Date: 1605 Book: Introduction
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born at Alcala de Henares in Spain in 1547, of a noble Castilian family. Nothing is certainly known of his education, but by the age of twenty-three we find him serving in the army as a private soldier. He was maimed for life at the battle of Lepanto, shared in a number of other engagements, and was taken captive by the Moors on his way home in 1575. After five years of slavery he was ransomed; and two or three years later he returned to Spain, and betook himself to the profession of letters. From youth he had practised the writing of verse, and now he turned to the production of plays; but, failing of financial success, he obtained an employment in the Government offices, which he held till 1597, when he was imprisoned for a shortage in his accounts due to the dishonesty of an associate. The imprisonment on this occasion lasted only till the end of the year, and, after a period of obscurity, he issued, in 1605, his masterpiece, "Don Quixote." Its success was great and immediate, and its reputation soon spread beyond Spain. Translations of parts into French appeared; and in 1611 Thomas Shelton, an Englishman otherwise unknown, put forth the present version, in style and vitality, if not in accuracy, acknowledged the most fortunate of English renderings.
The present volume contains the whole of the first part of the novel, which is complete in itself. The second part, issued in 1615, the year before his death, is of the nature of a sequel, and is generally regarded as inferior.
In writing his great novel, Cervantes set out to parody the romances of chivalry, the chief of which will be found in the description of Don Quixote's library in the sixth chapter of the first book. But, as in the somewhat parallel case of Fielding and "Joseph Andrews," the hero got the better of his creator's purpose, and the work passed far beyond the limits of a mere burlesque. Yet the original purpose was accomplished. The literature of Knight Errantry, which Church and State had sought without success to check, was crushed by Cervantes with this single blow.
But the importance of this greatest of novels is not merely, or mainly, that it put an end to an extravagant and outworn form of fiction. Loose in structure and uneven in workmanship, it remains unsurpassed as a masterpiece of droll humor, as a picture of Spanish life, as a gallery of immortal portraits. It has in the highest degree the mark of all great art, the successful combination of the particular and the universal: it is true to the life of the country and age of its production, and true also to general human nature everywhere and always. With reference to the fiction of the Middle Ages, it is a triumphant satire; with reference to modern novels, it is the first and the most widely enjoyed. In its author's words: "It is so conspicuous and void of difficulty that children may handle him, youths may read him, men may understand him, and old men may celebrate him."
Don Quixote: The last hours of the author of "Don Quixote".
Thou mayst believe me, gentle reader, without swearing, that I could willingly desire this book (as a child of my understanding) to be the most beautiful, gallant, and discreet that might possibly be imagined; but I could not transgress the order of nature, wherein everything begets his like, which being so, what could my sterile and ill - tilled wit engender but the history of a dry - toasted and humorous son, full of various thoughts and conceits never before imagined of any other; much like one who was engendered within some noisome prison, where all discommodities have taken possession, and all doleful noises made their habitation, seeing that rest, pleasant places, amenity of the fields, the cheerfulness of clear sky, the murmuring noise of the crystal fountains, and the quiet repose of the spirit are great helps for the most barren Muses to show themselves fruitful, and to bring into the world such births as may enrich it with admiration and delight? If ofttimes befalls that a father hath a child both by birth evil - favoured and quite devoid of all perfection, and yet the love that he bears him is such as it casts a mask over his eyes, which hinders his discerning of the faults and simplicities thereof, and makes him rather deem them discretions and beauty, and so tells them to his friends for witty jests and conceits. But I, though in show a father, yet in truth but a step-father to Don Quixote, will not be borne away by the violent current of the modern custom nowadays, and therefore entreat thee, with the tears almost in mine eyes, as many others are wont to do, most dear reader, to pardon and dissemble the faults which thou shalt discern in this my son; for thou art neither his kinsman nor friend, and thou hast thy soul in thy body, and thy free-will therein as absolute as the best, and thou art in thine own house, wherein thou art as absolute a lord as the king is of his subsidies, and thou knowest well the common proverb, that 'under my cloak a fig for the king,' all which doth exempt thee and makes thee free from all respect and obligation; and so thou mayst boldly say of this history whatsoever thou shalt think good, without fear either to be controlled for the evil or rewarded for the good that thou shalt speak thereof.
