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ArribaAbajo Authorial Strings: A Recurrent Metaphor in Don Quijote

Helena Percas de Ponseti

Grinnell College

Mediante la imagen recurrente en ambas partes del Quijote de los cordeles autoriales, invocada a través de varios objectos-metáfora -riendas, cuerdas, hilos, líneas, cables, látigos, redes- Cervantes hace inequívocas distinciones entre su propio arte creador de caracteres y la simple manipulación artesana de personajes, del historiador Cide Hamete Benengeli, del tiritero Maese Pedro y del autor apócrifo Avellaneda.

The role of an author as architect of his characters' destinies is a leit-motif in Cervantes' fiction. The object-image conveying an author's control over his characters is an implied or a manifest puppet-string. It reappears throughout Don Quijote under several disguises: a rein, a thread, a rope, a line, a spike on a balcony, a hook in a tree, a cable, a whip, a cord, a girth, a net. Each of these object-images provides a thread of constantly recreated or extended metaphor of authorial control.

From the interplay between the narrative level of fiction abounding in action and dialogue about life styles, ideals, and ethics, and the metaphoric level of fiction pictorially conveying Cervantes' view of life, there emerges the author's indirect portrayal of Don Quijote, Sancho, their chronicler, Cide Hamete Benengeli, of Maese Pedro, the puppeteer, and even of Avellaneda, the author of the apocryphal Don Quijote.

It is in chapter eight of Part I where we first find an allusion to the puppet-strings. This chapter ends abruptly with Don Quijote, arm in mid-air, about to deal the Basque a defeating blow.

On the narrative level, the arrested confrontation between Don Quijote and the Basque follows the pattern found in so many contemporary and earlier stories in which episodes are interrupted for the purpose of creating suspense. In Cervantes' novel the main   —52→   purpose is to introduce a chronicler, Cide Hamete Benengeli,73 as the author of the interrupted narrative so as to cast doubts74 upon his reliability as a historian. The narrator seriously and explicitly questions Cide Hamete's qualifications to relate Don Quijote's adventures. He even goes so far as to warn the reader that if «anything good» is found missing in the story «it is the fault of its dog of an author rather than any default in the subject [Don Quijote]» (I, 9). How does this discussion relate to the mid-air action interruption?

On the pictorial level, the mid-air action interruption offers a graphic analogy to the literary discussion. Cervantes' live characters, Don Quijote and the Basque, have suddenly turned into puppets at the hands of the chronicler Benengeli. The apparently self-generated motivations when their creator, Cervantes, was in command now seem to be controlled by noticeable if not visible authorial strings held by the chronicler who leaves the contenders suspended.

Cervantes is graphically addressing the reader on the subject of make-believe manipulation as opposed to authentic character creation. By interrupting the story so abruptly the focus has shifted from the characters to their authors, from a physical confrontation to an intellectual confrontation. The continuity of the story is being preserved, however, since the thrust of the episode falls upon the truth of the characters independently of their chronicler.

Another example in Part I where Cide Hamete and Cervantes are writing the same story with a different focus occurs in chapter forty-three. Don Quijote is summoned in jest by the innkeeper's daughter to come close to a hole in the loft. His response to the «lovesick» lady   —53→   is to stand on Rocinante's saddle so as to reach the «window» in the «castle» and offer his hand, not to be kissed -he informs her- but to be admired for its strength (italics mine). Nevertheless, the sensuousness of the gesture cannot fail to be noticed by the reader. Maritornes, the sassy maid at the inn, fetches the halter of Sancho's ass, ties a running knot in one end over Don Quijote's wrist, and fastens the other end to the bolt of the hay-loft door. Don Quijote's precarious position on the saddle is brought up four more times by Cide Hamete: «Don Quijote was, as we have said, standing upon Rocinante»; «though he longed to sit down on the saddle, he could do nothing but remain standing or tug off his hand»; Don Quijote «concluded that he and his horse would have to remain like that until the malign influence of the stars should pass, or until another more learned enchanter [Cervantes, we sense] should break the spell»; Rocinante was «bearing up his outstretched master».

