Don Quixote follows the titular main character, a middle-aged man who has gone mad after reading too many romantic novels about knights and believes that he can bring chivalry back to the world by becoming a knight-errant. Along with his far more reasonable and grounded servant Sancho, Don Quixote sets out on a number of absurd quests. The novel parodies the unrealistic romantic tales of the time period, making Don Quixote out to be a comedic yet endearing character. Its author, Miguel de Cervantes, brings into question the truthfulness of our myths of “golden ages” and plays with metafiction as a way to cleverly interrogate our propensity to trust in narratives and storytellers even when these narratives go against common sense.

At the start of Don Quixote, Don Quixote has become deluded by chivalric romantic novels and believes that he must become a knight and bring morals and valor back to modern society. The novel was written in the very early 1600s, at which point the age of knighthood was coming to a decided end – Don Quixote is attempting to cling to a dying way of life. He changes his name from Alonso Quixano to Don Quixote of La Mancha, and he finds an old barn horse who he rechristens Rocinante, a name more fitting for a stallion than a workhorse. He and Rocinante set out as a knight and steed, and in the novel’s inciting incident, they come across a group of merchants whom they try and fail to do battle with. This initial loss foreshadows the pathetic hilarity that will ensue throughout Don Quixote’s adventures. Always persistent, Don Quixote continues his knight-errantry and soon picks up Sancho, a peasant whom Don Quixote promises to make a governor if he accompanies Don Quixote on his quest. Don Quixote, Rocinante, and Sancho and his donkey Dapple, travel the roads of Spain together as Don Quixote searches for quests to undertake and knightly duties to perform. Don Quixote and Rocinante are both past their prime but foolishly believe that they have been reinvented as magnificent knightly specimens. Meanwhile, the humble yet reasonable Sancho and Dapple take care of practical matters so that Don Quixote and Rocinante can live out their romantic fantasies.

In the novel’s rising action, the gang meets a Duke and Duchess who invite Don Quixote and Sancho to stay with them because they are entertained by Don Quixote’s ridiculous behavior. The Duke and Duchess create false scenarios that Don Quixote believes are real quests. Sancho is given a fictitious isle to govern and does a decent job, proving once again that he has more reason and wisdom than his wealthy master. Don Quixote, deluded by his own fantasies, never realizes that the Duke and Duchess are playing tricks on him. Eventually, Don Quixote and Sancho set out on the road once more, this time arriving in Barcelona. In the novel’s climax, the Knight of the White Moon challenges Don Quixote to a duel. The Knight is a mysterious figure to Don Quixote, but is known to the reader as Samson Currasco, an old peer of Don Quixote’s who wants to bring Don Quixote back to reality. The Knight tells Don Quixote that, should he lose the duel, he must return home and give up knight-errantry for a year. Don Quixote accepts, and he loses the duel.

In the novel’s falling action, Don Quixote and Sancho return to La Mancha. Devastated by his loss, Don Quixote quickly begins to return to reality and decides he is done with knighthood and would rather be a shepherd. He falls very ill, and despite Sancho’s attempts to revive him by suggesting that he set out on a new quest, Don Quixote remains despondent and soon dies. The novel’s ending suggests that Don Quixote’s death was caused by heartbreak rather than physical decline. His loss at the hands of the Knight of the White Moon causes Don Quixote to realize that he will never truly be a knight, and that he will never live in the golden era of knighthood and chivalry that he romanticizes. This reality is too much for Don Quixote to bear. While Cervantes has empathy for his titular character’s struggle, he implies that people like Sancho who have a more realistic outlook on life will ultimately fare better, and that we must take caution not to mythologize the past.