Monday, November 17, 2014

Comparing the Book “Don Quixote” to Other Books of the Period

Featuring Henry Edward Watts

Previously on Cervantes' "Don Quixote" Reforms Literature. And now Henry Edward Watts

Time: 1605
Place: Spain

To estimate the worth of the service performed by Cervantes--not in abolishing romance, as has been absurdly said, still less in discrediting chivalry, as with even a more perverse misconception of his purpose has been suggested, but in purging books of fiction of their grossness and their extravagance, and restoring romance to truth and to nature--we have to consider the enormous influence exercised by this pernicious literature over the minds of the people of Spain in the sixteenth century.

The ceaseless wars with the Moors had trained the whole manhood of the nation to soldiership. The trade of fighting was familiar to every man of good birth, so that the word for "knight" (caballero) came to be synonymous with that for "gentleman." The constant exercise in arms made of chivalry, in Spain, a more solemn and serious calling than elsewhere. As a native writer says, with equal point and spirit, there was developed by the chronic war with the Moor a caballerismo--there is none but a Spanish word for a quality purely indigenous--essentially distinct from the gay, fantastic chivalry of the North. It extended to all classes of the people. It was not confined to the aristocracy. "Every Spaniard was a warrior, every warrior a noble, and every noble a knight of his country."[16] They had not to go far to seek for adventures. They had the Paynim at home: Mahound and Termagaunt were at their doors. There was a constant supply at hand of men of the wrong faith and alien habits—the delight in fighting whom was enhanced by the fact that they equally were possessed of the chivalric fervor, and, though Moors and misbelievers, gentlemen still and cavaliers.[17] The long and desperate struggle for existence evolved the highest qualities of the race. And small wonder it was that out of that fruitful soil which had grown the Cid and the warriors of the heroic age, who should be rightly classed as prechivalric, there sprung up that ranker produce, the knights-errant. Of these, the seekers after adventure, the bohemians of the knightly order, Spain, as her native historians boast, was the teeming mother. No other country in that age, or in the previous one, could show the world such a scene as that gravely enacted before King Juan II and his court, when eighty knights ran a-tilt with each other, and incurred serious loss of limb and permanent injury to their persons, in order that one of them might fulfil a fantastic vow made to his mistress.[18]

Knight-errantry, which was a caprice in France and in England, in Spain was a calling. No other country could afford such a field for it, and to no other society was it so well suited. The grave and wise Fernando de Pulgar, the counsellor and chronicler of Ferdinand and Isabella, speaks with complacency of the noblemen he knew who had gone into foreign countries in search of adventures, "so as to gain honor for themselves, and the fame of valiant and hardy knights for the gentlemen of Castile"--boasting that there were more Spanish knights of the errant sort than of any other nation.

The romance of chivalry was the natural growth of this fashion of knight-errantry; and, like its parent, flourished nowhere so luxuriantly as in Spain. Amadis Of Gaul and Belianis Of Greece are, in fact, as much "racy of the soil" as Don Quixote itself.

There were some simple or devout enough to take the romance for a gospel, who believed in Amadis as much as in any other hero or saint. In the Arte de Galanteria, written by Francisco de Portugal about the close of the sixteenth century, it is mentioned that a Portuguese poet, Simon de Silveira, once swore upon the Evangelists that he believed the whole of Amadis to be true history. This is capped by another story in the same book of how a certain knight came home from hunting and found his wife and daughters dissolved in tears. Asking them what was the matter—whether any child or relation was dead--they said "No; but Amadis is dead!" They had come to the 174th chapter of Lisuarte of Greece, where the old Amadis finally dies.

The influence of the Palmerins and of the Carlovingian romances, which form a class by themselves, was scarcely inferior to that of Amadis. Palmerin of England himself, the patriarch of the family--that "Palm of England," as Cervantes calls him--may be placed second to his rival in merit. The difference in spirit is great between the two; for Amadis really is, though in its present form of the fifteenth, of the fourteenth century, when chivalry was in its early prime; and Palmerin was not written till the sixteenth century, when the true ideal of knighthood had already been dimmed by the lust of gold-seeking and religious adventure. Southey, perhaps, ranks Palmerin too high in the literary scale by placing it on a level with Amadis, and averring that he knew "no romance and no epic in which suspense is so successfully kept up." Of their successors, the long line of sons, grandsons and nephews, each more valiant and puissant than the last, it must be said that they are as scant of beauty as of grace. In order to keep up the interest of their readers, the authors of the Primaleons and the Polindos--the Florisels and the Florisandos--were compelled to put in wonders on an ascending scale; to pile up adventure upon adventure; to make the dragons fiercer, the giants huger, the fighting more terrible, and the slaughter more bloody. The popular appetite, which craved for more and more excitement with every successive stimulant, could only be fed by inventions so monstrous that it is a wonder the stomach of the readers of romances of chivalry did not reject the nauseous aliment. Yet there is no evidence of any decline in the production of these books up to the date of the appearance of Don Quixote.

It was to do battle with this brood of fabled monsters, against whom the pulpit and the parliament had preached and legislated in vain, that Cervantes took up his pen.


[16] See the eloquent and judicious prologue to his Romancero General by Don Agustin Duran.

[17] "Caballeros granadinos,
Aunque Moros, hijos d'algo."

[18] See the account of the Paso Honroso, held at the instance of Suero de Quiñones, before Juan II, in 1434, at the bridge of Orbigo, near Leon, which is contained in Appendix D, vol. i, of my translation of Don Quixote.

Continued on Wednesday, November 19th.

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