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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
______________________________________
Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra

by T. G. Rooper, Esq., H.M.I.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 820-832


In 1570, the Turks took Cyprus. Christendom was alarmed at the encroachment of Mahometan forces, and Spain, Venice and Rome formed a Holy League against Selim II, laying aside their old dissensions for the purpose of making a united attempt to bridle the Ottomans, and curb the power, not only of the Turks, but of the Moors of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Under Don John of Austria, the most formidable fleet ever seen in the Mediterranean attacked and defeated the Turkish Fleet on the 7th October, 1571, in the Gulf of Lepanto. On board one of the galleys named Marquesa, lay Cervantes, a boy of 14, down in his cabin, sick of a fever. On coming into action, his ship was in the van, and he was urged by his captain to remain in his bed, but he refused, asking what would be thought of him if he did not do his duty, and declared he was resolved to die fighting for God and duty, rather than remain in shelter and nurse his health. Accordingly he was at his own wish placed in the post of chief danger, namely, in a boat hanging from the galley's side and much exposed to the enemies' fire. He performed his part in that day's work so valiantly as to attract the notice of his commanders, and even of Don John himself.

The famous battle of Lepanto, which broke the spell of the invincibility of Turkish arms by sea, was among the most glorious feats of Spain at the zenith of her greatness, and remained in the memory of Cervantes as the proudest event of his life. During the fight he received two gun-shot wounds in the chest and one in the left hand, which was rendered useless for life--"to the greater glory of the right," as he said in the spirit of Don Quixote, his great creation, and his countrymen love to dub him "El Manco de Lepanto," the maimed hero of Leponte. Cervantes continued in service against the Turks both by land and sea. He describes in the story of the captain in Don Quixote, which is founded on facts of his own life, the feeble effort of the allied fleet against the Turks anchored in Navarino Bay, and afterwards he was present at the capture of Goletta in Tunis, which is also referred to in the same story. His experience of warfare by land and sea afforded him that knowledge of men and things without which Don Quixote would not have touched the heart of mankind as it has done. To this war, also, must be attributed the traces of the art and culture of Italy which are manifest throughout his works.

In 1575, on his way from Naples to Spain, he was captured off Minorca by Algetine pirates. The treatment of their prisoners by these pirates was most cruel, and the captivity of Cervantes was of the hardest. He bore it with a courage and constancy which would alone have entitled him to be ranked as a hero. The books of chivalry contain no episode more romantic. The fabled deeds of Amadis de Gaul and the knights-errant which had kindled his youthful imagination did not surpass his real adventures, for the exaggerations of chivalry and romance were even surpassed in the lofty spirit with which he discharged his knightly duty. It was a miserable five years. Evil seemed to triumph over him. Lost to his friends, lost to all hope of living the high heroic life which he had set before himself to live, subjected to hardships, tyranny and caprice, he bore all with indomitable spirit, cheering the despondent, sharing what little he had with others, helping the sick, risking danger in the cause of the Christian faith, and ever bearing himself as a true soldier of the king and as a noble gentleman. His sweetness, his magnanimity and daring secured him an extraordinary influence, not only over his fellow-prisoners, but even over his jailer Hassan, a Venetian renegade who was famous as a terror to Christendom.

Cervantes' life and sorrows are the key to the understanding of Don Quixote. Like the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure, Cervantes started his life's adventures full of glowing visions of chivalry, impatient of wrong-doing, eager to set wrong right, and aid the weak.

The so-called realities of the world might well have suppressed all this faith in the ideal, and dwarfed his soaring spirit. But Cervantes was no common-place vapouring adventurer. His misfortunes ennobled his soul and he emerged from them sweeter in temper and stronger in mind than ever.

When thirty-seven years old, Cervantes married. His own family, though not a noble one, was good, and his wife was of equal birth. He wrote a poem called "Galatea," criticised by himself among the books in Don Quixote's library, and certain dramatic works, but nothing of first-class merit. At this period of his life he was engaged in providing grain and oil and wine for victualling the Spanish Armada, wandering among Andalusian villages for the purpose, and incidentally enriching his experience of men.

