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The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha

Books of knight errantry could not be reformed


regard to _Don Quixote_, it need hardly be said that its object is satire upon the books of knight-errantry, which were so much used in the time of Cervantes, and especially by the Spanish. He conceived that these books were likely to give his countrymen false ideas of the world; to fill them all, but especially the young, with fanciful notions of life, and so make them unfit to meet its real difficulties and hardships. In order to exhibit the absurdity of such works (it must be remembered too, that the more famous books of knighthood had given rise to a host of spurious imitations, with all their faults and none of their beauties), the author of Don Quixote represents a worthy gentleman with his head turned by such reading, and then sallying forth and endeavouring to act in this plain matter-of-fact world (where there are windmills, and not giants--inns, and not castles--good honest hosts and hostesses, and not lords and ladies--chambermaids, and not peerless beauties--estates to be got by hard labour, and not islands to be given away to one's dependants as if by enchantment), endeavouring to act, we say, as if all that was said in _Amadis de Gaul_, and _Palmerin of England_, and _Olivante de Laura_, were really true. The absurdities into which the poor gentleman's madness constantly hurries him, the stern and bitter satire which is conveyed in these against the books which caused them all, did more towards putting down the extravagances of knight-errantry than many volumes of
the bitterest invective. We of this present day cannot be really alive to all the great genius displayed in Don Quixote. The books which it satirises are now almost unknown; many who have heard of Amadis de Gaul have never read it, and still less have they read all the lineage of the Amadis. Besides, in some of the first of the chivalrous romances, such as Palmerin of England, the _Morte d'Arthur_, and others, there was undoubtedly very much talent and beauty of sentiment: and it was as such that Southey thought it right to translate them and present them to the English public some years ago; and deeply indebted are we all to him for his labours, which revived among us somewhat of the taste for the old and stately prose of the ancient romances--a taste which in our day has given rise to those beautiful editions in English of the tales of De la Motte Fouque. But we must ever remember that it was not for the purpose of ridiculing those and similar books that Cervantes wrote his "history"--one so keenly alive to the beauty of the poetry of the mediaeval writing as he was, never could have intended such a thing: it was to exterminate the race of miserable imitators, who, at his time, deluged Europe with sickening caricatures of the old romance. It has even been thought that he had intended another course in order to cure the disease, namely, that of himself composing a model romance in the style of Amadis, which, from its excellence, would make manifest the follies of men who had endeavoured to imitate that almost inimitable work. But the disease was past cure; the limb was obliged to be amputated; books of knight-errantry could not be reformed, he thought; and so rather than let them continue their mischief in their present shape, they must be quite destroyed; and this the satire of Don Quixote was by its author considered the most proper means of effecting.

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