To tilt at windmills is to confront and engage in conflict with an imagined opponent or threat. The idiom alludes to Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, a popular Spanish novel written in the seventeenth century. The title character, Don Quixote, attacks a group of windmills with his lance at full tilt (poised to strike) when he mistakes them for a group of ferocious giants.

 

So saying, he gave the spur to his steed Rocinante, heedless of the cries his squire Sancho sent after him, warning him that most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to attack. He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor perceived, near as he was, what they were, but made at them shouting, "Fly not, cowards and vile beings, for a single knight attacks you."

--Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, chapter VIII.

 

Living is too uncertain to squander in pursuit of vain destiny when the language is the windmill that summons tilting and what is one more windmill to the errant knight? Vigilance!

There is an expected seriousness and a sonorous splendor about Spanish, be it ever so colloquial that crafts an absurdity doubly absurd, and gives plausibility to the most outlandish statement. Don may not quite be the full peseta, and Sancho seems a few prawns short of a paella, but to do justice to Spanish humor in any other language is almost an impossibility. "Don Quixote," Georg Hegel wrote, "though mentally ill, is very self-assured and sure of his mission; in other words, the only symptom of his madness is his level of self-assurance. Without his reckless self-assurance he wouldn't have been truly romantic; his self-assurance is so great that it makes him a genius."

"In some village in La Mancha, whose name I do not care to recall, there dwelt not so long ago a gentleman of the type wont to keep an unused lance, an old shield, a greyhound for racing, and a skinny old horse." Thus begins the medieval romance. It’s while traveling across the plains of Montiel that Quixote spies thirty or forty windmills, which “were giants, two leagues in length or more.” Spurring Rosinante he charges at one of the “monsters dreadful as Typhoeus.” The weapon becomes haplessly wedged in the sail lifting them into the air, shattering the lance to bits. The intrepid knight and his mount fall to the ground uninjured, and Quixote declares that the enchanter Freston, “who carried off his library with all the books therein,” has changed the giants into windmills “out of malice.”
(Cervantes. Don Quixote, Chapter VIII, 1604.)

The tilt of the lost cause

A tilt is a contest on horseback in which two combatants charge with lances to try to unhorse each other. Today the phrase to tilt at windmills describes fighting imaginary problems or enemies and comes directly from the Spanish work by Miguel de Cervantes. A less well known phrase is to combat chimeras, the French have the same proverb, “Se battre contre des moulins á vent,” and in the charm of the Old South, Twain might say someone is “barking up the wrong tree” to convey having “bees in one's bonnet.”

Eighteen years before the first publication of the adventures of the Knight of the Sad Countenance, Cervantes had been the purchasing agent for supplies for the Spanish Armada. Following their devastating defeat, he began to look for another job and by 1594 he was appointed a tax collector in Andalusia. So miserable were his efforts in keeping his books balanced Miguel was eventually forced to quit and three years later his discrepancies landed him in a prison in Seville. Some historians think that this is where he may have first composed Part I of the impracticable spirit as the man of La Mancha. Simon Jenkins from The Time Online writes:

Cervantes lived his character. He fought the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, the culminating struggle of medieval Europe. He lost his left hand, was enslaved in Africa and imprisoned in Spain. His plays were failures. His life was a mess. Yet in just a few months of 1605 he wrote a book, which soared beyond its time.

Perhaps he saw that there were no redeeming traits in the Manchegan landscape; it possesses a semblance of the desert without its dignity; the sparse villages that fracture its tedium are dull, there is nothing venerable about them, not even the picturesque of poverty. Certainly Don Quixote's own town, Argamasilla, has a harsh propriety where everything is ignoble and its windmills are the shabbiest kind.

Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel

Windmills had rapidly come into wide use in Europe beginning in the late twelfth century. Dotting the crests of hilltops in various watershed areas of Europe by the sixteenth century, they were built to harness the winds by taking advantage of the sea breeze. Constructed out of stone, the first floor was covered with a dome that was needed to support the heavy machinery below. It also steadied the structure that was under constant strain from the motion of the sails. Huge and complex, and they were at the mercy of the fickle currents; nevertheless they delivered power to grind the grain where there were no streams in the Spanish plains. No wonder Quixote thought of them as giants!

