities, Cervantes presents other characters wearing armors. In the second part, Bachelor Sansón Carrasco wears the armor of Knight of the Mirrors and the Knight of the White Moon. In a ruse designed to bring the hidalgo back to his senses, the Bachelor passes himself off as a knight to confront and defeat him. Once again, one can see how this wardrobe item allows for the presentation of two themes: fiction transforming reality, and one’s capacity to invent and reinvent oneself. It is interesting to see how Cervantes uses this item and, again following Barthes, describes it. Before he sees the knight, Don Quixote first hears him, and the sound is the first impression given of the armor: “Turn around and look, [talking to Sancho] and there you will see a knight errant lying on the ground… I saw him getting down from his horse and stretch out on the ground showing certain signs of discouragement, and when he lay down I could hear his armor clattering” (II, XII, 530). Again, Cervantes seems interested in the armor’s sensory quality, and just as earlier he emphasized its smell (of urine), its weight, and its unwieldiness, he now points out how it sounds before he states how it looks. At dawn, the armor’s visual qualities are revealed, and they are vital:

Over his armor he wore a kind of long jacket or coat, the cloth apparently made of finest gold, and on it were scattered many small moons of gleaming mirrors, making him look extraordinarily splendid and elegant; waving above his helmet were a large number of green, yellow and white plumes; his lance, leaning against a tree, was extremely large and thick and plated with more than span’s length of iron. (II, XIV, 543).
In the mirrors on the Knight of the White Moon’s armor, Don Quixote sees himself distorted and fragmented: “Don Quixote recognizes his identity as an itinerant knight . . . [and] . . . Sansón Carrasco’s mirrors distort the protagonist’s image and fragment it into multiple images of the ‘self.’ . . . In the second part we see the gradual fragmentation of Don Quixote’s identity, which now is not as firm, unitary, and unbreakable as it was in the first part” (Carbon 7).

The game of dual identities extends to an observation that Don Quixote makes as he reflects upon that encounter. Upon his defeat, he discovers Carrasco’s face, but our knight couples this reality with his fiction. In failing to see logic in the Bachelor, a man of letters, wearing armor, Don Quixote justifies it as a trick of evil magicians who

…[They] arranged for the defeated knight to show the face of my friend the bachelor, so that the friendship I have for him would be placed between the edges of my sword, and stay the severity of my arm, and temper the righteous anger of my heart, and in this manner the one who was attempting to take my life through trickery and falsehood would save his own (II, XVI, 551).

For Don Quixote, everything has a justification within the logic of literary codes. Ironically, he concludes that “everything is artifice and mere appearance,” and here once again the author proposes to reflect about who is deceiving whom, about artificial versus true identities, and about the power of the imagination.

Sansón Carrasco once again dons the armor, like the Knight of the White Moon. Again, the purpose of wearing the armor is to manipulate Don Quixote and to bring him into the real world, the world of the barber, the priest, the lady of the house, and the niece. In this episode, the hidalgo confronts the Knight who will defeat him and force him to abandon his adventurous life as a knight for one year, which will eventually lead to his death. The details on the shield symbolize the unfolding tragic ending: “The moon that adorns the unknown knight’s shield contrasts with that sun [the shining sun from the departure on the first adventure], just as the departure and return, the beginning and the end, life and death are also opposed” (Quintana Tejera). This interplay of opposites is characteristic of the mentalities of the Baroque, and as such, in this episode the armor is also a means of representing the aesthetic sense of that era.

Through the armor the author explores the sensory, varying, and metaphoric quality of Quixote’s attire. The novel’s principal themes are visible in the various ways and contexts in which Cervantes presents the armor. The wardrobe items represent a heterogeneous, multifaceted, and complex world: that is Cervantes’s vision of the world and the human condition.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. Print.

Carbon, Barbara. “El disfraz en Don Quijote: ¿Ocultamiento, revelación o metamorfosis de las identidades?” Trabajo para la clase 524 Cervantes, Montclair State University, Mayo 2008. Print.

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de . Don Quixote. Translated by Edith Grossman and introduction by Harold Bloom. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Macías Rodríquez, Claudia. “Vestidos y disfraces en las transformaciones de Don Quijote.” Universidad Nacional de Seúl. Web. Nov. 15 2010

Quintana Tejera, Luis. “El Caballero de la Blanca Luna: La máscara de

Sansón Carrasco”. Espéculo. Revista de estudios literarios. Universidad

Complutense de Madrid. Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México. Web. Dec. 03 2010.

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