Cervantes lived in great poverty, and "Don Quixote," according to his own statement, was "born in a gaol," like "The Pilgrim's Progress," the cause of his imprisonment not being certainly known. It was in 1604 that "Don Quixote" was published, when Cervantes was sixty years old, and it should be noticed that the same year saw the publication of Shakspere's "Hamlet."

It is needless to say that its popularity caused it to pass through six editions. Since the invention of printing in 1479, no book had had so many readers. "The Romance of Amadis de Gaul" had led to much feeble and insipid imitation. Here was a burlesque or satire upon that kind of literature, from which, however, unlike any other satire, the best features were selected for approbation, and while that which was rotten was pruned away, that which was sound was placed in a pure and clear light, never to be lost to humanity. Here were humour and fun in its utmost abandon; here were true charity and widest sympathy with humanity in all its strength and frailty; here was a fresh and lively pictures of national life, containing all its elements.

Don Quixote's primary aim was, no doubt, like that of all true artists, to please and amuse. His book was a pastime for melancholy and gloomy spirits, but he also meant to laugh out of current literature the romances of chivalry which were harmful alike to morals and taste. He succeeded in his aim. After Cervantes, false chivalry died, and much false sentiment.

Those who care more for historical truth than poetry may find in Don Quixote a type of Spanish nobility, and in his servant, a type of Spanish peasantry. The rest of Cervantes' literary career and how his tales suggested to Walter Scott the idea for his novels and the story of his death in the year that Shakspere died, 1616, do not concern us now. The next study after the biography is the contents of the famous Romance. It should be noticed that while Cervantes admits in his preface that the ecstasies of Don Quixote may not seem to the reader so novel and unexpected, the character of Sancho Panza is claimed as wholly original.

The pursuit of knowledge had, in the sixteenth century, led men to seek it, not in old books or traditional learning, but in all that is near and close around in nature and human nature. The student and the poet alike endeavoured in that age to grasp with both hands what was within reach. Truth and purity and justice were not laid up somewhere in the sky, but intelligible realities here on earth. The true remedy for Don Quixote's ecstasy lay in the homely wisdom of his faithful disciple. It was not by abandoning the ideal that relief might be found, but by merely fixing his feet more firmly on God's earth and seeking virtue in all that lay at hand and about him. The Elizabethan dramatists did the same as Cervantes. The ways of men and women and the loveliness of woods and meads and streams were their inspiration, and they reached out after what was far, without despising what was near.

People have endeavoured to construct lists of the best hundred books in the world. So far as purely literary works are concerned, there are not fifty, not a score! There are Homer, the Greek Play-writers, then the Roman Virgil, and, after him, there are non of that rank until Cervantes and Shakespere. The list is a very short one.

All things change, but the most stable thing throughout recorded time is human nature. The few great writers of the world have dived so deeply into the springs of human action and displayed their secrets with such art and charm that, however habits, customs, and countries may vary, man delights in the image of himself which these authors mirror for him in their pages. In these few great books, man's nature is presented as a whole, and not from any partial view or in any single aspect. The good is of the highest, but the evil is not left out of the picture.

In commencing "Don Quixote" the reader must beware of prepossessions and expectations; otherwise, looking for what is not there, he will be disappointed and overlook what it really contains. It is in the spirit of a little child that all great works of genius must be approached. The mental attitude must be purely receptive and not critical. To depreciate anything which the verdict of the human race has pronounced upon favourably is the mark of a small mind.

The reader of Cervantes must not look for a carefully-woven plot such as is ingeniously contrived in a modern novel. He must not, on the other hand, think that, in the absence of such a plot, there is no unity at all and that the book consists of a number of mad adventures inartistically thrown together.

If the structure of the book is not at first apparent, that is a reason for allowing the thoughts to dwell upon it for a long time, and for returning to it again and again.

