The author of the preface, “William Marshal, Gent.,” claims that he found a 1529 copy of The Castle of Otranto in its original Italian in the library of an ancient Catholic family in northern England. Marshal claims that the manuscript takes place “in the darkest ages of Christianity” but that the story’s language is far from barbaric.
Writing as “William Marshal, Gent.,” Horace Walpole poses as the work’s translator and discoverer. In this first preface, Walpole begins to set up the novel’s “Gothicness” through setting – namely that the story’s events occur long ago in a far away country (medieval Italy, to Walpole’s British readers).
He dates the story’s origins between the first and last crusades (1095-1243) and narrows this down further, proposing that the story takes place before Aragon kings took power in Naples, based on the Spanish names of the story’s servants and on “the beauty of the diction, and the zeal of the author (moderated, however, by singular judgment.”
Walpole’s framing of the story as an ancient tale both lends it credibility and allows him to treat it as a spoof. Part of Walpole’s humor is derived from his hyperbolic self-praise. Pretending to be the “translator,” Walpole uses his historical knowledge as an antiquarian to make the claim that the author (himself) possesses literary “beauty” and “singular judgment” all the more convincing.
Marshal notes that letters and literature flourished in Italy and speculates that “an artful priest” may have taken advantage of his command of language to “confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions,” resulting in a work that “would enslave a hundred vulgar minds,” more so than any of the books from Luther’s time to the time that Marshal is writing (the 18th century).
Indulging in self-praise, Walpole hyperbolically asserts that his language is so powerful that it could “enslave” hundreds of people. At the same time, Walpole (still pretending to be the translator of the text) attributes the effort to “enslave” to the religious agenda of a Catholic priest, an indictment of Catholicism that the Protestants of England would be likely to agree with (and enjoy). The translator’s claim that this “artful priest’s” writing is more powerful than any book from Luther’s time sneakily insinuates the falseness of Catholic superstition compared to the less powerful but more truthful Protestant (or Lutheran) writings.
He claims that the work can only be viewed as an entertainment but still feels the need to defend its supernatural elements, which he notes are rejected by modern (18th century) writers but were not at the time that Otranto’s author, “Onuphrio Muralto,” was writing. Marshal argues that Muralto’s presentation of such elements is consistent with what people would have believed in the time that the story was set.
At the time that Walpole was writing, the story’s medieval setting and its associated superstitious beliefs were regarded as barbaric. Walpole’s defense of such features in his “translation” of a fictional medieval author’s work is presented as a historical artifact rather than as a deliberate use of the supernatural in literature.
He also praises the work’s language, the realistic quality of the characters, and the pacing of the story, which is driven by the author’s use of terror and pity. He defends a possible objection to the presentation of the servants as too comical, arguing that their “naiveté and simplicity” is key to uncovering important information and to driving the plot forward.
Walpole’s praise of the literary qualities of the story serve to make up for the presence of the supernatural, and he further defends his authorship through his presentation of the peasants as simple and superstitious compared to the dignified nobility. However, his defense is not concerned with class distinctions or genre but rather with the utility of the servants as plot devices.
Marshal then defends his own defense and praise of the work by showing that he is aware of the story’s faults, most notably the moral of the story: “the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation.” Marshal claims that the moral is weakened by the story’s suggestion that disaster can be avoided by praying to St. Nicholas, and that this was an example of the monk’s Catholic religious agenda. Nevertheless Marshal expects his readers will enjoy the story, as its “piety” and “lessons of virtue” make it superior to most romances.
Taking the roles of editor and translator, Walpole, as Marshal, points to the story’s faults, which are assumed to be Muralto’s religious lesson about the inevitability of doom passed from sinful fathers to future generations (an idea that originates in the Christian Bible) and about Muralto’s contradictory lesson that prayer can avert disaster. After he criticizes Muralto’s Catholic religious agenda, Marshal then immediately praises the story’s “lessons of virtue” – which is perhaps Walpole’s recognition (and creation) of the fictional translator’s own hypocrisy.
He praises the original Italian version, deprecating his English translation while exalting Muralto’s style “as elegant, as his conduct of the passions is masterly.” Though he believes the story and its characters are fictitious, Marshal theorizes that the story is set in a real castle, based on the author’s detailed description of certain rooms and objects, and invites curious readers to look for the original castle in the works of other Italian writers, claiming that doing so will make The Castle of Otranto “still more moving.”
In praising the “original” Italian in comparison to his translation, Walpole masks self-praise as self-deprecation, deliberately pointing to an ancient Italian work that he himself created. By hinting that the story is set in Strawberry Hill, the faux-medieval castle he built for himself, Walpole humorously points to himself as the author by setting unsuspecting readers on a wild goose chase for the story’s supposedly ancient and original castle.