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

The Author’s Preface to the Reader

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? It 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.’

‘Say, I pray thee,’ quoth I, hearing what he had said, ‘after what manner dost thou think to replenish the vacuity of my fear, and reduce the chaos of my confusion to any clearness and light?

And he replied: ‘The first thing whereat thou stoppedst—of sonnets, epigrams, eclogues, etc., (which are wanting for the beginning, and ought to be written by grave and noble persons)—may be remedied, if thou thyself wilt but take a little pains to compass them, and thou mayst after name them as thou pleasest, and father them on Prester John of the Indians or the Emperor of Trapisonde, whom, I know, were held to be famous poets; and suppose they were not, but that some pedants and presumptuous fellows would backbite thee, and murmur against this truth, thou needest not weigh them two straws; for, although they could prove it to be an untruth, yet cannot they cut off thy hand for it.

‘As touching citations in the margent, and authors out of whom thou mayst collect sentences and sayings to insert in thy history, there is nothing else to be done but to bob into it some Latin sentences that thou knowest already by rote, or mayst get easily with a little labour; as, for example, when thou treatest of liberty and thraldom, thou mayst cite that, “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro”; and presently quote Horace, or he whosoever else that said it, on the margent. If thou shouldest speak of the power of death, have presently recourse to that of “Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas, regumque turres.” If of the instability of friends, thou hast at hand Cato freely offering his distichon, “Donec eris foelix multos numerabis amicos; Tempora si fuerint nubila, solus eris.” If of riches, “Quantum quisque sua nummorum servat in arca, tantum habet et fidei.” If of love, “Hei mihi quod nullis amor est medicabilis herbis!” And so, with these Latin authorities and other suchlike, they will at least account thee a good grammarian, and the being of such an one is of no little honour and profit in this our age. As touching the addition of annotations in the end of thy book, thou mayst boldly observe this course: If thou namest any giant in thy book, procure that it be the Giant Goliah; and with this alone (which almost will cost thee nothing), thou hast gotten a fair annotation; for thou mayst say, “The Giant Golias or Goliat was a Philistine, whom the shepherd David slew with the blow of a stone in the Vale of Terebintho, as is recounted in the Book of Kings, in the chapter wherein thou shalt find it written.”

‘After all this, to show that thou art learned in human letters, and a cosmographer, take some occasion to make mention of the River Tagus, and thou shalt presently find thyself stored with another notable notation, saying, “The River Tagus was so called of a King of Spain; it takes its beginning from such a place, and dies in the ocean seas, kissing first the walls of the famous City of Lisbon, and some are of opinion that the sands thereof are of gold, etc.” If thou wilt treat of thieves, I will recite the history of Cacus to thee, for I know it by memory; if of whores or courtezans, there thou hast the Bishop of Mondonnedo, who will lend thee Lamia, Layda, and Flora, whose annotation will gain thee no small credit; if of cruel persons, Ovid will tender Medea; if of enchanters or witches, Homer hath Calypso, and Virgil Circe; if of valorous captains, Julius Cæsar shall lend himself in his Commentaries to thee, and Plutarch shall give thee a thousand Alexanders. If thou dost treat of love, and hast but two ounces of the Tuscan language, thou shalt encounter with Lion the Hebrew, who will replenish thy vessels with store in that kind; but, if thou wilt not travel for it into strange countries, thou hast here at home in thy house Fonseca of the Love of God, wherein is deciphered all that either thou or the most ingenious capacity can desire to learn of that subject. In conclusion, there is nothing else to be done, but that thou only endeavour to name those names, or to touch those histories, in thine own, which I have here related, and leave the adding of annotations and citations unto me; for I do promise thee that I will both fill up the margent, and also spend four or five sheets of advantage at the end of the book.

‘Now let us come to the citation of authors, which other books have, and thine wanteth; the remedy hereof is very easy; for thou needst do nought else but seek out a book that doth quote them all from the letter A until Z, as thou saidst thyself but even now, and thou shalt set that very same alphabet to thine own book; for, although the little necessity that thou hadst to use their assistance in thy work will presently convict thee of falsehood, it makes no matter, and perhaps there may not a few be found so simple as to believe that thou hast holp thyself in the narration of thy most simple and sincere history with all their authorities. And, though that large catalogue of authors do serve to none other purpose, yet will it, at least, give some authority to the book, at the first blush; and the rather, because none will be so mad as to stand to examine whether thou dost follow them or no, seeing they can gain nothing by the matter. Yet, if I do not err in the consideration of so weighty an affair, this book of thine needs none of all these things, forasmuch as it is only an invective against books of knighthood, a subject whereof Aristotle never dreamed, St. Basil said nothing, Cicero never heard any word; nor do the punctualities of truth, nor observations of astrology, fall within the sphere of such fabulous jestings; nor do geometrical dimensions impart it anything, nor the confutation of arguments usurped by rhetoric; nor ought it to preach unto any the mixture of holy matters with profane (a motley wherewith no Christian well should be attired), only it hath need to help itself with imitation; for, by how much the more it shall excel therein, by so much the more will the work be esteemed. And, since that thy labour doth aim at no more than to diminish the authority and acceptance that books of chivalry have in the world, and among the vulgar, there is no reason why thou shouldest go begging of sentences from philosophers, fables from poets, orations from rhetoricians, or miracles from the saints, but only endeavour to deliver with significant, plain, honest, and well-ordered words, thy jovial and cheerful discourse, expressing as near as thou mayst possibly thy intention, making thy conceits clear, and not intricate or dark; and labour also that the melancholy man, by the reading thereof, may be urged to laughter, the pleasant disposition increased, the simple not cloyed; and that the judicious may admire thy invention, the grave not despise it, the prudent applaud it. In conclusion, let thy project be to overthrow the ill-compiled machina and bulk of those knightly books, abhorred by many, but applauded by more; for, if thou bring this to pass, thou hast not achieved a small matter.’

I listened with very great attention to my friend’s speech; and his reasons are so firmly imprinted in my mind, as, without making any reply unto them, I approved them all for good, and framed my preface of them, wherein, sweet reader, thou mayst perceive my friend’s discretion, my happiness to meet with so good a counsellor at such a pinch, and thine own ease in finding so plainly and sincerely related The History of the famous Don Quixote of the Mancha, of whom it is the common opinion of all the inhabitants bordering on the field of Montiel that he was the most chaste, enamoured, and valiant knight that hath been seen, read, or heard of these many ages. I will not endear the benefit and service I have done thee, by making thee acquainted with so noble and honourable a knight, but only do desire that thou gratify me for the notice of the famous Sancho Panza, his squire, in whom, in mine opinion, are deciphered all the squire-like graces dispersed throughout the vain rout of knightly books. And herewithal, I bid thee farewell, and do not forget me. Vale.