Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616). Don Quixote, Part 1.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
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.”