In Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote Book 1 (1605), Don Quixote mistook a flock of sheep for an army:
“Senor, devil take it if there’s a sign of any man you talk of, knight or giant, in the whole thing; maybe it’s all enchantment, like the phantoms last night.”
“How canst thou say that!” answered Don Quixote; “dost thou not hear the neighing of the steeds, the braying of the trumpets, the roll of the drums?”
“I hear nothing but a great bleating of ewes and sheep,” said Sancho; which was true, for by this time the two flocks had come close.
“The fear thou art in, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “prevents thee from seeing or hearing correctly, for one of the effects of fear is to derange the senses and make things appear different from what they are; if thou art in such fear, withdraw to one side and leave me to myself, for alone I suffice to bring victory to that side to which I shall give my aid.”
Don Quixote insisted that what he’s seeing was an army of men. He even named several of knights that he saw, including Alifanfaron, “a furious pagan”, who’s the leader of the army. Despite Sancho’s plea for him to stop, he still attacked and killed about seven sheep. His rampage was halted when the shepherds hurled stones at him, which knocked him out.
When Quixote regained consciousness, the shepherds and the sheep had already left. He remarked that the enemy turned the army into sheep.
After reading the passage above, I remembered a couple of similar parallels in literature.
The first example comes from Ludovico Ariosto’s poem Orlando furioso, published in 1516. Orlando, the protagonist, clouded by madness, killed a flock of sheep.
An older example is from Sophocles’ play Ajax (written in the 5th century BC), a well-known retelling of the death of Ajax. When the armor of Hector was awarded to Odysseus instead of himself, Ajax was greatly offended that it made him want to murder both Menelaus and Agamemnon. Seeing this, Athena got involved and clouded his mind and vision. In his insanity, he went to a flock of sheep and killed them, supposing they were an army led by Odysseus and Agamemnon. He discovered his blunder when he came back to his senses. Rather than live in shame, he decided to commit suicide by stabbing himself, using the sword he received from Hector when they exchanged gifts.
Anyway, Quixote had also committed several more absurd mistakes. The following lists some of them:
- He mistook a herd of pigs for an army (the pigs trampled him).
- He attacked the windmills which he thought were wicked giants.
- He mistook an inn for a castle.
- He mistook a servant for a wicked knight.
- He thought that Lady Dulcinea had been transformed into a peasant.
- He swiped a barber’s bowl, mistaking it for an enchanter’s helmet.
- He liked to read about fantasy stories about knights in armor, believing them to be real histories.
- When he saw a lady puppet in “distress”, he proceeded to rescue it by destroying the puppet show.