Sidekicks

The first stories I remember loving as a child were episodes of the old Batman TV series. I was basically obsessed. My mother and father knew I had to tune in at the same Bat-time, same Bat-channel or I would be a petulant mess the rest of the day. I can recall throwing an endless number of Batman-related fits as a small child … passing a car dealership that had the Batmobile parked out front and demanding my father pull into the lot so I could sit in it … going to an amusement park in Wildwood, NJ and insisting on going on the Batman ride over and over and over. I honestly don’t know how my parents ever felt safe removing me from the ride. Maybe I fell asleep, but I almost certainly woke up screaming to return to the ride.

It’s remembered today for its campiness, but I took the Batman series very seriously. To me, it was a small morality play that I could witness daily where the good guys won by outsmarting the villains and performing some highly stylized fights. But I also remember having a feeling of comfort from the relationship of Batman and Robin, that neither of them ever felt alone, they always had someone who would finish the other’s sentence or come up with the precisely right theory just in time to foil the Joker, Penguin or Riddler.

It would be many years before I realized that Batman and Robin, and basically every hero-sidekick relationship, owes a special debt to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Quixote and Panza not only inspired superheroes, but also comedy teams — is there an Abbott and Costello without them? Is there a Jerry and George? These pairings are almost always of the same sex — Thelma and Louise featured women — but the X Files broke ground by having a male-female buddy paradigm made more interesting by assigning the stereotypical female traits to Fox Moulder and the male ones to Dana Skully.

The classic model for any story, especially those in the western hemisphere, is that you need a protagonist and an antagonist to drive the action. The buddy model, especially those with a sidekick, significantly expand the range of stories by removing the antagonist and replacing it with a complementary but sometimes irritating alter ego. This allows for comedy to take root without a mustache-twirling villain. While, yes, Seinfeld has Newman, not every episode has to feature him. Jerry and George can face off comically without one or the other trying to thwart a mission. They can even be aligned in their goals while retaining the core conflict, just because they see the world differently.

Up until Sancho Panza enters the action, Don Quixote seems like a story that could run out of steam at any moment. How far can you take a parody without breaking down into self parody? Anyone who has witnessed one of numerous SNL skits expanded into full movies knows how real this risk can become. For every success, such as “Wayne’s World” there are at least 10 failures like “It’s Pat” or whatever that Stuart Smalley movie was named.

Panza immediately breathes life into the story and it’s obvious in his first line of dialogue that he’ll have an amusing point of view:

During this time, Don Quixote approached a farmer who was a neighbor of his, a good man—if that title can be given to someone who is poor—but without much in the way of brains. In short, he told him so much, and persuaded and promised him so much, that the poor peasant resolved to go off with him and serve as his squire. Among other things, Don Quixote said that he should prepare to go with him gladly, because it might happen that one day he would have an adventure that would gain him, in the blink of an eye, an ínsula, and he would make him its governor. With these promises and others like them, Sancho Panza, for that was the farmer’s name, left his wife and children and agreed to be his neighbor’s squire …. “If that happens,” replied Sancho Panza, “and I became king through one of those miracles your grace has mentioned, then Juana Gutiérrez, my missus, would be queen, and my children would be princes.” “Well, who can doubt it?” Don Quixote responded. “I doubt it,” Sancho Panza replied, “because in my opinion, even if God rained kingdoms down on earth, none of them would sit well on the head of Mari Gutiérrez. You should know, Señor, that she isn’t worth two maravedís as a queen; she’d do better as a countess, and even then she’d need God’s help.” “Leave it to God, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “and He will give what suits her best; but do not lower your desire so much that you will be content with anything less than the title of captain general.” “I won’t, Señor,” Sancho replied, “especially when I have a master as distinguished as your grace, who will know how to give me everything that’s right for me and that I can handle.”

While Quixote is a character with his head in the clouds, Panza is firmly rooted on the earth — always eager for the next meal and greedy beyond belief. He is on the mission to get stuff, whether that’s an island to rule or the spoils of battles. The reader immediately relates to him, which makes him the perfect mirror of every reader’s questions, especially about how Panza can keep following and admiring Quixote through a series of nonsensical adventures. Here is Panza questioning how Quixote thought an attack on windmills would turn out well:

“God save me!” said Sancho. “Didn’t I tell your grace to watch what you were doing, that these were nothing but windmills, and only somebody whose head was full of them wouldn’t know that?” “Be quiet, Sancho my friend,” replied Don Quixote. “Matters of war, more than any others, are subject to continual change; moreover, I think, and therefore it is true, that the same Frestón the Wise who stole my room and my books has turned these giants into windmills in order to deprive me of the glory of defeating them: such is the enmity he feels for me; but in the end, his evil arts will not prevail against the power of my virtuous sword.” “God’s will be done,” replied Sancho Panza.

What makes Panza fascinating is that he gets it, he’s not under the same delusions as Quixote, but he follows along anyway because … well … what else is he going to do? Return home and be a poor farmer? Even being the squire for a madman is an improvement in his status. Panza, for example, knows full well that Quixote is attacking a bunch of friars on the next adventure and warns him against it. But once the battle begins, Panza joins right in and decides to take his spoils:

Sancho Panza, who saw the man on the ground, quickly got off his donkey, hurried over to the friar, and began to pull off his habit. At this moment, two servants of the friars came over and asked why he was stripping him. Sancho replied that these clothes were legitimately his, the spoils of the battle his master, Don Quixote, had won. The servants had no sense of humor and did not understand anything about spoils or battles, and seeing that Don Quixote had moved away and was talking to the occupants of the carriage, they attacked Sancho and knocked him down, and leaving no hair in his beard unscathed, they kicked him breathless and senseless and left him lying on the ground. The friar, frightened and terrified and with no color in his face, did not wait another moment but got back on his mule, and when he was mounted, he rode off after his companion, who was waiting for him a good distance away, wondering what the outcome of the attack would be; they did not wish to wait to learn how matters would turn out but continued on their way, crossing themselves more than if they had the devil at their backs.

Over the course of the novel, this relationship will evolve. There will always be an air of comedy to it, but we start to see Panza as more intelligent than let on in the early stories and Quixote begins to appreciate just how much he relies on his sidekick to survive and continue.

It turns into one of the great friendships in literature, which is another reason why Don Quixote is such a great novel — Cervantes is never a slave to the original plan. He’s constantly evolving the story and the characters, making them deeper and more complicated step by step.

That’s how their relationship can end up being both an inspiration for comedy teams and the template for a major contemporary novel like “Mason & Dixon.” And you can also see shades of their relationship in the “Lord of the Rings” duo of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. After all, Samwise wasn’t the first portly coward to turn into the real hero of a story.

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