Part IV of the Translator's Preface for Don Quixote

Don Quixote
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The story was written at first, like the others, without any division and without the intervention of Cide Hamete Benengeli; and it seems not unlikely that Cervantes had some intention of bringing Dulcinea, or Aldonza Lorenzo, on the scene in person. It was probably the ransacking of the Don's library and the discussion on the books of chivalry that first suggested it to him that his idea was capable of development. What, if instead of a mere string of farcical misadventures, he were to make his tale a burlesque of one of these books, caricaturing their style, incidents, and spirit?

In pursuance of this change of plan, he hastily and somewhat clumsily divided what he had written into chapters on the model of "Amadis," invented the fable of a mysterious Arabic manuscript, and set up Cide Hamete Benengeli in imitation of the almost invariable practice of the chivalry-romance authors, who were fond of tracing their books to some recondite source. In working out the new ideas, he soon found the value of Sancho Panza. Indeed, the keynote, not only to Sancho's part, but to the whole book, is struck in the first words Sancho utters when he announces his intention of taking his ass with him. "About the ass," we are told, "Don Quixote hesitated a little, trying whether he could call to mind any knight-errant taking with him an esquire mounted on ass-back; but no instance occurred to his memory." We can see the whole scene at a glance, the stolid unconsciousness of Sancho and the perplexity of his master, upon whose perception the incongruity has just forced itself. This is Sancho's mission throughout the book; he is an unconscious Mephistopheles, always unwittingly making mockery of his master's aspirations, always exposing the fallacy of his ideas by some unintentional ad absurdum, always bringing him back to the world of fact and commonplace by force of sheer stolidity.

By the time Cervantes had got his volume of novels off his hands, and summoned up resolution enough to set about the Second Part in earnest, the case was very much altered. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza had not merely found favour, but had already become, what they have never since ceased to be, veritable entities to the popular imagination. There was no occasion for him now to interpolate extraneous matter; nay, his readers told him plainly that what they wanted of him was more Don Quixote and more Sancho Panza, and not novels, tales, or digressions. To himself, too, his creations had become realities, and he had become proud of them, especially of Sancho. He began the Second Part, therefore, under very different conditions, and the difference makes itself manifest at once. Even in translation the style will be seen to be far easier, more flowing, more natural, and more like that of a man sure of himself and of his audience. Don Quixote and Sancho undergo a change also. In the First Part, Don Quixote has no character or individuality whatever. He is nothing more than a crazy representative of the sentiments of the chivalry romances. In all that he says and does he is simply repeating the lesson he has learned from his books; and therefore, it is absurd to speak of him in the gushing strain of the sentimental critics when they dilate upon his nobleness, disinterestedness, dauntless courage, and so forth. It was the business of a knight-errant to right wrongs, redress injuries, and succour the distressed, and this, as a matter of course, he makes his business when he takes up the part; a knight-errant was bound to be intrepid, and so he feels bound to cast fear aside. Of all Byron's melodious nonsense about Don Quixote, the most nonsensical statement is that "'t is his virtue makes him mad!" The exact opposite is the truth; it is his madness makes him virtuous.

In the Second Part, Cervantes repeatedly reminds the reader, as if it was a point upon which he was anxious there should be no mistake, that his hero's madness is strictly confined to delusions on the subject of chivalry, and that on every other subject he is discreto, one, in fact, whose faculty of discernment is in perfect order. The advantage of this is that he is enabled to make use of Don Quixote as a mouthpiece for his own reflections, and so, without seeming to digress, allow himself the relief of digression when he requires it, as freely as in a commonplace book.

It is true the amount of individuality bestowed upon Don Quixote is not very great. There are some natural touches of character about him, such as his mixture of irascibility and placability, and his curious affection for Sancho together with his impatience of the squire's loquacity and impertinence; but in the main, apart from his craze, he is little more than a thoughtful, cultured gentleman, with instinctive good taste and a great deal of shrewdness and originality of mind.

As to Sancho, it is plain, from the concluding words of the preface to the First Part, that he was a favourite with his creator even before he had been taken into favour by the public. An inferior genius, taking him in hand a second time, would very likely have tried to improve him by making him more comical, clever, amiable, or virtuous. But Cervantes was too true an artist to spoil his work in this way. Sancho, when he reappears, is the old Sancho with the old familiar features; but with a difference; they have been brought out more distinctly, but at the same time with a careful avoidance of anything like caricature; the outline has been filled in where filling in was necessary, and, vivified by a few touches of a master's hand, Sancho stands before us as he might in a character portrait by Velazquez. He is a much more important and prominent figure in the Second Part than in the First; indeed, it is his matchless mendacity about Dulcinea that to a great extent supplies the action of the story.