Now, the accident that breaks the spell occurs. Rocinante moves when a horseman's mount comes to make endearing advances to him. The analogy between Don Quijote and Rocinante is suggested by their identical responses to amorous entreaties. Once more we are reminded of the knight's position on his horse: «Don Quijote's feet which were close together, slipped and, sliding from the saddle, would have landed him on the ground had he not been hanging by his arm». But immediately after this last statement, Cide Hamete describes Don Quijote as left hanging so near the ground that he almost «kissed it with his feet» (italics mine). Although idiomatically used, the verb to kiss recalls the earlier sensuous gesture. The closeness to the ground is now emphasized four more times in the remainder of the paragraph. «He could touch it [the ground] with the tips of his toes», «he felt what a little way the soles of his feet were from the earth»; «he was very much like someone put to the torture of the 'strappado,' in which the victim's feet neither quite touch nor quite fail to touch the earth»; and as he stretches himself «in the delusory hope that with a little more stretching he will reach the ground» (italics mine).

The contradictions (Cervantes' or Cide Hamete's?) between Don Quijote being suspended up high by taut reins and hanging low when Rocinante moves is not easy to explain on the narrative level. Clemencín admits he cannot understand how this happened.75


Within the context of the knight's amorous illusions, however, the reader may perceive the transmutation from the pictorial image of Don Quijote outstretched on the saddle by Maritornes' device to the figurative image of the knight's internal conflict between his lofty commitments to Dulcinea and his base desires for the lady behind the window. The higher (literally) his physical inclination takes him -Rocinante, his physical self, is his support-, the lower (figuratively) his lofty ideal sinks -the ground.

In an allegorical context, therefore, the rein of Sancho's ass (again, an image of the body) used to tie Don Quijote's hand (the organ par excellence of sensory perception) are implied puppet strings held by Cervantes' wit to castigate the knight morally and physically for his concupiscence. In the style of the Inquisition, the knight's body is stretched almost to the breaking point because the offense is a serious one.

Since Cide Hamete faithfully records all details of Don Quijote's adventure, he falls into textual contradiction. The chronicler writes about facts that oftentimes exclude human truths. Cervantes writes about human truths that oftentimes are not sustained by the facts. When the threads of the novelistic fabric become visible it is usually Cide Hamete's fault.

This becomes more perceptible in Part Il. Overwhelmed by admiration for Don Quijote, who is challenging lions, Cide Hamete forgets his authorial role and launches a laudatory exclamation over the knight's prowess. After this, he goes on «to knit up the thread of his story» (II, 17),76 the narrator informs us. The authorial strings (the thread) have suddenly become visible.

As Part II progresses Cervantes perfects his technique of contrasting a true creator to a mere puppeteer. In the Montesinos cave episode (chapters 22-23) Sancho and the Scholar bind Don Quijote with a rope before lowering him into the cave. After paying out a taut rope for one hundred fifty feet, Sancho and the Scholar hoist it «easily and without weight» for about one hundred twenty feet   —55→   before they feel a weight again. Commentators have repeatedly noted the incongruity of a taut rope that has no weight. Again, no satisfactory explanation can be found on the narrative level. On the pictorial level, however, the incongruity suggests a symbolic meaning. While Don Quijote is dreaming inside the cave his body has no weight. The reason is that he has been transmuted into a figment of Cervantes' imagination and has lost his identity to take on his creator's, much like what happens to the mystic's soul when it unites with God.77 Don Quijote senses that he is no longer himself, that he is «some empty and counterfeit phantom», and seeks to verify his identity by comically and irrelevantly feeling his body.

Pictorially, then, what the reader «sees» is a surrealist painting. He may or may not recognize it as such, for the literal rope binding Don Quijote to the external world is also an allegorical puppet-string invisibly manipulated by Cervantes but visibly held, within the novelistic context, by Sancho and the Scholar, two other true-to-life «puppets». In his dream, Don Quijote can't walk away from the rope binding him, with all his human authenticity about him despite his change of identity. Cervantes' tacit discussion and practical demonstration of authentic character creation emerges in the rope symbol as one of the several literary themes found in the cave episode.78


A comical variation of the notion of separation of spirit and body is alluded to in three consecutive pseudo-mystic images wrought in the episode of the enchanted boat (II, 29). Cervantes' metaphoric authorial strings coincide with Cide Hamete's literal rope mentioned on the narrative level. First, Sancho ties up his donkey and Rocinante (the physical selves of master and squire) to the shore, the world, before he and Don Quijote embark on a journey. Second, the journey becomes a spiritual voyage when Don Quijote cuts the ropes fastening the boat to the river bank, society. Third, the material ropes are transmuted into a mystical tie, the equinoctial line that the boat is about to cross. After their aborted adventure, Don Quijote suspects that «two powerful enchanters must have met in opposition,... the one frustrating the other's designs. One provided me with a boat; the other threw me out». The reader who detects the allegorical implications of Don Quijote's statements gets the image of Cide Hamete and Cervantes struggling to control the strings of events. The result is that Don Quijote and Sancho almost «naturally» drown.

