Cervantes y su caballero

October 21, 2020

All throughout my reading of “Don Quixote,” I was struggling with the question of what Cervantes meant when he wrote “caballero,” which in English means “knight.” It’s not a simple problem, because “caballero” means knight but it also means gentleman.  It has a double meaning, and is potentially a source of confusion.

Zoraida asks the captive if he’s a caballero, while in the presence of her father, so in that instance she can’t mean “knight”; but in her first letter to the captive she says he is the only one of the prisoners who looks like a caballero, and there the term surely has a double meaning.

In Vol. II, ch. 2, both Don Quijote and Sancho Panza distinguish between the gentry known as “caballeros” and those known as “hidalgos.”  (Burton Raffel translates these as “noblemen” and “ordinary gentlemen”, respectively).  In Vol. I, ch. 21 Don Quijote says that Sancho will automatically be a “caballero” on the day that he makes him a count.  In Vol. I, ch. 43, Clara refers to Don Luis’ father as a caballero. 

See Vol. I, ch. 8 – the windmills – where Don Quijote meets the Basque.  In Edith Grossman’s translation, Quixote says that the Basque is not a “gentleman” (Cervantes says ‘caballero’); the Basque asks incredulously how he cannot be a “gentleman” (Cervantes says ‘caballero’) and that he is in fact a “gentleman” (Cervantes says here ‘hidalgo,’ a high-born or respectable man).  Raffel translates “caballero” here, in both men’s mouths, as “knight.” But can the Basque really be offended that someone says he is not a knight?  Similarly, the Basque had first addressed Quixote as “mister,” in Grossman’s translation of “caballero,” which Raffel translates as “knight,” but would the Basque really address Don Quijote as “Knight”? 

If the Basque is addressing Don Quijote like that, it can be only in jest.  Granted, that interpretation is possible, because the innkeeper had played Don Quijote’s game a few chapters earlier, pretending to be a knight.  But in that case, Cervantes told us directly that the innkeeper was a shrewd man who was humoring Don Quijote.  Cervantes says nothing like that here, and in fact the Basque is made out to be a simple-minded character with little understanding of Spanish.  So I wonder if Grossman’s interpretation is better.  In her translation, the Basque is not playing Don Quijote’s game and is genuinely wound-up when his attacker says he is no gentleman.

However, even if this interpretation is right, it misses, no less than Raffel does, a possible confusion between the characters. Grossman has Don Quijote specifying that the Basque is not a “gentleman,” when I assume he was declaring the Basque to be no knight like himself.  No ordinary person would take offense at being told that he’s not a knight; the Basque takes offense because he thinks Don Quijote is denying him even basic respect as a gentleman, which is why he then insists he is an “hidalgo”.  And both Grossman and Raffel agree that here, the Basque is not calling himself a knight; Grossman has “noble”, and Raffel says “gentleman”

(An “hidalgo” means a man the opposite of a commoner.  Sancho uses the word in Vol. I, ch. 15; Don Quijote uses it to describe himself in Vol. I, ch. 21; Cervantes uses it in the very title of the book.)

I don’t know if the Basque could have really been an hidalgo, I mean, in the sight of others.  He is not one of the mule-drivers on foot, but one of the men riding on horseback, attending to the noble lady in the carriage.  Raffel calls him one of the “mounted pages”; Grossman calls him a “squire”, and indeed Cervantes calls him an “escudero.”  So, would a nobleman be a mere page/squire?  Maybe the Basque merely aspires to be an hidalgo; or he thinks that merely because he’s on horseback, that makes him a “caballero” in the sense of a gentleman.  What we do know is that Cervantes calls him an “escudero,” so in the author’s eyes, if the man thinks of himself as a “knight,” he’s calling himself something which he plainly isn’t.  Whether Cervantes thinks that the man is also plainly not even an hidalgo, is an open question.

I just think it’s far more likely that the Basque is genuinely offended because he thinks of himself as a gentleman.  I think the way he repeats Don Quijote’s word, “caballero”, and then insists that he is one, because he is an “hidalgo,” cinches how he thinks about himself.  If he really thought of himself as a “knight,” why would he switch to the word “hidalgo”?

The Basque’s poor understanding of Spanish should make him likely, when he hears any Spanish term that can mean more than one thing, to miss how it’s really being used.

“Caballero” is an ambiguous term, and Cervantes seems willing, even keen, to preserve the ambiguity.  It makes the characters confusing to each other – speaking past one another – without letting them understand each other readily (Grossman) or making only one man, the Basque, understand the other (Raffel).  I don’t know that Cervantes intended either of those scenarios.  The Basque does not understand Spanish and cannot make himself clear; and he’s not quick enough to play with Don Quijote and use his language against him.

Interestingly, in the second half of the story, when the ladies (no longer the single “lady” of the story’s first half) beg Don Quijote to spare their squire, Cervantes goes on using the word “escudero,” as he did before; but now Don Quijote addresses the wounded Basque as “caballero.”  Is he acknowledging the man to be a gentleman, or perhaps even a knight?  Both Raffel and Grossman agree that he is now calling him a “knight.”