One great charm of the book is that the reader is transported into an unfamiliar country and into a novel society. His narrow insular and limited sympathies are widened and extended. If Don Quixote is not composed like a modern novel, it is not, therefore, quite unlike any other literature. It must be remembered that it was written in Spain, and that Arabian influence is stronger in that country than anywhere else in Europe. Hence for the type of narrative to which Don Quixote belongs, it is natural to think of the Arabian Nights Entertainment. This is possible and probable. The manuscript from which Galland's version of this delightful book was made (in 1794) certainly existed in 1548, that is, at the time Cervantes was born. The long series of stories in the Arabian Nights have no connection with each other. They form a miscellany. At first sight the adventures of Don Quixote appear to be disconnected in the same way. The author's hidden and perhaps subconscious art, it is for the reader to detect. The stories are, however, connected psychologically. One adventure relieves the next by a sort of contrast, furious combats are followed by love scenes, the extravagant and exuberant fun, the blunders and blows which are so attractive to boys, are relieved by serious disquisitions, and all the time jest and earnest are so interwoven that the reader finds himself half in tears over the jest and making merry at what is earnest. Cervantes, as he says in his preface, set himself the task of satirising extravagant tales of chivalry, but he aimed at preserving what was best in chivalry while sweeping away at what was rubbish. Hence in quite an early chapter, the reader is introduced to the library of Don Quixote, who only "loses his stirrups" when he is dealing with chivalry. The reader should not skip the "grand scrutiny made by the priest into Don Quixote's Library." The chapter throws some light on the Spanish Inquisition, and it also shows how large the growth of Romantic literature had become, and it further proves that Cervantes was by no means willing to destroy the first and original books of chivalry, such as Amandis de Gaul, which had some merit, but only the ridiculous imitations, which had none.

Cervantes helps to maintain the unity of his story by grouping the adventures around an inn, and this device should be compared with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, for he also assembles all his story-tellers at the Taberd inn, in Southwark. Of course, the advantage of this device is that it enables the writer to introduce into his story all sorts and conditions of men, nobles and peasants, priests and soldiers, court ladies and peasant girls, in the most natural way in the world. How widely spread was the taste for books on chivalry, Cervantes indicates more than once, showing that not only educated people enjoyed them, but that even reapers and other labourers loved to listen to them in the harvest-field or elsewhere. He shows what charms they had for men, for the servant girl, for the young lady, the men enjoying the combats, the servant girls the love scenes, and the young ladies the impassioned complaints of the knights for their absent mistresses. Tales of romance touched some of the many chords of the human heart in no unworthy manner. It was not in Spain alone that this kind of romance was universally popular. It was just the same in our own country, and besides the Arthurian Romances enshrined in the pages of Malory and reproduced for us by Lord Tennyson, there are many others, some of which are being published, as, for instance, the tale of The Green Knight and Sir Gawain. The green knight being beheaded lifts up his head and rides away with it. It should be noticed that these mad stories of chivalry throw some light on the fables told of medieval saints. The church, finding such adventures in possession of men's minds, saw that it was easier to transfer them from a region wholly secular to a religious atmosphere than to eradicate from an ignorant age what was so vastly pleasing to it, and hence fables of St. Denys and the like are but the reflection in religious teaching of similar tales in profane or secular learning. In the amusing discussions between Don Quixote, who defends his belief in all that is printed, and the Canon who regards them as a tissue of lies, it is easy to see the never-ending contest between those who desire to sift what is genuine in history from what is imaginary.

But if the matter of romance had become wild and foolish, the style of it was not less ridiculous. Cervantes gives a specimen. "Scarcely had ruddy Phoebus extended over the face of this wide and spacious earth the golden filaments of his beautiful hair, and scarcely had the little painted birds with their forked tongues hailed in soft and mellifluous harmony the approach of the rosy harbinger of morn, who leaving the soft couch of her jealous consort had just disclosed herself to mortals through the gates and balconies of the Manchejan horizon, when the renowned knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, quitting the slothful down, mounted Rozinante, his famous steed, and proceeded over the ancient memorable plain of Montiel." Shakespere, it will be remembered, lays the plot of two of his plays in Spain, namely, Love's Labour Lost and Much Ado About Nothing. The fantastical Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado also writes in this absurd style: "So it is, besieged with sable-coloured melancholy, I did commend the black oppressing humour to the most wholesome of thy healthgiving air, and as I am a gentleman betook myself for a walk," etc. From such a style the world was delivered by Cervantes and Shakespere until some modern newspapers revived it in this country. [!]

But alongside with the decay of romance and the dissatisfaction with excessive conventionality which substituted ceremony for heartfelt courtesy, there sprang up a reaction in favour of what was called Nature. Cervantes leads us from town and village to the wild hills and the heart of the Sierra Morena. The story of the shepherd Chrysostom, who kills himself for love of Marcela, who will not marry him, is full of pathos, and leads to profoundly interesting disquisitions which should by no means be skipped as dull and unimportant. Though they interrupt the narrative, they are the real substance of the book, and the adventures are, in a manner, a sugar coating to a pill. What a pretty natural scene is conveyed in the few words which describe the funeral of Chrysostom. "They discerned through a cleft between two high mountains about twenty shepherds coming down, all clad in jerkins of black wool and crowned with garlands, some of which as appeared afterwards were of yew and some of cypress. Six of them carried a bier covered with various flowers and boughs. They made haste therefore to reach ground, and four of the shepherds with pickaxes were making the grave in the hard rock under a tree near the fountain," Only more charming than this is Shakespere's funeral of the fair Imogene in Cymbeline.

The danger, however, of passing from excess of conventionality to the opposite extreme, the excess of freedom falsely ascribed to nature, is amusingly dwelt on by Cervantes in the scene where Quixote's niece, during the Inquisition into the books, urges the burning, not only the works on chivalry which had made her uncle mad, but also books of poetry, "These," said the priest, "do injury to none." "Oh, sir," said the niece, "pray order them to be burnt, for should my uncle be cured of this distemper of chivalry, he may possibly by reading such books, take it into his head to turn shepherd, and wander through the woods and fields singing and playing on a pipe, and, what would be worse still, turn poet, which they say is an incurable and contagious disease." Shakespere also in his Tempest ridicules this kind of return to nature in the amusing scene where Gonzalo tries to comfort Alonzo after their shipwreck on the enchanted Island of Prospero.

              "Had I plantation of this Isle, my Lord,
          I' the commonwealth, I would be contraries
          Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
          Would I admit; no name of magistrate.
          Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
          And use of service, none; contract, succession,
          Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
          No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil,
          No occupation; all men idle, all,
          And women, too, but innocent and pure.
          No sovereignty--"

"Yet he would be king of it!" says one of the other courtiers, and then the courtiers make fun of the garrulous old man's "natural" commonwealth. Don Quixote, in a similar manner, apostrophizes the Golden Age, and Cervantes, like Shakespere, makes merry over the idea of a restoration of that purely fabulous past. "In that blessed age all things were in common," says Don Quixote, contemplating an acorn; "to provide their ordinary sustenance; no other labour was needed than to raise their hands and take it from the sturdy oaks which stood liberally, inviting them to taste their sweet and relishing fruit. The limpid fountains and running streams offered them in magnificent abundance their delicious and transparent waters. In the clefts of the rocks the industrious and provident bees formed their commonwealths, offering to every hand without interest the fertile produce of their delicious toil. All, then was peace, all amity, all concord." Such ideas have reappeared in Rousseau, Defoe, and other writers innumerable, and will for-ever dangle like forbidden fruit before the eyes of fond enthusiasts.

But now it is time to dwell a little on the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure himself and his faithful squire, for in these is taught more finely than anywhere else in the world's literature the strange and sad fact that conduct which awakens laughter may not always be ridiculous. The Knight sets out on his mad adventure with high purpose, namely, to redress wrongs and win fame among men. It is impossible to separate the Knight's high aim from the crazy means he takes to achieve it. Cervantes assists the reader in his effort to grasp poor frail human nature, ever, as Goethe says, leaping up to the heaven for a moment and then falling back to earth like grasshoppers, by placing beside the Knight the honest peasant, who has no imaginative idea like his master, but longs only for material prizes, and who, in spite of his belief in what is undoubtedly real and material, is led as far into an unreal world as his master. It is Sancho who reminds the enthusiast that men may "go out into the world to seek better bread than wheaten," and "that to do good to the vulgar is to throw water into the sea," but yet he looks to be Governor of an island and make his wife a Countess. Events soon show Quixote that his efforts to redress grievances only create them or make them worse. "I do not like your way of redressing grievances; I do not understand your way of righting wrongs," said the bachelor master, Alonzo Lopez, "for from right you have set me wrong, having broken my leg, which will never be right as long as I live, and the grievance you have redressed for me is to leave me so aggrieved that I shall never be otherwise, and to me it was a most unlucky adventure to meet you who are seeking adventures." The Knight tilts with vain bravery at windmills, and trembles with false alarm at the noise of a fulling mill in the darkness of night. Yet he is ever better than his actions. He has the noble art of self-deception. It is, after all, that art which has redressed the wrongs of mankind. "The case was hopeless; yet he hoped." This is, after all, the true spirit of Christian reformers, from St. Paul to the last missionary. Don Quixote finely retorts on Sancho, who laughs at his misfortune, "Know, Sancho, that one man is no more than another, only inasmuch as he does more than another," and "if a man should try and fail, at least he has the satisfaction of knowing that, if he did not achieve great things, he died attempting them." Sancho, however, makes the far-reaching remark, that sometimes we set out in search of one thing and find another, a proverb that reminds us of Saul, the son of Kish, who set out to seek for his father's asses and found a kingdom.

Thus it should be noticed that, although Quixote's adventures end so unfavourably for himself, and though his squire never gets his coveted Island, nevertheless their wanderings lead at last to the good of others, and the happy union of the pairs of lovers Cardenio and Lucinda on the one hand, and Don Fernando and Dorothea on the other, may be set down to the account of Don Quixote all in his favour. This theme of lovers at cross purposes should of course be compared with the plot of Shakespere's Midsummer's Night's Dream, where Hermia and Helena are crossed in love with Lysander and Demetrius.

Among the parallels with Shakespere's plays is one of the most striking dramatic effects in the book by which Cervantes brings about an interview between the crazy Don Quixote, whose brain has been turned by too much study and ill-directed imagination, with the tattered knight Cardenio, who, crossed in hopeless love, has fled for refuge to the wilds of the Sierra Morena Mountains. The contrast between the two types of mental derangement, romantic and real, is very remarkably drawn. With this strange meeting might perhaps be compared the interview between Shakespere's Timon of Athens, the misanthrope whose ingratitude had made him mad, with Apemantus, whose self-abnegation was chiefly pure affectation. It is only a master mind who can bring into juxtaposition two characters, both eccentric and strong, and both outwardly resembling each other, but with a marked inner difference. The romantic attachment of knights to fair ladies, in whose name they undertake their most dangerous exploits, is a feature in chivalry which Cervantes evidently treats with respect. In one passage, he is at pains to show how this zeal for his lady's name may be reconciled with the knight's commendation of himself to God, and, by way of contrast, he presents Sancho as quite unable to understand any such ideal affection, whether for things human or divine. "How dull and simple thou art, Sancho," said Don Quixote; "knowest thou not that in our style of chivalry it is to the honour of a lady to have many knights-errant who serve her merely for her own sake, without indulging a hope of any other reward for their zeal than the honour of being admitted among the numbers of her knights." "I have heard it preached," quoth Sancho, "that God is to be loved with this kind of love, for Himself alone, without our being moved to it by hope of reward or fear of punishment; though for my part I am inclined to love and serve Him for what He is able to do for me." The Devil take thee for a bumpkin," said Don Quixote, "thou sayest ever and anon such apt things that one would almost think thee a scholar." "And yet, by my faith," quoth Sancho, "I cannot so much as read." Passages like these help us to understand the veneration paid in the medieval church to the Virgin Mary.

One topic more is worthy of special attention. The greatest of the immortals have included it in their works. Homer in the horses of Achilles, Shakespere in the scene between Launce and his dog, Cervantes in the passages of the Goatherd and his Nanny-goat, and Sancho and Dapple and his ass. "Suddenly they heard a sound of a little bell from a thicket near them, and at the same instant a beautiful she-goat, speckled with black, white and grey, ran out of the thicket, followed by a goatherd calling her aloud to stop and come back to the fold. The fugitive animal, trembling and affrighted, ran to the company, claiming as it were their protection. But the goatherd pursued her, and, seizing her by the horns, addressed her as a rational creature.

"Ah, wanton and spotted thing, how hast thou strayed of late! What wolves have frightened thee, child? Wilt thou tell me, pretty one, what this means? But what else can it mean but that thou art a female and therefore cannot be quiet. A plague on thy humours and on all theirs whom thou resemblest! Turn back, my love, turn back; for though not content, at least thou wilt be more safe in thine own fold and among thy companions, for if thou who shouldest protect and guide them go astray, what must become of them?"

"The party were much amused, and the canon told the goatherd that it was useless to oppose a female who would as such always have her own way. 'Come, do not be angry, but eat and drink with us and let the wayward creature have her will,' offering him at the same time the hind quarter of a cold rabbit on the point of a fork. The goatherd thanked him and accepted the offer, and then, being in a better temper, he said, 'Do not think me a fool, gentlemen, for talking seriously to this animal, for in truth my words are not without meaning, and though I am rustic I know the difference between conversing with men and beasts.' 'I doubt it not,' said the priest, 'indeed, it is well known that the mountains breed learned men, and the huts of the shepherd contain philosophers.'

" 'At least, sir,' said the goatherd, 'they contain men who have some knowledge gained from experience.'"

Later, when Sancho recovered his lost ass which Ginesillo had stolen, seeing the latter riding on the lost friend, he cried, "Ah, rogue, leave me my darling, let go my life, rob me not of my comfort, quit my sweetheart, leave my delight, fly rapscallion, fly; get you gone, thief, give up what is not your own."

So much railing was needless, for at the first words Ginesillo dismounted in a trice and, taking to his heels, was out of sight in a moment. Sancho ran to his Dapple and embracing him said, "How hast thou fared, my dearest Dapple, delight of my eyes, my sweet companion?" Then he kissed and caressed him as if he had been a human creature. The ass held his peace and suffered himself to be thus kissed and caressed by Sancho without answering one word. This affection for our humble companions and for the animal creation is a special feature of our own day.

But now I must bid farewell to the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure, conscious that I have but touched the fringe of his robes, and unworthy to do that. His name is the mark of every foolish venture that is bound to fail, but perhaps it should be noticed that not quite every venture is called quixotic, but only those that are for some worthy cause. Therefore, in spite of all that is ridiculous in our associations with this name, there is still something half sublime which lurks among them. Life may pass away for us mainly in getting and spending, but few people die before they have been brought face to face with action that is not for themselves; it may be at home, it may be on the battle-field. Few will live their lives through without at some time giving, and giving gladly, with no expectation of any return, and where this is done for a worthy end, the spirit of chivalry is not far off, and where it is done as it often is done, for an end which onlookers can see to be out of all proportion to the sacrifice, there appears to the very spirit of Don Quixote itself. Maybe it never die. When it does, mankind will indeed be without hope. "Study well these books," as Don Quixote says, "for believe me you will find that they exhilarate and improve your mind. Of myself, I can say that, since I have been a knight-errant, I am become valiant, polite, liberal, well-bred, generous, courteous, daring, affable, patient, a sufferer of toils, imprisonments and enchantments." This noble recklessness is well summed up by our New Forest poet, with certain of whose verses I will conclude:--

      "You will carry the flag, the old torn rag,
           You will carry the flag to the fore,
        Mid the press and the strain and the deadly rain,
           Where our fathers passed of yore.

        "You will stand by the flag when faint hearts fly,
           And the best that you have you'll give,
        For the men who have learnt for a cause to die,
           And the men who have learnt to live."
           [possibly referring to Charles Kingsley, who wrote A New Forest Ballad?]


Proofread May 2011, LNL