Miguel Cervantes, the son of poor but gentle parents, was born nobody quite knows where in Spain, in the year 1547. His favourite amusement when a boy was the performance of strolling players. He learned grammar and the humanities under Lopez de Hoyos at Madrid, but did not, it seems, proceed to the university. He was an early writer of sonnets, and tried his hand on a pastoral poem before he had grown moustaches. His first acquaintance with the world was acting as chamberlain in the house of a cardinal, but this life he presently abandoned for the more stirring career of a soldier. After incredible sufferings and adventures, the poor private soldier returned wounded to his family and began his career as author. He soon established a reputation, and was able to marry a quite adorable good lady with dowry sufficient for his needs. However, it was not until late in life that he wrote his immortal work "Don Quixote," which saw the light in 1604 or 1605. During the remainder of his life he was bitterly assailed by the envious and malignant, was seldom out of monetary difficulties, and very often in great pain from the disease which finally ended his career at Madrid on April 23, 1616--the same day which saw the close of Shakespeare's.
In a certain village of La Mancha, there lived one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who keep a lance in the rack, an ancient target, a lean horse, and a greyhound for coursing. His family consisted of a housekeeper turned forty, a niece not twenty, and a man who could saddle a horse, handle the pruning-hook, and also serve in the house. The master himself was nigh fifty years of age, lean-bodied and thin-faced, an early riser, and a great lover of hunting. His surname was Quixada, or Quesada.
You must know now that when our gentleman had nothing to do--which was almost all the year round--he read books on knight-errantry, and with such delight that he almost left off his sports, and even sold acres of land to buy these books. He would dispute with the curate of the parish, and with the barber, as to the best knight in the world. At nights he read these romances until it was day; a-day he would read until it was night. Thus, by reading much and sleeping little, he lost the use of his reason. His brain was full of nothing but enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, amorous plaints, torments, and abundance of impossible follies.
Having lost his wits, he stumbled on the oddest fancy that ever entered madman's brain--to turn knight-errant, mount his steed, and, armed cap-à-pie, ride through the world, redressing all manner of grievances, and exposing himself to every danger, that he might purchase everlasting honour and renown.
The first thing he did was to secure a suit of armour that had belonged to his great-grandfather. Then he made himself a helmet, which his sword demolished at the first stroke. After repairing this mischief, he went to visit his horse, whose bones stuck out, but who appeared to his master a finer beast than Alexander's Bucephalus. After four days of thought, he decided to call his horse Rozinante, and when the title was decided upon, he spent eight days more before he arrived at Don Quixote as a name for himself.
And now he perceived that nothing was wanting save only a lady, on whom he might bestow the empire of his heart. There lived close at hand a hard-working country lass, Aldonza Lorenzo, on whom sometimes he had cast an eye, but who was quite unmindful of the gentleman. Her he selected for his peerless lady, and dubbed her with the sweet-sounding name of Dulcinea del Toboso.
One morning, in the hottest part of July, with great secrecy, he armed himself, mounted Rozinante, and rode out of his backyard into the open fields. He was disturbed to think that the honour of knighthood had not yet been conferred upon him, but determined to rectify this matter at an early opportunity, and rode on soliloquising, after the manner of knight-errants, as happy as a man might be.
Towards evening he arrived at a common inn, before whose door sat two wenches, the companions of some carriers bound for Seville. Don Quixote instantly imagined the inn to be a castle, and the wenches to be fair ladies taking the air; and as a swine-herd, getting his hogs together in a stubble-field near at hand, chanced at that moment to wind his horn, our gentleman imagined that this was a signal of his approach, and rode forward in the highest spirits.
The extravagant language in which he addressed them astonished the wenches as much as his amazing appearance, and they first would have run from him, but finally stayed to laugh. Don Quixote rebuked them, whereat they laughed the more, and only the innkeeper's appearance prevented the knight's indignation from carrying him to extremities. This man was for peace, and welcomed the strange apparition to his inn with all civility, marvelling much to find himself addressed as Sir Castellan. So the knight sat down to supper with strange company, and discoursed of chivalry to the bewilderment of all present, treating the inn as a castle, the host as a noble gentleman, and the wenches as great ladies.
He presently sought the innkeeper alone in the stable, and, kneeling, requested to be dubbed a knight, vowing that he would not move from that place till 'twas done. The host guessed the distraction of his visitor and complied, counselling Don Quixote--who had never read of such things in books of chivalry--to provide himself henceforth with money and clean shirts, and no longer to ride penniless. That night Don Quixote watched his arms by moonlight, laying them upon the horse-trough in the yard of the inn, while from a distance the innkeeper and his guests watched the gaunt man, now leaning on his lance, and now walking to and fro, with his target on his arm.
It chanced that a carrier came to water his mules, and was about to remove the armour, when Don Quixote in a loud voice called him to desist. The man took no notice, and Don Quixote, calling upon his Dulcinea to assist him, lifted his lance and brought it down on the carrier's pate, laying him flat. A second carrier came, and was treated in like manner; but now all the company of them came, and with showers of stones made a terrible assault upon the knight. It was only the interference of the innkeeper that put an end to this battle, and by careful words he was able to appease Don Quixote's wrath and get him out of the inn.
On his way the now happy knight found a farmer beating a boy, and bidding him desist, inquired the reason of this chastisement. The man, afraid of the strange armoured figure, told how this boy did his work badly in the field, and deserved his flogging; but the boy declared that the farmer owed him wages, and that whenever he asked for them his master flogged him. Sternly did the Don command the man to pay the lad's wages, and when the fellow promised to do so directly he got home, and the boy protested that he would surely never keep that promise, Don Quixote threatened the farmer, saying, "I am the valorous Don Quixote of La Mancha, righter of wrongs, revenger and redresser of grievances; remember what you have promised and sworn, as you will answer the contrary at your peril." Convinced that the man dare not disobey, he rode forward, and the farmer very soon continued his flogging of the boy.
A company of merchants approaching caused Don Quixote to halt in the middle of the road, calling upon them to stand until they acknowledged Dulcinea del Toboso to be the peerless beauty of the world. This challenge was met with prevarication, which enraged Don Quixote, and clapping spurs to Rozinante he bore down upon the company with his lance couched.
A stumble of the horse threw him, and as he lay on the ground, unable to move, one of the servants of the company came up and broke the lance across Don Quixote's ribs. It was not until a countryman came by that the Don was extricated, and then he had to ride back to his own village on the ass of the poor labourer, being so stiff and sore as quite incapable to mount Rozinante.
The curate and the barber, seeing now what havoc romances of chivalry were making in the wits of this good gentleman, ran through his library while he lay wounded in bed, burned all his noxious works, and, securely locking the door, prepared the tale that enchantment had carried away the books and the very chamber itself.
None of the entreaties of his niece, nor the remonstrances of his housekeeper, could stay Don Quixote at home, and he soon prepared for a second sally. He persuaded a good, honest country labourer, Sancho Panza by name, to enter his service as squire, promising him for reward the first island or empire which his lance should happen to conquer. Thus did things happen in books of chivalry, and he did not doubt that thus it would happen with him.