Rather than admit that Don Quixote received a vicious thrashing from a gang of Yanguesans, Sancho tells the innkeeper that his master fell and injured himself. The innkeeper’s wife and beautiful daughter tend to Don Quixote’s wounds. Don Quixote begins to believe that the daughter has fallen in love with him and that she has promised to lie with him that night. In actuality, Maritornes, the daughter’s hunchbacked servant, creeps in that night to sleep with a carrier who is sharing a room with Don Quixote and Sancho. As an aside, Cervantes then tells us that Cide Hamete Benengeli specially mentions the carrier because Benengeli is related to him.
Nearly blind, Maritornes accidentally goes to Don Quixote’s bed instead of the carrier’s. Don Quixote mistakes her for the beautiful daughter and tries to woo her, and the carrier attacks him. Maritornes jumps into Sancho’s bed to hide. Awakened by the commotion, the innkeeper goes to the bedroom and he, the carrier, and Sancho have a terrific brawl. An officer staying at the inn hears the fighting and goes upstairs to break it up. The officer sees Don Quixote passed out on the bed and believes he is dead. He leaves to get a light to investigate the scene.
Don Quixote tells Sancho that the inn is enchanted and recounts his version of the evening’s events. He says a princess came in to woo him and a giant beat him up. Just then, the officer returns, and Don Quixote insults him, provoking him to beat Don Quixote. Sancho, angry about his own injuries, rails against Don Quixote’s story, but Don Quixote promises to make the balsam to cure Sancho. He tells Sancho not to get angry over enchantments, since they cannot be stopped.
Don Quixote mixes ingredients and drinks the potion. He vomits immediately and passes out. Upon waking, he feels much better and believes he has successfully concocted the mythical balsam. Sancho also takes the potion, and although it makes him tremendously ill, he does not vomit. Don Quixote explains that the balsam does not work on Sancho because he is a squire and not a knight.
As Don Quixote leaves the inn, the innkeeper demands that he pay for his stay. Surprised that he has stayed in an inn and not a castle, Don Quixote refuses to pay on the grounds that knights-errant never pay for lodging. He rides off, slinging insults at the innkeeper. Several rogues at the inn capture Sancho, who also refuses to pay, and toss him in a blanket. Don Quixote, too bruised to dismount from Rocinante, believes that the enchantment prevents him from helping Sancho. Sancho finally gets away and feels proud for not having paid. But it turns out that the innkeeper has stolen Sancho’s saddlebags.
As they ride away from the inn, Sancho complains bitterly to Don Quixote about the injuries their misadventures cause him. Suddenly Don Quixote sees clouds of dust coming along the road and mistakes them for two great armies on the brink of battle. Sancho warns his master that the two clouds actually come from two herds of sheep. Unconvinced, Don Quixote describes in great detail the knights he thinks he sees in the dust. Cervantes eventually cuts off the account, remarking that Don Quixote is merely reeling off ideas he has encountered in his “lying books” about chivalry.
Don Quixote rushes into the battle and kills seven sheep before two shepherds throw stones at him and knock out several of his teeth. Sancho points out that the armies were really just sheep, prompting Don Quixote to explain that a sorcerer turned the armies into sheep in the midst of battle to thwart his efforts. Don Quixote takes more of the balsam, and as Sancho comes close to see how badly his master’s teeth have been injured, Don Quixote vomits on him. Nauseous, Sancho then vomits on Don Quixote. When Sancho tries to fetch something to clean them up, he discovers that his saddlebags have been stolen. Fed up, he vows to go home. Don Quixote says that he would rather sleep in an inn that night than in the field, and tells Sancho to lead them to an inn.
Sancho tells Don Quixote that their troubles stem from Don Quixote’s violation of his vow to keep a strict lifestyle until he finds a new helmet. Don Quixote agrees, noting that he had forgotten the vow, and blames Sancho for failing to remind him. As night falls, the two encounter a group of priests mourning as they escort the body of a dead man. When the priests refuse to identify themselves, Don Quixote knocks one of them off his horse, and the others scatter. Don Quixote tells the wounded priest that he has come to avenge injuries. The priest complains that Don Quixote has injured him without avenging anything.