His development in this respect is as remarkable as in any other. In the First Part he displays a great natural gift of lying. His lies are not of the highly imaginative sort that liars in fiction commonly indulge in; like Falstaff's, they resemble the father that begets them; they are simple, homely, plump lies; plain working lies, in short. But in the service of such a master as Don Quixote he develops rapidly, as we see when he comes to palm off the three country wenches as Dulcinea and her ladies in waiting. It is worth noticing how, flushed by his success in this instance, he is tempted afterwards to try a flight beyond his powers in his account of the journey on Clavileno.

In the Second Part it is the spirit rather than the incidents of the chivalry romances that is the subject of the burlesque. Enchantments of the sort travestied in those of Dulcinea and the Trifaldi and the cave of Montesinos play a leading part in the later and inferior romances, and another distinguishing feature is caricatured in Don Quixote's blind adoration of Dulcinea. In the romances of chivalry love is either a mere animalism or a fantastic idolatry. Only a coarse-minded man would care to make merry with the former, but to one of Cervantes' humour the latter was naturally an attractive subject for ridicule. Like everything else in these romances, it is a gross exaggeration of the real sentiment of chivalry, but its peculiar extravagance is probably due to the influence of those masters of hyperbole, the Provencal poets. When a troubadour professed his readiness to obey his lady in all things, he made it incumbent upon the next comer, if he wished to avoid the imputation of tameness and commonplace, to declare himself the slave of her will, which the next was compelled to cap by some still stronger declaration; and so expressions of devotion went on rising one above the other like biddings at an auction, and a conventional language of gallantry and theory of love came into being that in time permeated the literature of Southern Europe, and bore fruit, in one direction in the transcendental worship of Beatrice and Laura, and in another in the grotesque idolatry which found exponents in writers like Feliciano de Silva. This is what Cervantes deals with in Don Quixote's passion for Dulcinea, and in no instance has he carried out the burlesque more happily. By keeping Dulcinea in the background, and making her a vague shadowy being of whose very existence we are left in doubt, he invests Don Quixote's worship of her virtues and charms with an additional extravagance, and gives still more point to the caricature of the sentiment and language of the romances.

One of the great merits of "Don Quixote," and one of the qualities that have secured its acceptance by all classes of readers and made it the most cosmopolitan of books, is its simplicity. There are, of course, points obvious enough to a Spanish seventeenth century audience which do not immediately strike a reader now-a-days, and Cervantes often takes it for granted that an allusion will be generally understood which is only intelligible to a few. For example, on many of his readers in Spain, and most of his readers out of it, the significance of his choice of a country for his hero is completely lost. It would he going too far to say that no one can thoroughly comprehend "Don Quixote" without having seen La Mancha, but undoubtedly even a glimpse of La Mancha will give an insight into the meaning of Cervantes such as no commentator can give. Of all the regions of Spain it is the last that would suggest the idea of romance. Of all the dull central plateau of the Peninsula it is the dullest tract. There is something impressive about the grim solitudes of Estremadura; and if the plains of Leon and Old Castile are bald and dreary, they are studded with old cities renowned in history and rich in relics of the past. But there is no redeeming feature in the Manchegan landscape; it has all the sameness of the desert without its dignity; the few towns and villages that break its monotony are mean and commonplace, there is nothing venerable about them, they have not even the picturesqueness of poverty; indeed, Don Quixote's own village, Argamasilla, has a sort of oppressive respectability in the prim regularity of its streets and houses; everything is ignoble; the very windmills are the ugliest and shabbiest of the windmill kind.

To anyone who knew the country well, the mere style and title of "Don Quixote of La Mancha" gave the key to the author's meaning at once. La Mancha as the knight's country and scene of his chivalries is of a piece with the pasteboard helmet, the farm-labourer on ass-back for a squire, knighthood conferred by a rascally ventero, convicts taken for victims of oppression, and the rest of the incongruities between Don Quixote's world and the world he lived in, between things as he saw them and things as they were.

It is strange that this element of incongruity, underlying the whole humour and purpose of the book, should have been so little heeded by the majority of those who have undertaken to interpret "Don Quixote." It has been completely overlooked, for example, by the illustrators. To be sure, the great majority of the artists who illustrated "Don Quixote" knew nothing whatever of Spain. To them a venta conveyed no idea but the abstract one of a roadside inn, and they could not therefore do full justice to the humour of Don Quixote's misconception in taking it for a castle, or perceive the remoteness of all its realities from his ideal. But even when better informed they seem to have no apprehension of the full force of the discrepancy. Take, for instance, Gustave Dore's drawing of Don Quixote watching his armour in the inn-yard. Whether or not the Venta de Quesada on the Seville road is, as tradition maintains, the inn described in "Don Quixote," beyond all question it was just such an inn-yard as the one behind it that Cervantes had in his mind's eye, and it was on just such a rude stone trough as that beside the primitive draw-well in the corner that he meant Don Quixote to deposit his armour. Gustave Dore makes it an elaborate fountain such as no arriero ever watered his mules at in the corral of any venta in Spain, and thereby entirely misses the point aimed at by Cervantes. It is the mean, prosaic, commonplace character of all the surroundings and circumstances that gives a significance to Don Quixote's vigil and the ceremony that follows.