Simple puppet manipulation in contrast to character creation is the main theme in Maese Pedro's puppet show (II, 26). Maese Pedro is the author of a drama inspired by a ballad about Melisendra's rescue from captivity in Moorish land. The strings he so maladroitly manipulates become a graphic literalization of his failure as a character creator. He is responsible for Melisendra's awkward descent from a balcony. Her skirt gets caught on a spike and her rescuer, Don Gaiferos, must forcibly pull his lady down to the ground, before he manages to make her leap onto the croup of his horse, astride like a man. A dramatic subject has been rendered comical.79 Cervantes' invention is not only charming, but a clever allusion to Maese Pedro's bad imitation of nature or mimesis, in Aristotelian terminology.

An interesting variation on the relationship between creator and created is found in the braying episode (II, 27). Two aldermen from neighboring towns bray to elicit a response from a lost donkey. Their   —57→   imitation of the donkey's nature is so perfect that they are indistinguishable from their asses. This notion is graphically rendered in a life-size painting of an alderman depicted as an ass in the action of braying. A white satin background represents the pomp and refinement of his office.80 The mutual compliments the aldermen bestow upon each other for their braying abilities eventually lead to a declaration of war between their town and a neighboring village. Don Quijote's lucid speech on the five valid causes for engaging in combat rationally makes the point of man's stupidity in declaring war over a trifle. Sancho's unfortunate «counterpoint» attempt to improve on his master's speech by giving a practical demonstration -he brays- of how easy it is to make an ass of oneself is the aesthetic error that triggers the almost averted war. Don Quijote's admonishment to Sancho in the words of the proverb -«when did you find it a good thing to mention rope in the hanged man's house?»- significantly brings back the rope symbol with new content: that of man's self-destruction when he is dejado de la mano de Dios and abdicates his divinely-endowed nature. This variation on the rope symbol indirectly reveals Cervantes' orthodoxy: free will should be exercised to assume ultimate responsibility for one's actions.81 The idea is expressionistically conceived and surrealistically conveyed.

Still another variation on the theme of the author's skillful string manipulation is found in the hunting scene at the ducal estate (II, 34). The focus is on Sancho and his donkey Dapple, representing the owner's simplicity and down-to-earth nature. «The sustainer of the other half of my person» he once called his donkey in tender recognition (I, 23).


Sancho steps out of his nature when he goes hunting and puts on the green hunting suit given him at the ducal palace. He refuses, nevertheless, to ride other than Dapple -both the literal donkey and a graphic embodiment of his nature- «whom he dared not abandon for fear that some accident might befall him». But, when the boar comes, the terrified Sancho does abandon Dapple, now the literal donkey, and tries to climb to the top of an oak tree. One of the lower branches breaks and falls to the ground while Sancho is left dangling, head down, caught on a fork in the tree by his green hunting suit. Dapple, however, Sancho's nature once again, does not abandon his master in his calamity and stands beside him. The literal-minded Cide Hamete, unaware that he is sometimes looking at a literal ass and sometimes at a symbol, naïvely attempts to explain away the inconsistency of Dapple being left behind yet standing beside Sancho, by remarking that «he seldom saw Sancho without seeing Dapple, or Dapple without seeing Sancho: such was the friendship and loyalty between them» (II, 34).82 Cide Hamete seems to have forgotten Sancho's recent disloyalty, or to ignore that the details he so faithfully records reflect the squire's newly-born ambition to climb to the highest social class, the aristocracy -the very top of the tall oak tree. Sancho fails to make it even to a lower branch since it breaks. As his green hunter's suit tears, the squire feels he is losing with it an estate «un mayorazgo»).

As for the reader, he must choose between finding Cervantes inconsistent or careless, or conceiving of Dapple as Sancho's unrenounced nature and of the tall oak tree as the squire's unrealistic ambition.

The hanged man's rope in the aldermen's adventure, an allusion to free will exercised to commit a symbolic suicide by imitating the   —59→   donkey's nature, has been replaced in the hunting scene at the ducal palace by an oak tree and its fork, an allusion to Sancho's attempted suicide for assuming a role so unnatural to him when he goes hunting. In this episode, the metaphorically graphic author's strings are not even detectable because a skillful Cervantes has made them coincide with nature: the oak tree and its fork. Sancho's characterization is being developed not only effectively but unobtrusively.83 Behind the fiction we sense a good-humored allusion to Aristotle's theory of mimesis.

