This extract is taken from Don Quixote de la Mancha, to celebrate the life of Cervantes, who died on 22 April, 1616 – four hundred years ago.
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I purposely omit, there lived not long ago, one of those gentlemen, who usually keep a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound for coursing. A dish of boiled meat, consisting of somewhat more beef than mutton, the fragments served up cold on most nights, an omelet on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a small pigeon by way of addition on Sundays, consumed three-fourths of his income. The rest was laid out in a surtout of fine black cloth, a pair of velvet breeches for holidays, with slippers of the same; and on week-days he prided himself in the very best of his own homespun cloth. His family consisted of a housekeeper somewhat above forty, a niece not quite twenty, and a lad for the field and the market, who both saddled the horse and handled the pruning-hook. The age of our gentleman bordered upon fifty years. He was of a robust constitution, sparebodied, of a meagre visage; a very early riser, and a keen sportsman. It is said his surname was Quixada, or Quesada (for in this there is some difference among the authors who have written upon this subject), though by probable conjectures it may be gathered that he was called Quixana. But this is of little importance to our story; let it suffice that in relating we do not swerve a jot from the truth.
You must know then, that this gentleman aforesaid, at times when he was idle, which was most part of the year, gave himself up to the reading of books of chivalry, with so much attachment and relish, that he almost forgot all the sports of the field, and even the management of his domestic affairs; and his curiosity and extravagant fondness herein arrived to that pitch, that he sold many acres of arable land to purchase books of knight-errantry, and carried home all he could lay hands on of that kind. But, among them all, none pleased him so much as those composed by the famous Feliciano de Silva: for the glaringness of his prose, and the intricacy of his style, seemed to him so many pearls; and especially when he came to peruse those love-speeches and challenges, wherein in several places he found written: ‘The reason of the unreasonable treatment of my reason enfeebles my reason in such wise, that with reason I complain of your beauty’: and also when he read—’The high heavens that with your divinity divinely fortify you with the stars, making you meritorious of the merit merited by your greatness’.
With this kind of language the poor gentleman lost his wits, and distracted himself to comprehend and unravel their meaning; which was more than Aristotle himself could do, were he to rise again from the dead for that purpose alone. He had some doubt as to the dreadful wounds which Don Belianis gave and received; for he imagined, that notwithstanding the most expert surgeons had cured him, his face and whole body must still be full of seams and scars. Nevertheless he commended in his author the concluding his book with a promise of that unfinishable adventure: and he often had it in his thoughts to take pen in hand, and finish it himself, precisely as it is there promised: which he had certainly performed, and successfully too, if other greater and continual cogitations had not diverted him.
He had frequent disputes with the priest of his village (who was a learned person, and had taken his degrees in Sigiienza) which of the two was the better knight, Palmerin of England, or Amadis de Gaul. But master Nicholas, barber-surgeon of the same town, affirmed, that none ever came up to the Knight of the Sun, and that if any one could be compared to him, it was Don Galaor, brother of Amadis de Gaul; for he was of a disposition fit for everything, no finical gentleman, nor such a whimperer as his brother; and as to courage, he was by no means inferior to him. In short, he so bewildered himself in this kind of study, that he passed the nights in reading from sunset to sunrise, and the days from sunrise to sunset: and thus, through little sleep and much reading, his brain was dried up in such a manner, that he came at last to lose his wits. His imagination was full of all that he read in his books, to wit, enchantments, battles, single combats, challenges, wounds, courtships, amours, tempests, and impossible absurdities. And so firmly was he persuaded that the whole system of chimeras he read of was true, that he thought no history in the world was more to-be depended upon. The Cid Ruy Diaz, he was wont to say, was a very good knight, but not comparable to the Knight of the Burning Sword, who with a single back-stroke cleft asunder two fierce and monstrous giants. He was better pleased with Bernardo del Carpio for putting Orlando the Enchanted to death in Roncesvalles, by means of the same stratagem which Hercules used, when he suffocated Anteus, son of the Earth, by squeezing him between his arms. He spoke mighty well of the giant Morgante; for, though he was of that monstrous brood who are always proud and insolent, he alone was affable and well-bred: but, above all, he was charmed with Reynaldos de Montalvan, especially when he saw him sallying out of his castle and plundering all he met; and when abroad he seized that image of Mahomet, which was all of massive gold, as his history records. He would have given his housekeeper, and niece to boot, for a fair opportunity of handsomely kicking the traitor Galalon.
Feature Image: Don Quixote by Gustave Doré. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons