“But now, in these our detestable times, no maiden is safe, even if she is hidden and enclosed in another labyrinth like the one in Crete; because even there, through chinks in the wall, or carried by the air itself, with the zealousness of accursed solicitation the amorous pestilence finds its way in and, despite all their seclusion, maidens are brought to ruin. It was for their protection, as time passed and wickedness spread, that the order of knights errant was instituted: to defend maidens, protect widows, and come to the aid of orphans and those in need.”
– Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
Don Quixote, or “The Knight of the Sorrowful Face,” is the original Super Hero. The whole novel is riddled with adventures of maidens, in limbo and in love, running and hiding from their destiny as wives to husbands they don’t wish to marry…shunned from their homes because of “lost virtue.” Quixote helps restore lovers to their rightful place, and maidens to a life free of shame (even forcing a dishonest man to marry a woman who’s “purity” he had taken…) All this illuminates for us the sorrowful need for a knight in Cervantes’ times. The male as the protector- the national hero. The woman as the oppressed. What form does the knight take today? Quixote is never sexualized- he is never “base,” and his love for his Dulcinea is always of the highest intentions. Always from afar… So when exactly did our desires in a superhero change? And who changed them? In a time when a “knight in shining armour” was a woman’s only hope against getting raped in a situation when she found herself in danger, we start to understand the real desire and appeal of such heroes. We start to understand where the real need for chaperones and proprieties came from. But where did the desire for a hero that was also sexually attractive come from? Perhaps it was the low-born woman’s far-fetched dream of bettering her life by marrying a prince… 17th century obsession with chastity placed women in an unfair position. And Don Quixote was there to help them- in the purest way. He is on the side of lovers…ever faithful to his Dulcinea… never looking for anything more than fulfilling his duty as knight errant.
“It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to succour them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.”
Here is a speech spoken by one of the characters in part one chapter XIV, Marcela, a shepherdess who refuses to take responsibility for the hearts of men she does not love, after being accused of being cruel to them and their advances (Although she is sometimes unaware of them as they admire her from afar…) She references Chrysostom who dies because of his love for her:
“I was born free, and that I might live in freedom I chose the solitude of the fields; in the trees of the mountains I find society, the clear waters of the brooks are my mirrors, and to the trees and waters I make known my thoughts and charms. I am a fire afar off, a sword laid aside. Those whom I have inspired with love by letting them see me, I have by words undeceived, and if their longings live on hope—and I have given none to Chrysostom or to any other—it cannot justly be said that the death of any is my doing, for it was rather his own obstinacy than my cruelty that killed him; and if it be made a charge against me that his wishes were honourable, and that therefore I was bound to yield to them, I answer that when on this very spot where now his grave is made he declared to me his purity of purpose, I told him that mine was to live in perpetual solitude, and that the earth alone should enjoy the fruits of my retirement and the spoils of my beauty; and if, after this open avowal, he chose to persist against hope and steer against the wind, what wonder is it that he should sink in the depths of his infatuation? If I had encouraged him, I should be false; if I had gratified him, I should have acted against my own better resolution and purpose. He was persistent in spite of warning, he despaired without being hated. Bethink you now if it be reasonable that his suffering should be laid to my charge. Let him who has been deceived complain, let him give way to despair whose encouraged hopes have proved vain, let him flatter himself whom I shall entice, let him boast whom I shall receive; but let not him call me cruel or homicide to whom I make no promise, upon whom I practise no deception, whom I neither entice nor receive. It has not been so far the will of Heaven that I should love by fate, and to expect me to love by choice is idle. Let this general declaration serve for each of my suitors on his own account, and let it be understood from this time forth that if anyone dies for me it is not of jealousy or misery he dies, for she who loves no one can give no cause for jealousy to any, and candour is not to be confounded with scorn. Let him who calls me wild beast and basilisk, leave me alone as something noxious and evil; let him who calls me ungrateful, withhold his service; who calls me wayward, seek not my acquaintance; who calls me cruel, pursue me not; for this wild beast, this basilisk, this ungrateful, cruel, wayward being has no kind of desire to seek, serve, know, or follow them. If Chrysostom’s impatience and violent passion killed him, why should my modest behaviour and circumspection be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the society of the trees, why should he who would have me preserve it among men, seek to rob me of it? I have, as you know, wealth of my own, and I covet not that of others; my taste is for freedom, and I have no relish for constraint; I neither love nor hate anyone; I do not deceive this one or court that, or trifle with one or play with another. The modest converse of the shepherd girls of these hamlets and the care of my goats are my recreations; my desires are bounded by these mountains, and if they ever wander hence it is to contemplate the beauty of the heavens, steps by which the soul travels to its primeval abode.”
For further reading see female heroins: