According to Spanish custom, which tended to name each child for the saint commemorated on the day of its birth, the creator of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was baptized Miguel de Cervantes at Alcalá October 9, 1547. He—and perhaps his father—added the name Saavedra, from the Castilian family with which his Galician ancestors had intermarried in the fifteenth century. The father was an unlicensed physician, hard of hearing and short of funds, who traveled from town to town setting bones and alleviating minor injuries; apparently young Miguel accompanied him to Valladolid, Madrid, and Seville. Nothing is known of the boy’s education; though born in a university town, he seems to have had no college training; he remained unchastened and uncluttered by classics, and had to pick his knowledge of life from living.
The first fact that we have of him after his baptismal record is that in 1569 a Madrid schoolmaster published a volume that included six poems by “our dear and beloved pupil,” Cervantes. In September of that year a Myguel de Zerbantes was arrested for dueling, and was banished from Spain for ten years on penalty of losing his right hand. In December we find our Miguel serving in the household of a high ecclesiastic in Rome. On September 16, 1571, the same Miguel, probably (like Camões) choosing military service to escape jail, sailed from Messina on the ship Marquesa in the armada of Don Juan of Austria. When that fleet encountered the Turks at Lepanto Cervantes lay ill with fever in the hold; but as he insisted on playing his part, he was put in charge of twelve men in a boat by the ship’s side; he received three gunshot wounds, two in the chest and another that permanently maimed his left hand—”for the glory of the right,” he said. He was returned to a hospital in Messina and was paid eighty-two ducats by the Spanish government. He took part in other military actions—at Navarino, Tunis, and Goletta (La Goulette). Finally he was allowed to return to Spain; but on the voyage homeward he and his brother Rodrigo were captured by Barbary corsairs (September 26, 1575) and were sold into slavery in Algiers. The letters that he carried from Don Juan and others persuaded his captors that Miguel was a man of some worth; they placed a high ransom on his head, and, although his brother was released in 1577, Miguel was kept in bondage for five years. Repeatedly he tried to escape, only to have the severity of his treatment increased. The Dey, the local ruler, declared that “if he could keep that lame Spaniard well guarded, he should consider his capital, his slaves, and his galleys safe.”I17His mother struggled to raise the five hundred crowns demanded for his release; his sisters sacrificed their marriage dowries for the same cause; at last (September 19, 1580) he was freed, and after an arduous journey he rejoined his mother’s family at Madrid.
Penniless and maimed, he found no way of making ends meet except to re-enlist in the army. There are indications that he saw service in Portugal and the Azores. He fell in love with a lady eighteen years his junior and rich only in names—Catalina de Palacio Salazar y Vozmédiano of Esquivias. Goaded by love and penury, Cervantes wrote a pastoral romance, Galatea, which he sold for 1,336 reales ($668?). The lady now married him (1584), after which he introduced to her, and persuaded her to rear as her own, an illegitimate daughter who had been born to him by a transient belle a year before.18 Catalina herself bore him no children. She berated him periodically for his poverty, but remained apparently loyal to him, survived him, and, dying, asked to be buried at his side.
The Galatea brought no further reales; its shepherds proved too eloquent, except in their poetry; and though Cervantes had planned a continuation, and to the end thought it his masterpiece, he never found time or spur to complete it. For twenty-five years he tried his hand at play-writing, and he composed some thirty plays; he considered them excellent, and assures us that they “were all acted without any offering of cucumbers”;19 but none of them touched the public fancy or a vein of gold. He resigned himself to a modest place in the commissary of the army and navy (1587), and in that capacity he traveled to a score of towns, leaving his wife at home. He helped to provision the Invincible Armada. In 1594 he was appointed taxgatherer for Granada. He was imprisoned at Seville for irregularities in his accounts, was released after three months, but was dismissed from the government service. He remained for several years in obscure poverty in Seville, trying to live on pen and ink. Then, wandering through Spain, he was arrested again, at Argamasilla. There in jail and in misery, says tradition, he continued writing one of the most cheerful books in the world. Back in Madrid, he sold to Francisco de Robles the manuscript of The Life and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha. It was published in 1605, and now at last, after fifty-eight years of struggling, Cervantes touched success.
Everyone except the critics hailed the book as a feast of humor and philosophy. Philip III (says an old tale), “standing one day on the balcony of the palace at Madrid, observed a student, with a book in his hand, on the opposite bank of the Manzanares. He was reading, but every now and then he interrupted his reading and gave himself violent blows upon the forehead, accompanied with innumerable motions of ecstasy and mirthfulness. ‘That student,’ said the King, ‘is either out of his wits or reading … Don Quixote: “20
As in every masterpiece, there are some flaws in these eight hundred pages. The plot is not very ingenious—a string of episodes, thickened with irrelevant interpolated tales, and as planless as the knight, who “rode on, leaving it to his horse’s discretion to go which way it pleased.” Some threads of the plot are left at loose ends or get tangled up, like the loss and unexplained reappearance of Sancho’s ass. Now and then the lively narrative grows dull, the grammar lax, and the language coarse; and geographers pronounce the geography impossible. But what does it matter? More and more, as we read on, carried by a genial pull through sense and nonsense, the wonder mounts that Cervantes, amid all his tribulations, could have put together such a panorama of idealism and humor and could have brought the two distant poles of human character into such illuminating apposition. The style is as it should be in a long narrative—not a fatiguing torrent of eloquence, but a clear and flowing stream, sparkling now and then with a pretty phrase (“he had a face like a blessing”21). The inventiveness of incident continues to the end, the well of Sancho’s proverbs is never exhausted, and the last bit of humor or pathos is as good as the first. Here, in what Cervantes calls “this most grave, high-sounding, minute, soft, and humorous history,” are the life and the people of Spain, described with a love that survives impartiality, and through a thousand trivial details that create and vitalize the revealing whole.
Adapting an old device, Cervantes pretends that his “history” is taken from the manuscript of an Arabian author, Cid Hamet Ben-Engeli. The preface declares his purpose clearly: to describe in “a satire of knighterrantry … the fall and destruction of that monstrous heap of ill-contrived romances … which have so strangely infatuated the greater part of mankind.” Chaucer had done something like this in The Canterbury Tales (“The Rhyme of Sir Topas”), Rabelais in Gargantua, Pulci in Il Morgante maggiore;Teofilo Folengo and other “macaronic” poets had burlesqued the knights, and Ariosto, in Orlando furioso, had made fun of his heroes and heroines. Cervantes does not reject the romances outright; some, like Amadis da Gaula and his own Galatea, he saves from the fire; and he inserts a few chivalric romances into his story. In the end his chivalrous Don, after a hundred defeats and ignominious catapults, is seen to have been the secret hero of the tale.
Cervantes pictures him as an imaginative country gentleman—ingenioso hidalgo—so bemused by the fiction that he has accumulated in his library that he arms himself cap-a-pie in knightly costume and sallies forth on his Rozinante to defend the oppressed, to right iniquities, and to protect virginity and innocence. He hates injustice, and dreams of a golden past when there was no gold, when “those two fatal words, thine and mine, were distinctions unknown; all things were in common in that holy age … all then was union, all love and friendship in the world.”22 As chivalric custom requires, he dedicates his arms, nay, his life, to a lady, La Dulcinea del Toboso. Never having seen her, he can picture her as the perfection of demure purity and gentle grace. “Her neck is alabaster, her breasts are marble, her hands are ivory; and snow would lose its whiteness near her bosom.”23 Hardened with this marble and warmed with this snow, Don Quixote moves to attack a world of wrongs. In this battle against great odds he does not feel outnumbered, for “I alone am worth a hundred.” As Cervantes keeps him company through inns and windmills, filthy ditches and stampeding swine, he comes to love the “Knight of the Woeful Figure” as a saint as well as a madman; in all those misadventures and painful falls the Don remains the soul of courtesy, compassion, and generosity. At last the somber lunatic is transformed by his author into a philosopher who, even in the mud, talks kindly good sense and forgives the world that he cannot understand; and we begin to take offense when, to hew to his charted line, Cervantes continues to dash him to the ground. We feel for the disillusioned knight when Sancho assures him that the only Dulcinea del Toboso known to her town is “a strapping wench … a sizable, sturdy, manly lass” of lowly stock. The knight answers him with a golden phrase, “Virtue ennobles the blood.”24“Every man,” he tells Sancho, “is the son of his own works.”25
What the Don lacks is humor, which is the better half of philosophy. Therefore Cervantes gives him, as an attendant squire, a sturdy town laborer and son of the soil, Sancho Panza. The knight secures his services by promising him food and drink, and the governorship of some province in the realms they are to conquer. Sancho is a man of simple sense and hearty appetite, who, though always on the verge of starvation, remains fat to the last page; a kindly fellow, who loves his mule as his alter ego and values its “sweet company.” He is not a typical Spanish peasant, for he is long on humor and short on dignity; but, like any Spaniard free from theological rabies, he is goodhearted and charitable, wise without letters, and faithful to his master this side of flagellation. He soon concludes that the Don is mad, but he too comes to love him. “I have stuck close to my good master and kept him company this many a month,” he says toward the end, “and now he and I are all one.”26 It is true, for they are two sides of one humanity. The knight in his turn comes to respect the wisdom of his squire as better rooted, if not as noble, as his own. Sancho expresses his philosophy through proverbs, which he strings end to end almost to the suffocation of his thought: “A hen and a woman are lost by rambling”; “Between a woman’s yea and nay I would not engage to put a pin’s point, so close they be to one another”; “A doctor gives his advice by the pulse of your pocket”; “Everyone is as God made him, and often worse.”27 Cervantes probably used an anthology of such proverbs, which he defined as “short sentences framed on long experience.”28 Sancho excuses his adagiorrhea on the ground that these saws clog his windpipe and must fly out, “first come, first served.” The Don resigns himself to the flood. “In faith,” he says, “it would seem that thou art no saner than I am … I pronounce thee noncompos; I pardon thee, and have done.”29
The success of Don Quixote brought Cervantes two patrons, the Count of Lemos and the Cardinal of Toledo, who gave him a small pension; now he could support his wife, his natural daughter, his widowed sister, and a niece. A few months after the publication of his book he and his whole family were arrested for possible complicity in the murder of Gaspar de Ezpeleta at Cervantes’ door. Gossip said that Gaspar had loved the daughter, but inquiry proved nothing, and all were released.
