One hot summer afternoon, my brother Tim and I were driving across the plains of La Mancha. He was at the wheel and Doris, our mother, dozed in the back seat as we passed through fields of sunflowers and fields of wheat. A road sign said, El Toboso 6 km. Tim slowed down and turned the car around. None of us said a word because we all knew what each other was thinking: no way would we pass up an opportunity to visit the home of the most beautiful woman in the world.
Afternoons in Spain are times for siestas, so not a soul stirred in the town. Even a dog who was sleeping in the shade under a sign that said: Home of Dulcinea, the Most Beautiful Woman in The World, barely raised its head. We talked a little about the “real” house of a fictional character in a novel written 400 years ago, and then we drove back to the main highway on our way to Córdoba.
In La Mancha, literal interpretations of characters are as common as siestas and sunflowers: “Of course Don Quixote and Sancho and Dulcinea existed! Yes, that windmill you see before you is the very one that Don Q attacked!”
Instead of literalness, a more interesting, mythical way to look at things might be that Don Q symbolizes the universal human characteristic of idealism, as Sancho embodies practicality.
Even better: What if both were aspects of a single person? In the painting, the old man and the girl could be, literally, a granddad and granddaughter on their way home from a market with a bag of groceries. But what if we imagined them as integrated parts of one human being? Then he could be the part of ourselves that is the wise old man and she could be the innocent child. The question then could be: who is guiding whom?
Maybe they just take turns.