In the real world Cervantes created a book called The Ingenious Hidalgo don Quixote de La Mancha. He created all of the characters, including the narrator. The first eight chapters of the book—within the reality of its fiction—were prepared by our unnamed narrator. As Chapter 8 ends, don Quixote is in a furious battle with an enraged Basque. Don Quixote has resolved to venture everything on one slash of his sword, and he begins his attack with his sword raised high. At this exact point, amazingly, the narrator’s research could turn up nothing further, not even how the battle came out a few seconds afterward. Some time later, our narrator is in the market in Toledo and there sees a boy selling notebooks written in Arabic. He can’t read that language, but takes one of the notebooks and finds someone who can translate for him. It turns out, astoundingly, that the manuscript is the story of don Quixote. The narrator discovers this because the translator recites something that caught his eye in the margin: “This Dulcinea del Toboso, which the history mentions so many times, they say that she had the best hand for salting pork of all the women in La Mancha” (Part I, Chap. 9). This work, unlike the title of our book in the real world, is called History of don Quixote de La Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, Arabic Historian. In the world of fiction, our book was written by an Arabic-speaking author. In the ancient books of chivalry, frequently the authorship of the book is attributed to a foreign source: thus, within the reality of the fiction created by their real-world authors, Don Cirongilio de Tracia was written originally in Latin by an author named Elisabad; The Deeds of Esplandián was written in Greek by Frestón; The Knight of the Cross and Civil Wars of Granada were written in Arabic, and translated into Spanish. The story of don Quixote continues this tradition. Cide Hamete Benengeli is an author of the wizard-enchanter type, like Frestón and Elisabad, just as don Quixote predicts he has to be, otherwise he could not be omniscient; that is, he could not otherwise relate what don Quixote and Sancho say and do when they are alone in the wilderness.
On the first page of this Arabic manuscript there is a miniature showing don Quixote with his sword raised. Underneath him is a caption that says Don Quixote, and under Sancho Panza there is one that says Sancho Zancas, because “the history sometimes calls him Panza and sometimes Zancas” (Part I, Chap. 9). It is a remarkable coincidence that Cide Hamete’s manuscript begins at exactly the same point at which our narrator’s research failed him, with don Quixote attacking the Basque.
As you continue reading this book, you will never see that comment about Dulcinea salting pork anywhere, and you will see that Sancho is always called Panza and never Zancas. What this means simply is that our narrator, who promised a faithful translation from Arabic into Spanish, has edited and changed his translated text; he added to it, and even omitted certain things. This leads us to wonder how reliable the finished text is. It is one of Cervantes’ artistic triumphs that through these levels of narration we can perceive clearly the presence of Cide Hamete’s manuscript and at times we can even reconstruct what the manuscript must have said.
Sometimes Cide Hamete is cited directly, so there is no question about his exact words. One time he says: “I swear as a Catholic Christian” (Part II, Chapter 27), and another time: “ ‘Blessed be the powerful Allah!’ says Cide Hamete Benengeli at the beginning of this eighth chapter, ‘Blessed be Allah’ he repeats three times ” (Part II, Chapter 8). There are longer direct quotes, as well, for example when Cide Hamete speaks of don Quixote’s bravery (Part II, Chapter 17) and his poverty (Part II, Chapter 44), but the ironic thing about these direct quotes is that none of them furthers the story in any way.
The narrator also cites Cide Hamete through indirect discourse. For example, in Part II, Chapter 1, we see: “Cide Hamete Benengeli relates in the second part of this history, and third expedition of don Quixote, that the priest and barber refrained from visiting don Quixote for almost a month…” which indicates that Cide Hamete’s manuscript said simply (in Arabic, of course): “The priest and barber refrained from visiting don Quixote for almost a month…” Here is another example of many: “Cide Hamete relates that after don Quixote was healed from his scratches…” The Arabic manuscript would have said: “After don Quixote was healed from his scratches…” (Part II, Chapter 52).
Many times the narrator wants to emphasize that something said is Cide Hamete’s opinion and not his own. For example, at one point the text says that Sancho is unusually charitable, and the narrator wants us to know that Cide Hamete said it, and not himself: Sancho, “according to Cide Hamete, was quite charitable…” (Part II, Chapter 54), so we can be reasonably sure that Cide Hamete said: “Since Sancho was quite charitable…”
One thing the narrator cannot stand is Cide Hamete’s inexactitude in matters of flora or fauna. Where Cide Hamete has given a generic term, our narrator likes to provide an appropriate specific term. Where Cide Hamete must have written: “as night overtook him he veered off the road among some dense trees…” our narrator changes it and then adds a comment: “as night overtook him he veered off the road among some dense oak or cork trees—for in this, Cide Hamete is not as meticulous as he is in other matters…” (Part II, Chapter 60). And again: “Don Quixote, leaning against the trunk of a tree… sang in this way…” but our narrator writes: “Don Quixote, leaning against the trunk of a beech or cork tree (for Cide Hamete Benengeli doesn’t distinguish what kind of tree it was)… sang in this way…” (Part II, Chap. 68). What difference does it make what kind of tree it was? Our narrator insists on supplying details that do not affect the substance of the story.
When three country girls arrive on their mounts, Cide Hamete doesn’t mention what kind of animals they are riding, so our narrator proposes what they might be: “He saw coming from El Toboso towards him three peasant girls on three young donkeys or fillies (for the author doesn’t state which), although it seems more likely that they were she-asses …” (Part II, Chap. 10). Cide Hamete must have said: “He saw coming from El Toboso towards him three peasant girls on three animals…,” but again, what difference does it make? Our narrator insists on exactitude where none is called for.
The Arabic manuscript is present and almost within reach throughout the book. And there is a huge contradiction involving that manuscript as well. At the end of Part I, in Chap. 52, Cide Hamete’s manuscript runs out. There is nothing more left, and our narrator regrets he can find nothing else: “But the author11 of this history, although he searched assiduously and with diligence to find don Quixote’s deeds on his third expedition, he has not been able to find anything, at least in authentic documents…” Then when Part II begins, it starts with a quote you have already seen: “Cide Hamete Benengeli relates in the second part of this history, and third expedition of don Quixote…” You figure it out!