IDLE READER, you can believe me when I say that I’d like this book, as a child of my intellect, to be the most beautiful, the most gallant and most ingenious one that could ever be imagined. But I haven’t been able to violate the laws of nature, which state that each one begets his like. So, what could a sterile and ill-cultivated talent such as mine engender, if not the story of a dry, shriveled-up, unpredictable child, who was filled with thoughts never-before imagined by anyone else—such a book as one might dream up while in jail, where all discomfort is to be found, and where all lugubrious sounds dwell? Tranquillity, a pleasant place, the amenity of the countryside, the serenity of the heavens, the murmuring of fountains, the stillness of the soul, make even the most sterile muses appear fertile, and allow them to bear fruit that fills the world with wonder and content.
It happens that if a father has an ugly and clumsy child, love puts a blindfold over his eyes so that he’ll see his defects as cleverness and charm, and he describes them to his friends as if they were subtleties and witticisms. But I, although I seem to be don Quixote’s father, am just his stepfather, and I don’t beg you, as others do almost with tears in their eyes, to forgive or overlook the defects that you see in this child of mine. You aren’t a relative of his, nor even his friend, and you have a soul in your body, you have free will like anyone else, and you’re in your home, where you’re lord and master—as the king is of his taxes—and you know the common proverb: «under my cloak I kill the king». All this exempts you from any obligation, and you can say whatever you want about the story, without fearing reprisal for anything bad you might say about the work, nor expecting a reward for anything good you might say.
I wanted only to offer it to you pure and simple, without the embellishment of a prologue or the countless sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies that are customarily added to the beginning of books. I can tell you that, although it required enormous effort to write the book, the hardest part was writing this prologue you’re reading. Time after time I took up my quill to write, and then I put it down, not knowing what to write. But at one of those times when I was uninspired—paper in front of me, the quill behind my ear, my elbow on the desk, and my cheek on my hand, thinking about what to say—a witty and wise friend of mine came in unexpectedly, and when he saw me so pensive, he asked me why. I told him that I was thinking about the prologue I had to write for the history of don Quixote, and not only had it put me in such a state that I didn’t want to do it, but I was also on the verge of abandoning all the deeds of the noble knight himself.
“How can you expect me not to be fearful of the opinion of that ancient judge they call the public, when they see that after so many years of sleeping in the silence of oblivion, I’m coming out now—at this advanced age—with a tale as dry as mat-weed, devoid of artifice, diminished in style, poor in conceits, lacking in all erudition and doctrine, and without marginal citations and annotations at the end that I see in other books, even in the novelistic and secular ones, filled with maxims of Aristotle, Plato, and the whole multitude of philosophers, that amaze the readers and make their authors appear well-read, erudite, and eloquent? And when they cite the Holy Scripture, they’re thought to be St. Thomases or other Doctors of the Church, and they maintain such a resourceful decorum that in one line they describe an absent-minded lover, and in the next, they give a Christian homily that’s a pleasure to hear or read. My book will be lacking in all of this because I have no citations for the margins, nor any notes to put at the end, and I know even less which authors to put at the beginning in alphabetical order, like everyone else does, starting with Aristotle and ending with Xenophon and Zoilus or Zeuxis, although the former was a slanderer and the latter was a painter. My book will also lack sonnets at the beginning, at least by authors who are dukes, marquises, counts, bishops, ladies, or celebrated poets; although if I’d asked two or three friends who are poets, I know they would have written sonnets for me, and such that the most renowned poets in this Spain of ours couldn’t equal.
“In short, señor and friend,” I continued, “I think that señor don Quixote will remain buried in his archives in La Mancha until heaven furnishes someone who can adorn him with all those things that are lacking, because I’m not capable of providing them, owing to my deficiencies and lack of learning, and because I’m too lazy by nature to seek authorities to say what I can say without them. So, that’s where the predicament in which you found me comes from, my friend—a sufficient cause for the quandary I told you about.”
When my friend heard this, he slapped his forehead and gave a hearty laugh, and said: “By God, brother, I now realize how mistaken I’ve been about you all the time we’ve known each other, because I’ve always considered you to be enlightened and judicious in everything you did; but now I see that you’re as far from being so as heaven is from earth. How is it possible that things of so little consequence, and so easy to remedy, can baffle and absorb such a mature mind as yours, which is able to break through and overcome other more difficult things? I swear it’s not that you’re incapable, but rather that you’re excessively lazy and poverty-stricken in your thought. Would you like to see if what I’m saying is true? Well, listen to me and you’ll see in the twinkling of an eye how I can overcome all your problems and how I can fix all the defects that you say confound and intimidate you so much that you feel like not publishing the history of your celebrated don Quixote, the light and mirror of all knight errantry.”
“Tell me,” I replied, hearing what he was saying to me, “how do you envision filling the vacuum of my fear, and converting the chaos of my confusion into light?”
To which he said: “First, with respect to the sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies written by important persons of rank missing from the front of the book, you can fix that if you write them yourself, and afterwards you can baptize them with whatever name you want, attributing them to Prester John of the Indies or the Emperor of Trebizond, who I’ve heard were famous poets; and even if they weren’t, and if pedants and university graduates come forth to challenge and complain about it behind your back, you shouldn’t care two maravedís about it, because even if they discover your deception, no one is going to cut off your hand because of it.
“With regard to citing books and authorities in the margins from where you got the maxims and sayings you put in your history, all you have to do is locate some aphorisms and Latin phrases that fit, and that you already know by heart, or that at least won’t be hard to find. For example, when you’re dealing with freedom and captivity, use: Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro; and then in the margin cite Horace, or whoever said it. If you’re talking about the power of death, use: Pallida Mors æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turres. If it’s friendship and the love that God commands you to have for your enemy, just go into Holy Scripture, which you can do with minimal research, and say the words used by God himself: Ego autem dico vobis, diligite inimicos vestros. If you’re dealing with evil thoughts, go to the New Testament: De corde exeunt cogitationes malæ. If it’s the inconstancy of friends, there’s Cato, who can give you this couplet: Donec eris felix, multos numerabis amicos, tempora si fuerint nubila, solus eris. And with these Latin phrases, and others like them, you’ll at least be taken for a professor of grammar, and being that nowadays is of no little honor and worth.
“As far as putting notes at the end of the book goes, surely you can do it this way—if you mention some giant in your book, make sure it’s Goliath, and with this, which won’t take any work at all, you can say: ‘The giant Goliath, a Philistine whom the shepherd David slew with a large stone in the valley of Terebinth, as cited in the Book of Kings,’ in the chapter where you’ll identify it’s written. After this, to show that you’re a scholar in human letters and geography, arrange it so that you name the Tajo River in your history, and you’ll have another great citation by writing: ‘The River Tajo, which was so named by a King of Spain, starting in such-and-such a place and flowing into the Ocean Sea, kissing the walls of the celebrated City of Lisbon, and it is held that it has golden sands,’ etc. If you speak about thieves, I’ll tell you the story of Cacus, which I know by heart; if prostitutes, there’s the Bishop of Mondoñedo, who’ll lend you Lamia, Laida, and Flora, the note for which will increase your reputation; if cruel people, Ovid will hand over Medea; and if it’s about enchanters and w itches, Homer has Calypso, and Virgil Circe; if brave captains, Julius Cæsar will lend himself to you in his Commentaries, and Plutarch will give you a thousand Alexanders. If you speak of love, with the two ounces you know of Italian, you’ll come upon León Hebreo, who will satisfy you completely. And if you don’t want to go into other countries, you have Fonseca right here, in his Of the Love of God, where you’ll find everything you and the most fastidious person could possibly desire on that subject. So, you have only to try to list these people or use these histories I’ve mentioned in your own story, and by Jove, you’ll fill your margins and use up thirty-two pages at the end of the book.
“Now, let’s come to the bibliography that other books have and yours doesn’t. The cure is very simple—all you have to do is look for a book that lists references from A to Z, as you say. You can put this list in your book as is, and even though the deception can be clearly seen, since you really didn’t need it in the first place, it doesn’t make any difference. Maybe some simpleton will think that you actually used those sources in your simple book. And if it serves for nothing else, that catalogue of authorities will give instant credibility to the book. What’s more, no one will set out to prove whether you used them or not, since they’ll have nothing to gain by doing so, and moreover, if I understand it correctly, this book of yours doesn’t need any of the things you say are lacking, because it’s all a censure of the books of chivalry, and Aristotle had nothing to say about them, nor did St. Basil, and Cicero equally said nothing. The exactness of truth is not connected to the fictional nonsense found in those books, nor are the observations of astrology, nor are geometric calculations important to them, nor the confutation used by rhetoricians, nor do they have a reason to preach to anyone, since they mix the human with the divine, which is something in which no Christian intellect should be clad.”
“You only have to imitate the style of what you’re writing—the more perfect the imitation is, the better your writing will be. And since the intention of your writing is to destroy the favor and influence the books of chivalry have in the world and hold over the common folk, you have no reason to go around begging for maxims by philosophers, counsel from the Holy Scripture, fables by poets, orations of rhetoricians, or miracles of saints; but rather you need to try to make sure that your writing is plain, clear, and witty, using pure and well put-together words charged with meaning. Declare your thoughts without complications and without muddling them. Try also to make the melancholy person who reads your history laugh; and the mirthful to laugh even more; and be sure you don’t vex the simpleton. Move the wise person to marvel at your invention, the grave not to scorn it, and the prudent not to cease in his praise of it. So, fix your attention on bringing down the ill-founded framework of these chivalresque books, despised by many, and praised by many more; for if you achieve this, you won’t have achieved little.”
In profound silence I listened to what my friend was telling me, and I was so impressed by his words that, without disputing them, I deemed them to be correct, and decided to use them for this prologue, in which you’ll see, gentle reader, the wisdom of my friend, and my good fortune in finding such a good counselor in my time of need, and your own relief in finding the sincere and uncomplicated history of the famous don Quixote de La Mancha, whom all the dwellers around the Plains of Montiel believe to be the purest lover and the most valiant knight seen around there for many a year. I don’t want to overrate the service I’m doing you by in introducing you to such a noble and honored knight, but I do want you to thank me for the acquaintance you’ll make of the remarkable Sancho Panza, his squire, in whom, I believe, I have exemplified all the squirely graces that are scattered throughout the books of chivalry. And with this, may God give you health—and may He not forget me. Vale.