Cervantes initially planned his novel as a crude and slapstick satire of the trendy books of chivalry. Intended as a fast moneymaker, it became a best seller throughout Europe. However, as time passed, the reading of the novel shifted gears and today reads as a human tale that illustrates the clash between dignified impracticality and callous reality even going so far as to add the adjective quixotic to the English language. The credit for its popularity belongs to England for having been the first country to recognize the right of Don Quixote to better treatment than a mere chapbook and the London edition of 1738 is frequently called Lord Carteret's from having been suggested by him. As one of the earliest books to appear in novel form, its impact on classic literature has been immense.

Tilting at windmills with a broom

Following the popularity of the book, the phrase swept into everyday language and within eight years of its composition, writers were using windmills figuratively and allusively as, “A fanciful notion, a crotchet; a visionary scheme or project.” By 1612 windmill meant to be variable or flighty as in, ‘Your vertible and wind-mill uncertainty.” According to the OED the phrase tilting at windmills first became an allusion to the story in 1644 when John Cleveland portrayed the, “ The Quixotes of this Age fight with the Wind-mills of their owne Heads” in The Character of A London-Diurnall. Soon after “ The Barber..vows to make you the windmill,” wrote Sir Richard Cox in his history of Ireland, “whilest he plays Don Quixot against you furiously”(1656). And while Madame Frances Burney recalled in her memoirs of 1782 that, “Our giants may indeed be only windmills,” Agatha Christi's Hercule Poirot suspected in 1937 that he was, “Rather eccentric (and) inclined to tilt at windmills,” in her mystery novel Death on the Nile.

It’s without a doubt that Miguel de Cervantes surveyed the landscape of post-medieval Europe and led his readers over the bridge from the Middle Ages and into the introspective of a more inventive, funnier, sadder and loftier minded conversationalist. His dialogues with Sancho who was “not rich, but well-flogged” are among the most enchanting in literature.

We still hear the clink of Quixote's armor

Every reader has a knight-errant within them that trots across the plains of life in search of self-fulfillment. Even though he might seem lofty, yet impractical, Don Quixote is really more like a person who wants to accomplish a greater good and refuses to compromise his ideals. Examples of such people include Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. They might say that it is of value to tilt against windmills simply to call attention to the world to the fact that they are present and that they will continue to do so “as long as the spirit if Man bloweth where it listeth.” The absurdly comic and tragic hero, has enjoyed enormous popularity throughout the ages inspiring countless other works of literature, music and art by the likes of Sterne, Goethe, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Kafka and Melville.

At the end of the story the dying Quixote renounces the “dark shadows of ignorance” that came from reading “my detestable books on chivalry.” The two main characters have reversed their roles as Sancho Panza encourages him to hold onto life and go on one more adventure. But Quixote understands that he is just plain Alonso Quijano and thinking he has been a fool, dies of a broken heart. But, "It was only by tilting at windmills,” writes Graham Greene in his novel Monsignor Quixote, “that Don Quixote found the truth on his deathbed." Quixote’s epitaph ran: “It was his great good fortune to live a madman and die sane.” Amen to that.

Sources:

Jenkins, Simon. A windmill I won't tilt at:
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1059-1449680,00.html
Accessed May 10 2005

Lienhard , John H. Windmills:
www.uh.edu/engines/epi1359.htm
Accessed May 10, 2005.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 1547-1616:
www.culturalresources.com/Lesson.html:
Accessed May 10, 2005.

Translators preface:
http://pd.sparknotes.com/lit/donquixote/section1.html:
Access May 10, 2005.

Windmill:
http://dictionary.oed.com.
Accessed May 10, 2005.

Windmills, Brewer’s The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:
http://www.bootlegbooks.com/Reference/PhraseAndFable/data/1303.html
Accessed May 10, 2005.

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