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The extraordinary influence of the romances of chivalry in his day is quite enough to account for the genesis of the book. Some idea of the prodigious development of this branch of literature in the sixteenth century may be obtained from the scrutiny of Chapter VII, if the reader bears in mind that only a portion of the romances belonging to by far the largest group are enumerated. As to its effect upon the nation, there is abundant evidence. From the time when the Amadises and Palmerins began to grow popular down to the very end of the century, there is a steady stream of invective, from men whose character and position lend weight to their words, against the romances of chivalry and the infatuation of their readers. Ridicule was the only besom to sweep away that dust.
That this was the task Cervantes set himself, and that he had ample provocation to urge him to it, will be sufficiently clear to those who look into the evidence; as it will be also that it was not chivalry itself that he attacked and swept away. Of all the absurdities that, thanks to poetry, will be repeated to the end of time, there is no greater one than saying that "Cervantes smiled Spain's chivalry away." In the first place there was no chivalry for him to smile away. Spain's chivalry had been dead for more than a century. Its work was done when Granada fell, and as chivalry was essentially republican in its nature, it could not live under the rule that Ferdinand substituted for the free institutions of mediaeval Spain. What he did smile away was not chivalry but a degrading mockery of it.
The true nature of the "right arm" and the "bright array," before which, according to the poet, "the world gave ground," and which Cervantes' single laugh demolished, may be gathered from the words of one of his own countrymen, Don Felix Pacheco, as reported by Captain George Carleton, in his "Military Memoirs from 1672 to 1713." "Before the appearance in the world of that labour of Cervantes," he said, "it was next to an impossibility for a man to walk the streets with any delight or without danger. There were seen so many cavaliers prancing and curvetting before the windows of their mistresses, that a stranger would have imagined the whole nation to have been nothing less than a race of knight-errants. But after the world became a little acquainted with that notable history, the man that was seen in that once celebrated drapery was pointed at as a Don Quixote, and found himself the jest of high and low. And I verily believe that to this, and this only, we owe that dampness and poverty of spirit which has run through all our councils for a century past, so little agreeable to those nobler actions of our famous ancestors."
To call "Don Quixote" a sad book, preaching a pessimist view of life, argues a total misconception of its drift. It would be so if its moral were that, in this world, true enthusiasm naturally leads to ridicule and discomfiture. But it preaches nothing of the sort; its moral, so far as it can be said to have one, is that the spurious enthusiasm that is born of vanity and self-conceit, that is made an end in itself, not a means to an end, that acts on mere impulse, regardless of circumstances and consequences, is mischievous to its owner, and a very considerable nuisance to the community at large. To those who cannot distinguish between the one kind and the other, no doubt "Don Quixote" is a sad book; no doubt to some minds it is very sad that a man who had just uttered so beautiful a sentiment as that "it is a hard case to make slaves of those whom God and Nature made free," should be ungratefully pelted by the scoundrels his crazy philanthropy had let loose on society; but to others of a more judicial cast it will be a matter of regret that reckless self-sufficient enthusiasm is not oftener requited in some such way for all the mischief it does in the world.
A very slight examination of the structure of "Don Quixote" will suffice to show that Cervantes had no deep design or elaborate plan in his mind when he began the book. When he wrote those lines in which "with a few strokes of a great master he sets before us the pauper gentleman," he had no idea of the goal to which his imagination was leading him. There can be little doubt that all he contemplated was a short tale to range with those he had already written, a tale setting forth the ludicrous results that might be expected to follow the attempt of a crazy gentleman to act the part of a knight-errant in modern life.
It is plain, for one thing, that Sancho Panza did not enter into the original scheme, for had Cervantes thought of him he certainly would not have omitted him in his hero's outfit, which he obviously meant to be complete. Him we owe to the landlord's chance remark in Chapter III that knights seldom travelled without squires. To try to think of a Don Quixote without Sancho Panza is like trying to think of a one-bladed pair of scissors.
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.
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Miguel de Cervantes -- by John Ormsby