Cervantes begins his novel with a series of anxieties and complaints. He wants to believe that his book is brilliant and beautiful, because he is its parent, though he also refers to himself as its “stepfather”; but “like gives birth to like,” so the book must be riddled with all of the flaws of its author, who is foolish and unlearned. Moreover, since Cervantes first imagined the book in prison, the book must also mirror prison’s confinement and unpleasantness. Cervantes urges the reader to make up her own mind about this strange creation.
The author begins by telling us that, above all else, he is not to be trusted. He loves his book unreasonably, like a parent loves a child, so there’s a certain clarity that must be absent in his perspective. He also suggests that the book resembles its author and the unique circumstances of its creation, whereas realism holds that the book resembles the world.
The author wishes that he could have avoided writing any decorative front matter for the novel. The prologue, he says, was harder to write than the novel itself. Once, he complained to a friend of his that the novel was boring, unoriginal, and unlearned, because it didn’t include any notes, marginalia, quotations, or poems by famous authors. His friend scolded Cervantes for his laziness and advised him to write the poems himself and credit them to famous poets, ignoring any objections from academics. Then his friend listed some topical Latin maxims for Cervantes to use when appropriate, and suggested that he give famous ancient names to characters and places so that he can explain the names in endnotes. The friend promised to fill up Cervantes’ book with all sorts of learned notes.
First of all, we must certainly assume that the friend in question is Cervantes himself, conducting a satirical internal dialogue about contemporary measures of literary quality. On the one hand, thinks Cervantes, literary quality is usually measured by scholarly quotes and poems, and since there are none in his novel, it must not be of high quality. But, he responds to himself, if it is so easy to just tack them on to any finished work, they must be merely extraneous decorations, rather than signs of true knowledge or wisdom. He is gently mocking the literary trends of his day.
Most importantly, says the friend, there is no real need to cite scholars and philosophers because the purpose of the book is completely new. The book was written to mock chivalric romances, so all it needs to do is imitate and satirize these romances. Above all, it should instruct and delight all who read it, simply and straightforwardly.
Cervantes (in the guise of his sensible friend) informs us that the novel is primarily a satire of chivalric romances, popular medieval stories about knights who go on noble, dangerous adventures to win love and glory. Yet the author himself warned us that he is not to be trusted. This is his stated purpose; whether or not it is the novel’s true purpose is for us to decide.
The author says that his friend’s words made such a deep impression on him that he decided quote them in full in the preface. He wants the reader’s gratitude not for Don Quixote but for the hilarious Sancho Panza. The prologue is followed by a series of poems, written by fictional and invented characters in praise of the novel, its heroes and heroines, and Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante.
The author’s “friend” advised the author to invent poems of praise and attribute them to famous personages, and here the author takes his advice. Right away, the book becomes a little blurry on questions of authorship. Why should the author warn us that such poems are faked by the author himself, but present them anyway?