I would very fain have presented it unto thee pure and naked, without the ornament of a preface, or the rabblement and catalogue of the wonted sonnets, epigrams, poems, elegies, etc., which are wont to be put at the beginning of books. For I dare say unto thee that, although it cost me some pains to compose it, yet in no respect did it equalise that which I took to make this preface which thou dost now read. I took, oftentimes, my pen in my hand to write it, and as often set it down again, as not knowing what I should write; and being once in a muse, with my paper before me, my pen in mine ear, mine elbow on the table, and mine hand on my cheek, imagining what I might write, there entered a friend of mine unexpectedly, who was a very discreet and pleasantly-witted man, who, seeing me so pensative, demanded of me the reason of my musing; and, not concealing it from him, said that I bethought myself on my preface I was to make to Don Quixote's history, which did so much trouble me as I neither meant to make any at all, nor publish the history of the acts of so noble a knight. 'For how can I choose,' quoth I, 'but be much confounded at that which the old legislator (the vulgar) will say, when it sees that, after the end of so many years as are spent since I first slept in the bosom of oblivion, I come out loaden with my grey hairs, and bring with me a book as dry as a kex, void of invention, barren of good phrase, poor of conceits, and altogether empty both of learning and eloquence; without quotations on the margents, or annotations in the end of the book, wherewith I see other books are still adorned, be they never so idle, fabulous, and profane; so full of sentences of Aristotle and Plato, and the other crew of the philosophers, as admires the readers, and makes them believe that these authors are very learned and eloquent? And after, when they cite Plutarch or Cicero, what can they say, but that they are the sayings of St. Thomas, or other doctors of the Church; observing herein so ingenious a method as in one line they will paint you an enamoured gull, and in the other will lay you down a little seeming devout sermon, so that it is a great pleasure and delight to read or hear it? All which things must be wanting in my book, for neither have I anything to cite on the margent, or note in the end, and much less do I know what authors I follow, to put them at the beginning, as the custom is, by the letter of the A B C, beginning with Aristotle, and ending in Xenophon, or in Zoilus or Zeuxis, although the one was a railer and the other a painter. So likewise shall my book want sonnets at the beginning, at least such sonnets whose authors be dukes, marquises, earls, bishops, ladies, or famous poets; although, if I would demand them of two or three artificers of mine acquaintance, I know they would make me some such as those of the most renowned in Spain would in no wise be able to equal or compare with them.
'Finally, good sir, and my very dear friend,' quoth I, 'I do resolve that Sir Don Quixote remain entombed among the old records of the Mancha, until Heaven ordain some one to adorn him with the many graces that are yet wanting; for I find myself wholly unable to remedy them, through mine insufficiency and little learning, and also because I am naturally lazy and unwilling to go searching for authors to say that which I can say well enough without them. And hence proceeded the perplexity and ecstasy wherein you found me plunged.'
My friend hearing that, and striking himself on the forehead, after a long and loud laughter, said: 'In good faith, friend, I have now at last delivered myself of a long and intricate error, wherewith I was possessed all the time of our acquaintance; for hitherto I accounted thee ever to be discreet and prudent in all thy actions, but now I see plainly that thou art as far from that I took thee to be as heaven is from the earth. How is it possible that things of so small moment, and so easy to be redressed, can have force to suspend and swallow up so ripe a wit as yours hath seemed to be, and so fitted to break up and trample over the greatest difficulties that can be propounded? This proceeds not, in good sooth, from defect of will, but from superfluity of sloth and penury of discourse. Wilt thou see whether that I say be true or no? Listen, then, attentively awhile, and thou shalt perceive how, in the twinkling of an eye, I will confound all the difficulties and supply all the wants which do suspend and affright thee from publishing to the world the history of thy famous Don Quixote, the light and mirror of all knighthood- errant.'