Two days later the two friends reach the river Ebro. On its shore Quixote notices a small boat, which he takes to mean that someone is calling for his help. Despite Sancho’s objections, they tie their animals to a tree and board the boat, which floats off on the current. Quixote thinks that with the help of enchanters they are travelling for thousands of miles, and that perhaps they’ve already crossed the line of the equator, though Sancho points out that they can still see their animals on shore. People say that the lice on board die when that line is crossed, so Quixote tells Sancho to check himself for lice, which are of course as numerous as ever.
Quixote jumping into a mysterious boat is similar to Quixote diving into a mysterious cavern. Both are escapist impulses; Quixote is desperate to find a world of magic and adventure that corresponds to the world in his imagination. In contrast to this tragic, romantic impulse, we see Sancho’s hairy legs covered with lice. This episode is defined by a contrast of high and low styles.
They see some water-mills in the middle of the river. Quixote explains to Sancho that though they look like water mills, they are really a city that the enchanters have transformed in their mind’s eyes. The boat begins to speed up, and the millers on shore, realizing the strangers will be swept into the mill and killed, run out to stop the boat with long poles. Quixote takes these flour-covered figures for enemy warriors and yells at them to free their prisoner, whoever he or she may be. The millers ignore him, topple the boat, and save their lives.
As Quixote’s desperation grows, his adventures become more and more dangerous; this one, like the adventure of the lions, is nearly fatal. The second part of the history, which chronicles Quixote’s decline, is more tragic than the first half of the history. The two books together trace an arc from the comic to the tragic, though the two elements also mingle in both books.
When the fishermen to whom the boat belonged see the boat smashed to bits in the mills, they angrily demand recompense. Quixote tells them he will pay for the boat once they release their prisoner. The fishermen are understandably perplexed, and Quixote gives up trying to make sense of this adventure and pays them for the boat. He concludes that the world is contradictory and illusory, where several enchanters work at cross purposes. The author concludes by saying that the two friends “went back to their animals, and to being animals.”
Just like that, Quixote gives up his certainty about the world. He no longer believes that the world is orderly, knowable, and clear. Now he thinks that world has many layers, some more real than others. The layers do not make up a coherent picture, a whole, single world: there are just many different worlds, defined by different desires and ideals. Quixote is only one small part.