But I don’t understand how, in English or Spanish, Don Quijote could have changed his mind, giving this man a measure of respect that he had not given him before.  At the end of the story when he calls him a “caballero,” he still says that the man deserves more punishment and that he will spare him only because of the ladies’ entreaties.

In Grossman’s translation this is an even greater change of mind, because when they first meet, Don Quijote denies that the Basque could even be a gentleman.

Maybe at the end when he calls the Basque a caballero/knight, he is speaking sneeringly, but since when have we known our knight to speak ironically?

Maybe Cervantes simply wasn’t being consistent in the two halves of the story.  He says he got the two halves of the story from different sources.  He switches from “lady” in the first half to “ladies” in the second; and the Spanish edition, commenting on this, notes that little inconsistencies in language were typical of Cervantes’ style.  Moreover, he has a couple of plain inconsistencies of plot in the scene in the inn when Fernando and Luscinda arrive.  Then there’s the matter of Sancho’s stolen donkey (Grossman has a few notes about this in Vol. I, chs. 23 and 25, Raffel a brief note in ch. 25).

I’ve spotted a few others.  At his first visit to the inn, Don Quijote is told that he is not in a castle but rather an inn, and he accepts this; on his second visit he’s insisting again that it’s a castle (though he does convince two deadbeat guests to pay their bills), even when he’s told that it’s an inn.  Also, Cervantes writes in Vol. I, ch. 31 that Sancho Panza knew that Dulcinea was really a peasant in Toboso but had never “set eyes on her”; but when Sancho first had learned of her identity in Vol. I, ch. 25 he tells Don Quijote that he knows her well; and he gives all sorts of details about her appearance, speech and physical skills.

Incidentally the modern sense of “gentleman” seems to makes its first appearance in Don Quijote’s words from Vol. II, ch. 6, referring to knights who have little material wealth:  “The poor knight has no way to prove his knighthood except by being virtuous, by being gracious, well-mannered, courteous, by being polite and attention, and neither proud, nor arrogant, nor a rumor-monger but, above all else, charitable, because two cents cheerfully handed over to a man in need shows us someone quite as generous as anybody clanging a bell and distributing alms, and no one, seeing a poor knight adorned with all these virtues, can help but think and believe him – even without any direct personal knowledge – a man of good breeding, which is after all hardly strange, since praise has always been virtue’s reward, nor can one help but praise those who are virtuous.” (Raffel)

In 1885, John Ormsby wrote:

Spanish has probably undergone less change since the seventeenth century than any language in Europe, and by far the greater and certainly the best part of “Don Quixote” differs but little in language from the colloquial Spanish of the present day. Except in the tales and Don Quixote’s speeches, the translator who uses the simplest and plainest everyday language will almost always be the one who approaches nearest to the original.

If the bolded is true today, then I should have had a fighting chance of reading “Don Quixote” in Spanish.  After starting an English version by Raffel, I had a look at the Spanish original, and it was too difficult.  I can read everything and understand it – and it was a pleasure, actually, to return to my first language – but only with painful slowness.  It would have taken away from my enjoyment to read it with my current mastery of Spanish, which remains quite basic.

Some definitions I’ve compiled to help me understand Cervantes’ meaning throughout his novel:

hidalgo = a noble (but of a lower status than a “gentleman,” in the old English sense of that word as someone of the landed gentry)

andante = wanderer

caballero = knight or gentleman

caballero andante = knight errant

ser armado caballero = to be dubbed a knight (“armado” also means “armed”) (see Vol. I, ch. 2)

caballero armado = a knight armed with weapons or armor (see Vol. I, ch. 11)

libros de caballería = tales of chivalry

caballero ilustre = distinguished gentleman (Raffel, Vol. I, ch. 27)

doncella = maiden or damsel

doncella andante = wandering maiden (Raffel, Vol. I, ch. 26)

doncella afligada = damsel in distress (Raffel, Vol. I, ch. 26)

señor de título = nobleman

dueñas = ladies, ladies in waiting, matrons, chaperones (Raffel); duennas (Grossman)

villano = country man

gente honrada = “honorable gentlemen” (Raffel)

gentileshombres = “noble gentlemen” (Raffel)

escudero = a squire, or “mounted page” (Raffel)

señor de lugares = “noble lord” (Raffel), refers to Don Luis in Vol. I, ch. 43 (Spanish edition note: “noble con jurisdicción sobre alguna aldea y sus correspondientes lugares, pequeñas poblaciones”)

hombres de a caballo = gentlemen on horseback (Raffel)

From Spanish Wikipedia:

Un caballero es, según la acepción más general de la palabra, un jinete o persona que monta a caballo o, más estrictamente, una persona de origen noble o, en época actual, simplemente distinguida o poseedora de un código de conducta gentil, atento y solidario. Esta variedad de significados a lo largo de la historia se debe a que montar a caballo ha caracterizado a distintas condiciones sociales según las culturas o etapas históricas de que se trate.

Note in Vol. II, Ch. 6 of my Spanish edition, when Don Quijote’s niece uses the term “caballero”:

El caballero era el hidalgo con fortuna suficiente para mantener con esplendidez su condición de noble.

Maybe you find these notes helpful too, or can clarify some things for me.

See update.


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