From Chapter 12 to 14 of Part I there is a pastoral episode in which we learn of the shepherd Grisóstomo, who killed himself because the beautiful shepherdess named Marcela didn’t respond to his professed love for her. The general sentiment is that Marcela is responsible for his death. At Grisóstomo’s funeral, Marcela appears in order to defend herself and then disappears into the forest.
This episode is important because it undermines don Quixote’s mission as a knight errant. To understand why, you have to go back to Chapter 11, where don Quixote gives a speech to some goatherds who have invited him and Sancho to dine and spend the night with them in their huts. In this speech, don Quixote explains why knights errant are necessary in the world. He says that in the Golden Age—which he says was long before the plow was invented—truth, sincerity, and justice were pure; that there was no need for judges; that there were no arbitrary laws. And whereas in the Golden Age maidens could roam freely and in complete safety, alone and unattended, in these modern times no maiden is safe, not even closed up in the labyrinth of Crete. Since maidens now need to be defended, knights errant are necessary in this detestable Age of Iron, don Quixote says.
Now, the very next maiden that don Quixote sees is Marcela, who declares that she was born free to live in freedom in fields and mountains and can take perfect care of herself. This young woman has no need whatsoever of a knight errant—she not only wanders freely and in total security in the wilderness but also she more than ably can defend herself.
Since this maiden doesn’t need Don Quixote’s services, maybe he should reconsider his purpose and realize that he really has no mission in the world. But don Quixote rarely, if ever, heeds these signs.
It is interesting to see how these episodes are structured, how one will echo or respond to a previous one. There is nothing capricious about the structure of this book. Everything is there for a purpose.8