In a later episode (II, 55) Sancho and Dapple are rescued from the dark pit into which they have fallen after Sancho leaves the governorship of Barataria. Elsewhere, I have discussed the allegorical meaning of this misadventure.84 It is analogical to Don Quijote's dream adventure in Montesinos' cave, with the significant difference that Sancho is wide awake. His introspection and self-discovery are fully conscious and lucid. He knows that his «follies and fantasies» have brought him to the present state, that he really belongs with his ass. The literal ropes and cables that bring both of them up from the darkness of the pit to the light of the sun are symbols of Sancho's rediscovery of his true nature. Shortly before, he has made his peace with Dapple by symbolically giving him his last chunk of bread. Unlike the rope bringing Don Quijote up from the cave of Montesinos -weightless while the knight is dreaming, because it is hoisting an illusion, self-deception- the ropes and cables bringing Sancho and Dapple to the surface of the earth are heavy because they are   —60→   hoisting a reality, self-knowledge. The conspicuously visible ropes and cables are Cervantes' masterfully disguised authorial strings. They are invisible as symbols because, once again, they coincide with nature.

An allusion to the hangman's whip as a variation of the theme of an author's failure to pull the strings convincingly relates to Avellaneda and his infelicitous manipulation of characters. One of them, Don Álvaro Tarfe, Avellaneda's own invention, who happens to wander into Cervantes' Part II, declares that he saved Don Quijote (the apocryphal) from having his back tickled by the hangman (II, 72). Cervantes makes Don Álvaro use criminal jargon ('tickled' palinease) to refer to the hangman's whip, thereby uncovering the gentleman's roguish psychology, also betrayed by his use of a second slang expression, «le hice muchas amistades» instead of «mercedes», of common usage ('I did him many kindnesses'), to refer to his friendship with Don Quijote. As a matter of fact, in Avellaneda's novel, Don Álvaro befriended Don Quijote and Sancho for his own entertainment. Cervantes takes over Avellaneda's strings, the hangman's whip, and repairs Don Álvaro's unskillful portrayal of his invented character.85 In contrast, Cervantes brings up the whip, again authorial strings, as an instrument of self-flagellation when Sancho is «sentenced» by Merlin (II, 35) to lash himself «of his own free will» -a delightful contradiction in terms- for the disenchantment of Dulcinea, whom the squire had passed off earlier as an ugly and ill-smelling wench -a heretical debasement of Don Quijote's ideal. In this context, the whip is now a figurative image of Sancho's conscience. The strings have been placed in his hands, so to speak. But Sancho feels no remorse and postpones the flagellation indefinitely.

Don Quijote is exasperated by Sancho's constant delays in restoring Dulcinea to her pristine state. The knight's fallacious syllogism about truth when he pretends that it matters little whether his squire lashes himself or someone else lashes him «since the   —61→   efficacy lies in [Sancho] receiving» the lashes, leads the knight to getting Rocinante's reins -the authorial strings of destiny -in an attempt to fulfill by force the prophecy of Dulcinea's disenchantment (II, 60). On the narrative level, he fails because Sancho overpowers him.

Inversely, when Don Quijote is defeated by the Knight of the White Moon, he follows his squire's suggestion to leave his arms dangling from a tree just like the bandits they encountered earlier in their wanderings. Intuitively, he is acknowledging his Maker's judgment: his error lies not in embracing a high ideal but in attempting to uphold it by force.

Another charming example of invisible authorial strings is found after Don Quijote leaves the ducal palace. He imagines himself the object of love on the strength of his spiritual endowments (II, 58). At this point Cervantes lays before him nets of green thread that the shepherdesses of the fake Arcadia meant for catching «the silly little birds» that would fall for nature's green. It is Don Quijote who falls into the nets and finds himself entangled in his Creator's threads, their green color86 suggesting the knight's conceited self-deception. In fact, in order to maximize his gallantry and courtesy toward the shepherdesses he goes so far as to alter the Scriptures by saying «though some say that man's greatest sin is pride, I say it is ingratitude».

In short, Don Quijote and Sancho are characterized, not by Cide Hamete's insight, but by the reader's perception of what the characters' statements and actions mean.

From this study of the recurrent puppet-string metaphor one conclusion may be drawn. Tacitly but graphically a pointed distinction is being made and sustained throughout the novel between Cervantes as a masterful character creator and Cide Hamete, Maese Pedro, or Avellaneda as mere manipulators, Cide Hamete a more   —62→   successful one than the other two because he is faithfully, if not lucidly, reproducing Cervantes' creation, that is, imitating Nature.