Soon, it begins to rain. In a little while, they see a man riding toward them with something gold on his head. Don Quixote is certain the man is a knight riding a noble steed and that the gold object is Mambrino’s helmet, though Sancho is mocking and skeptical. The man is a barber on a donkey; he’s wearing a shiny basin on his head to protect him from the rain. Quixote charges at him, and the terrified barber slides off his mule and runs away, dropping the helmet on the ground. Sancho laughs to see his master so excited over a barber’s basin, but Quixote explains that an enchanter must have transformed its appearance out of malice. Sancho swaps his donkey’s saddle with the stranger’s saddle and they go back to the main road.
Quixote mistakes a glittering thing for gold; he is too preoccupied with both the appearance of the object and with its deeper meaning to see its basic identity as an object among other objects – like someone who looks at a cup and sees its color and its metaphorical significance as a vessel but fails to recognize that it is a cup. Quixote sees objects and events at a spiritual and a superficial level, but not with the plain sight that lies between the two.
As they walk, Sancho wonders whether it wouldn’t be better for them to serve an emperor in a war. Don Quixote explains that a knight must first wander the world and gain fame; then he will arrive at a kingdom and a beautiful princess will fall in love with him, and he will win her heart once and for all in some athletic contest. Then the knight will go off to serve the king in a war, leaving the princess in tears. Only after he returns from war can he ask for and receive the princess’s hand in marriage. And when the king passes away, the knight becomes king and marries his squire to a lady-in-waiting. Quixote reflects that his own lineage is not very noble, but seems sure that love and courage will suffice for any king.
For Quixote, the path to fame and glory is incredibly specific. In the books he loves, all knights follow this one particular path; the stale and repetitive plots of these books have convinced him that life, too, has one particular plot, and no other plotlines are possible. For a contemporary parallel, think of someone who has watched nothing but romantic comedies that describe flirtation, courtship with roses and romantic dinners, marriage, and children. This person might think that love must always take this particular course.