Cervantes' humour is for the most part of that broader and simpler sort, the strength of which lies in the perception of the incongruous. It is the incongruity of Sancho in all his ways, words, and works, with the ideas and aims of his master, quite as much as the wonderful vitality and truth to nature of the character, that makes him the most humorous creation in the whole range of fiction. That unsmiling gravity of which Cervantes was the first great master, "Cervantes' serious air," which sits naturally on Swift alone, perhaps, of later humourists, is essential to this kind of humour, and here again Cervantes has suffered at the hands of his interpreters. Nothing, unless indeed the coarse buffoonery of Phillips, could be more out of place in an attempt to represent Cervantes, than a flippant, would-be facetious style, like that of Motteux's version for example, or the sprightly, jaunty air, French translators sometimes adopt. It is the grave matter-of-factness of the narrative, and the apparent unconsciousness of the author that he is saying anything ludicrous, anything but the merest commonplace, that give its peculiar flavour to the humour of Cervantes. His, in fact, is the exact opposite of the humour of Sterne and the self-conscious humourists. Even when Uncle Toby is at his best, you are always aware of "the man Sterne" behind him, watching you over his shoulder to see what effect he is producing. Cervantes always leaves you alone with Don Quixote and Sancho. He and Swift and the great humourists always keep themselves out of sight, or, more properly speaking, never think about themselves at all, unlike our latter-day school of humourists, who seem to have revived the old horse-collar method, and try to raise a laugh by some grotesque assumption of ignorance, imbecility, or bad taste.

It is true that to do full justice to Spanish humour in any other language is well-nigh an impossibility. There is a natural gravity and a sonorous stateliness about Spanish, be it ever so colloquial, that make an absurdity doubly absurd, and give plausibility to the most preposterous statement. This is what makes Sancho Panza's drollery thedespair of the conscientious translator. Sancho's curt comments can never fall flat, but they lose half their flavour when transferred from their native Castilian into any other medium. But if foreigners have failed to do justice to the humour of Cervantes, they are no worse than his own countrymen. Indeed, were it not for the Spanish peasant's relish of "Don Quixote," one might be tempted to think that the great humourist was not looked upon as a humourist at allin his own country.

The craze of Don Quixote seems, in some instances, to have communicated itself to his critics, making them see things that are not in the book and run full tilt at phantoms that have no existence save in their own imaginations. Like a good many critics now-a-days, they forget that screams are not criticism, and that it is only vulgar tastes that are influenced by strings of superlatives, three-piled hyperboles, and pompous epithets. But what strikes one as particularly strange is that while they deal in extravagant eulogies, and ascribe all manner of imaginary ideas and qualities to Cervantes, they show no perception of the quality that ninety-nine out of a hundred of his readers would rate highest in him, and hold to be the one that raises him above all rivalry.

To speak of "Don Quixote" as if it were merely a humorous book would be a manifest misdescription. Cervantes at times makes it a kind of commonplace book for occasional essays and criticisms, or for the observations and reflections and gathered wisdom of a long and stirring life. It is a mine of shrewd observation on mankind and human nature. Among modern novels there may be, here and there, more elaborate studies of character, but there is no book richer in individualised character. What Coleridge said of Shakespeare in minimis is true of Cervantes; he never, even for the most temporary purpose, puts forward a lay figure. There is life and individuality in all his characters, however little they may have to do, or however short a time they may be before the reader. Samson Carrasco, the curate, Teresa Panza, Altisidora, even the two students met on the road to the cave of Montesinos, all live and move and have their being; and it is characteristic of the broad humanity of Cervantes that there is not a hateful one among them all. Even poor Maritornes, with her deplorable morals, has a kind heart of her own and "some faint and distant resemblance to a Christian about her;" and as for Sancho, though on dissection we fail to find a lovable trait in him, unless it be a sort of dog-like affection for his master, who is there that in his heart does not love him?

But it is, after all, the humour of "Don Quixote" that distinguishes it from all other books of the romance kind. It is this that makes it, as one of the most judicial-minded of modern critics calls it, "the best novel in the world beyond all comparison." It is its varied humour, ranging from broad farce to comedy as subtle as Shakespeare's or Moliere's that has naturalised it in every country where there are readers, and made it a classic in every language that has a literature.

Don Quixote
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