Man of La Mancha vs. Lord of the Rings

Wasserman, Dale, et al. Man of La Mancha Random House, 1966


Wasserman’s play, Man of La Mancha, based on Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, forms another exposition of JRR Tolkien’s thesis; that ‘romance’ or ‘fairy stories’ can be true to those who dare to believe – and that not believing is to remain trapped in a drab ‘reality.’  The test case here is the whore Aldonza, who is eventually beguiled by Quixote’s insistence that she is really a fair lady of nobility, and adopts for herself the name Dulcinea that he bestows upon her.

In telling this story, Wasserman stacks the odds against ‘faith.’  Quixote, for all his amusing ways and ironic wisdom, really is quite mad.  He is deliberately out of touch with reality – he ‘lays down’ the burden of sanity in order to take up his imagined role as knight errant.  There is no room here for romance to co-exist with reason.

The part of Sancho emphasizes this; he plays along with his master’s imagined reality, but is too concrete a thinker to really enter into the follie and Quixote must continually explain to him what it is he is seeing.  Simple reality excludes fancy.

Except that there is no evidence that Aldonza/Dulcinea is herself insane; indeed, her specific role is that of hard-nosed realist.  Surely, then, her final acceptance of the romance demonstrates the healing power of faith?  Not necessarily.  Her rejections of Quixote throughout the play become more and more aggressive because her bitter acceptance of reality is itself her best defence against the terrible conditions of her life.  She is not only the voice of harsh reality, she is its greatest victim, and is therefore most strongly motivated to escape, with Quixote, into fantasy.  Might not her acceptance of a gentler understanding of herself be an unrealistic capitulation and the beginning of her defeat by circumstances; much as Quixote himself was, ultimately, defeated? 

Aldonza comes to him, reverted back to his common-place identity of Alonso Quijana, on his death-bed.  When he hears her acceptance of the title of Dulcinea, and her frantic pleading for him to be, again, the noble knight errant, he does rise again for a final reaffirmation of his fantasy – and then collapses into death.  Here is, ultimately, no escape.  Reality constantly asserts itself against the bodies of these two main characters, in the rape of Aldonza by the muleteers, and in Quijana/Quixote’s eventual death.

True, it is after the death of Quijana that Aldonza declares herself unequivocally to be Dulcinea, indicating, perhaps, that romance is stronger even than death – but in so doing she also denies the identity between the man who died and her ‘saviour.’  “A man died,” she says, “He might have been a good man, but he was not Don Quixote.”

Finally, the setting of this tale is itself the story of Cervantes, imprisoned on charges related to his work as a tax official, and awaiting an appearance before the inquisition.  Cervantes’ tale of the mad Quijana and his softening of the heart of Aldonza persuades his fellow prisoners that his is not a hopeless case after all.  He departs the dungeon to face his trial to the strains of ‘The Impossible Dream,” head held high.

Wasserman seems to offer a choice between (harsh) reality or hopeful fantasy, and it is precisely at the limit-condition of death and suffering that we see that it is, in this presentation, an either-or choice. 

Tolkien would say, in contrast, that the deepest layer of reality is neither death nor suffering, but the disruption of these by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Wasserman remains secular.  His play does not allow us to hold together the reality of Quijana and the hopefulness of Quixote.  He requires us to neglect the death of the one in order to believe in the other.  Christianity allows us to acknowledge and accept death and still to say our ‘nevertheless.’  Reality and romance can be held together without denying either and this is the meaning of the gospel.  As Tolkien puts it, “story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of creation.  The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of mans history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation[1].”

Although Cervantes and Wasserman both write in the context of a culture containing Christianity, and include something of the representatives of faith in their works, those representatives are no more than foils for the livelier ‘faith’ of Quixote’s madness.  Even in Cervantes’ original work, Quijano’s deathbed ‘conversion’ is no more than a renunciation of romance and a resignation to death.  Indeed, while Cervantes, especially in the second part of the great classic, may have come to sympathise with his unruly hero’s romanticising, he nevertheless consistently rejects it from start to finish, as incompatible with rational thinking.  He is rightly described as one of the first great ‘realists’ in literature.

Yet a truly Christian account is the only responsible means of holding together Quixotes’ romance and realism.  And Tolkien shows us how this is so.

[1] Tree and Leaf, p. 65

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