Sancho steals goods from the priest’s mule. As the priest rides away, Sancho yells after him that this mischief was the work of Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sad Countenance. Pleased with his new title, Don Quixote asks Sancho where he came up with it. Sancho replies that Don Quixote’s face looks sad without its teeth. But Don Quixote asserts that Sancho so named him because a sage, who Don Quixote claims is dictating his life’s story, made Sancho think of this title. The two ride into a valley and eat dinner. They then have a conversation that Cervantes promises to record in the next chapter.
Don Quixote and Sancho hear a scary pounding. Sancho implores his master to wait until morning to investigate the sound, but Don Quixote swears to take on the unknown foe. Don Quixote tells Sancho to wait three days and then report his death to Dulcinea if he has not returned. Sancho secretly ties up Rocinante’s legs, immobilizing him, and Don Quixote concedes that since Rocinante seems unable to move, he must wait until morning to investigate.
Sancho begins telling a story. He tells each detail twice, and Don Quixote interrupts and commands him to tell the story only once. But Sancho says that this is the way stories are told in his homeland, so Don Quixote allows him to proceed. Sancho then vividly describes a shepherdess. Don Quixote asks whether he knew the shepherdess. Sancho says that he did not but that when he first heard the story it seemed so real that he could swear he had seen her. Sancho tells how a shepherd in love with this shepherdess had to cross a river with a herd of goats, and Sancho instructs Don Quixote to keep count while he tells the story of how many goats the character takes across. Midway through, Don Quixote tells Sancho to proceed with the story as though all the goats were already across. Sancho asks his master whether he knows how many goats have already crossed, and Don Quixote admits that he does not. Sancho ends his story, and Don Quixote cannot persuade him to tell the rest of it.
In the morning, Sancho and Don Quixote set off. Cervantes says that Sancho’s faithfulness convinces Don Quixote that Sancho is a good man. When the two arrive at a small bunch of houses by a river, they discover that the scary pounding comes from fulling-hammers, which are used to beat cloth. Sancho laughs, and Don Quixote hits him with his lance. Don Quixote says that Sancho must speak less to him in the future. Sancho accepts the order after Don Quixote tells him that he has left Sancho money in his will.
The graphic accounts of Don Quixote’s and Sancho’s vomiting constitute Cervantes’s basest humor. Cervantes later justifies the inclusion of such bawdy episodes, stating that a successful novel contains elements that appeal to all levels of society. This crude humor seems out of place, especially when compared to the delicate humor of Sancho’s story in Chapter XX. Critics often focus on this disparity, but Cervantes may be using this contrast to draw our attention to the differences between romantic ideals and reality. He highlights reality by emphasizing its physical aspects, reminding us about the inconsistency between the way things play out in Don Quixote’s dreams and the way they play out in the real world.
Don Quixote’s explanation for why the Balsam of Fierbras does not work for Sancho underscores the characters’ perception of class and privilege. Don Quixote seems to believe that bad things cannot happen to knights because they belong to a higher class, one that the mundane world cannot touch. The fact that he persistently attributes all of his misfortunes to an enchantment emphasizes his faith that mortal forces cannot touch him. This class distinction extends to gentlemen as well, who play by a different set of rules than members of the lower class. Cervantes’s attitude toward such class distinctions appears mixed: even though Cervantes includes numerous classist remarks, he pokes fun at Don Quixote’s claim of being separate and superior. Ultimately, Cervantes undercuts the idea that one’s class signifies one’s worth. He criticizes people in all classes in an effort to humanize everyone.
Sancho’s bizarre, aborted account of the shepherd and shepherdess highlights Cervantes’s tendency to comment on the nature of storytelling and the way literature should be presented and read. Sancho’s storytelling mimics Cardenio’s later refusal, in Chapter XXIII, to finish his story when Don Quixote interrupts him in the Sierra Morena. Here, Sancho asserts his right to tell the story as he sees fit and according to the tradition by which people in his homeland tell stories. This tradition mimics great epic poems, often tedious in their apparently useless repetition and lists of detail. Don Quixote views these conventions as empty formalities and asks Sancho to skip them, which irritates Sancho. But Sancho apparently believes that a story is not truly a story unless it has a certain formal structure. This interplay of structure and content is found throughout Don Quixote, since Cervantes frequently plays with the highly formal framework of chivalric tales. Here, through Sancho, Cervantes implies that a reader must play along with the author’s structural effects to get to the meaning of the story. Sancho’s story thus prompts us to pay attention to the game Cervantes plays throughout his novel.