New translation into English by William Thomas Little of Cervantes’ The Perils of Persiles and Sigismunda, a Northern Saga

Virtually ignored for the past four hundred years and overshadowed by the acclaim accorded Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes’s final and posthumous novel of 1617, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, historia septentrional, is overdue for a revival. ARC Humanities Press’s publication of the new translation into English by William Thomas Little, The Perils of Persiles and Sigismunda, a Northern Saga, rises to this task, easing readers across the gap between the cultural, linguistic, and historical context in which Cervantes wrote and our own equally fraught and entertainment-saturated times. 

Cervantes penned the novel after the manner of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, or The Adventures of Theagenes and Chariclea, a prose romance which gained great popularity throughout Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Lile the Aethiopica, the Persiles draws from a copious variety of style, themes, and plot devices. As Professor Little acknowledges in his introduction, more than half of the population during Cervantes’s lifetime was illiterate; therefore, he aimed for a lively translation that, read aloud, remains true to its oral roots. To achieve this effect in English, Professor Little sows carefully-chosen “traces” of the original Spanish text throughout the translation that subtly evoke the novel’s Renaissance origins.

The Persiles is certainly challenging, but it is equally important to note that Cervantes wrote it explicitly as an “entertainment.” At its core, this “northern saga” spins a love story between two very attractive lovers—a prince from Iceland and a princess from a nearby island kingdom called Frislanda—who make an arduous two-year journey by sea and land to Rome. Along the way, they must overcome storms, pirates, death threats, imprisonment, kidnapping, and poisonings. Throughout their adventures the youths also meet kings, princesses, sorcerers, and a diverse host of other secondary characters who delight in telling their own stories. Cervantes also weaves into the narrative many theoretical and existential questions that have occupied humanity from time immemorial. These include themes of good intentions gone awry, promises kept and betrayed, language and communicability, poetry versus prose, good versus defective storytelling, civilization versus barbarism, and the vaguely-charted cold islands of northern Europe versus the well-known sunny lands of the western Mediterranean. While Cervantes’s disguised royal “pilgrims” steer clear of visiting most shrines and holy places along the way, their traveling companions do not hesitate to debate the most controversial theological issues of the day.

An extensive critical apparatus takes full account of recent Persiles scholarship. The volume includes a selected bibliography, a contextualizing introduction, and a list of the novel’s more than seventy characters. Footnotes clarify for contemporary readers cultural issues that were readily known to seventeenth-century readers in Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, and England.

For four centuries, Cervantes’s Don Quijxote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) has enjoyed unrivalled fame among its authors’ literary creations. That may change with the recent release of William Thomas Little’s generously annotated edition of The Perils of Persiles. Cervantes fans now have a choice: follow the antics of Cervantes’s addled knight across the arid face of Spain, or pursue the indomitable young fugitive Persiles and Sigismunda from icy northern realms on their roundabout “pilgrimage” to Rome. Don Quixote may well turn over in his grave, but it is about time that he did.

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