Leisurely Cervantes proceeded with Part Two of Don Quixote. In 1613 he interrupted this fond labor by publishing twelve Novelas ejemplares. “I have given these stories the title of Exemplary,” said the preface, “and if you look closely there is not one of them that does not offer a useful example.”30 The first is of a gang of thieves operating in exemplary unison with the constable of Seville; another (Colloquy of the Dogs) describes the manners and morals of that city. In the Prologue to the Novelas Cervantes pictured himself:
The man you see here with the acquiline countenance, the chestnut hair, the smooth, untroubled brow, the bright eyes, the hooked yet well-proportioned nose, the silvery beard that less than a score of years ago was golden, the big mustache … the teeth that are scarcely worth counting … the body of medium height … the slightly stooping shoulders, the somewhat heavy build—this, I may tell you, is the author of Galatea and Don Quixote de la Mancha.31
He was surprised in 1614 by the appearance of Part Two of Don Quixote, not by himself but by an unidentified poacher who took the name of Avellaneda. The preface made fun of Cervantes’ wounds, and rejoiced at the neat trick that would ruin Cervantes’ own Part Two. The harassed author hurried to finish his continuation and published it in 1615. Literate Spain was delighted to find this extension of remarks quite up to the first part in imagination, vigor, and humor; through these additional half-thousand pages the interest was kept up to the sad if not bitter end; and the mishaps of the Don and his squire at the court of the Duke, the reign of Sancho over his province, and the painful tale of his beaten buttocks seemed to some to make the second the better half. When Sancho is made governor of Barataria everyone expects him to surpass all records of gubernatorial fatuity. On the contrary, his good heart and common sense, his simple and just regulations and reforms, and his wise decision in a case of rape32 put to shame the actualities of contemporary government. But the forces of heartless evil are too strong for him; finally they harass him to the point where he surrenders his office and returns with relief to his life as squire to the Don.
It remains only for the knight to make a similar escape from dreams to fact. He sets out for new adventures, but meets with a culminating defeat, in which the victor exacts from him a pledge that he will go home and live for a year in unknightly peace. The tired warrior consents, but his disillusionment dries up the sources of his life. He calls his friends to his bedside, distributes gifts, makes his will, disavows knight-errantry, and lets his spirit doubly ebb away. Sancho goes back to his family, and cultivates his garden in the content of a man who has seen enough of the world to appreciate his home. In the end his good-natured realism appears to triumph over the generous but fanciful idealism of his master. But it is not quite so. The soul of the knight has the last word, in the epitaph that he left for his tomb: “If I did not accomplish great things, I died in their pursuit.” The realist survives till his death, but the idealist then begins to live.
In the year that remained to him Cervantes published eight plays; time has not confirmed his estimate of them, but has given high rank to his La Numancia, a dramatic poem of power and beauty, celebrating the resistance of that Spanish city to Roman siege (133 B.C.). Like his knight he had his sustaining delusion; he thought that posterity would honor him above all for his dramas, and he spoke with unbecoming but forgivable jealousy of the incredibly successful Lope de Vega. And with almost his last breath, after ridiculing most romances, he wrote another of his own, Pérsiles y Sigismunda. Four days before his death he dedicated it to the Count of Lemos:
Yesterday I received extreme unction, and today I pen this dedication. The time is short, my agony increases, hopes diminish … And so farewell to jesting, farewell my merry humors, farewell my gay friends; for I feel that I am dying, and have no desire but to see you happy in the other life.33
He died April 23, 1616.II
In his characteristic Quixotic way he had predicted a sale of thirty million copies of his Don Quixote; the world smiled at his naïveté, and bought thirty million copies. The great story has been translated into more languages than any book except the Bible. In Spain the simplest villagers know about Don Quixote; and generally, again outside of the Bible, he is “the most living, the most endearing, and the best known character in all literature,”34 more real than a thousand proud notables of history. By making his story a picture of manners Cervantes established the modern novel and opened the way for Lesage, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne; and he raised the new form to philosophy by making it reveal and illuminate the moral gamut of mankind.