Tilting at windmills

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Tilting at windmills by Gustave Dore Don Quixote 6.jpg
Tilting at windmills by Gustave Doré

Tilting at windmills is an English idiom that means attacking imaginary enemies. The expression is derived from the 1605 novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, and the word "tilt" in this context comes from jousting.

Idiom combination of words that has a figurative meaning

An idiom is a phrase or an expression that has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning. Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom's figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. There are thousands of idioms, occurring frequently in all languages. It is estimated that there are at least twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions in the English language.

<i>Don Quixote</i> 1605 novel by Miguel de Cervantes

The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, or just Don Quixote, is a Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote is the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the entire Spanish literary canon. As a founding work of modern Western literature, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published, such as the Bokklubben World Library collection that cites Don Quixote as the authors' choice for the "best literary work ever written".

Miguel de Cervantes Spanish novelist, poet, and playwright

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was a Spanish writer who is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Spanish language and one of the world's preeminent novelists. His novel Don Quixote has been translated into over 140 languages and dialects; it is, after the Bible, the most-translated book in the world.


The phrase is sometimes used to describe either confrontations where adversaries are incorrectly perceived, or courses of action that are based on misinterpreted or misapplied heroic, romantic, or idealistic justifications. It may also connote an importune, unfounded, and vain effort against adversaries real or imagined for a vain goal. [1]


The phrase comes from an episode in the Cervantes novel wherein protagonist Don Quixote fights windmills that he imagines are giants. A relevant portion of the novel states:

Protagonist the main character of a creative work

A protagonist is the leading character of a story.

Windmill machine that converts the energy of wind into rotational energy

A windmill is a structure that converts the energy of wind into rotational energy by means of vanes called sails or blades. Centuries ago, windmills usually were used to mill grain (gristmills), pump water (windpumps), or both. There are windmills that convert the rotational energy directly into heat. The majority of modern windmills take the form of wind turbines used to generate electricity, or windpumps used to pump water, either for land drainage or to extract groundwater. Windmills first appeared in Persia in the 9th century AD, and were later independently invented in Europe.

Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, "Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless."

"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza.

"Those you see over there," replied his master, "with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length."

"Take care, sir," cried Sancho. "Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone."

Part 1, Chapter VIII. Of the valourous Don Quixote's success in the dreadful and never before imagined Adventure of the Windmills, with other events worthy of happy record.

Historical context

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in two parts, published respectively in 1605 and 1615, during the latter part of a historical period known as the Spanish Golden Age. During this age, Spain pursued military conquests in parts of Europe and conquered large parts of the Americas, which brought great riches to the country and inspired a flowering of the arts. In La Mancha, Castilla, Cervantes' setting for the novel, there still exist some examples of the era's windmills that Don Quixote found in his adventures.

Spanish Golden Age period of flourishing in arts and literature in Spain

The Spanish Golden Age is a period of flourishing in arts and literature in Spain, coinciding with the rise of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. Politically, El Siglo de Oro lasted from the accession to the throne of Philip II of Spain in 1556 to the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. When no precise dating is used, the period begins no earlier than 1492 and ends no later than 1681 with the death of the Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the last great writer of the age.

La Mancha Natural region in Spain

La Mancha is a natural and historical region located on an arid but fertile elevated plateau of central Spain, south of Madrid, from the mountains of Toledo to the western spurs of the hills of Cuenca, and bordered to the south by the Sierra Morena and to the north by the Alcarria region. La Mancha includes portions of the modern provinces of Cuenca, Toledo, and Albacete, and most of the Ciudad Real province. La Mancha historical comarca constitutes the southern portion of Castilla-La Mancha autonomous community and makes up most of the present-day administrative region.

Cervantes wrote and published Don Quixote during the Eighty Years' War, or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), a revolt by the Habsburg Netherlands to end Spanish rule. In Don Quixote, the eponymous protagonist consistently misinterprets the motives and actions of his adversaries and allies, and struggles to even understand his own at times — a conundrum regularly resulting in apparently unjustified violent actions and consequences. One way of interpreting Don Quixote's tilting at windmills could be allegorically, thereby promoting critical, skeptical, or satirical evaluation of either a hero's motives, rationales and actions, or the ultimate aims of a nation's foreign policies.

Eighty Years War 16th and 17th-century Dutch revolt against the Habsburgs

The Eighty Years' War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648) was a revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands. After the initial stages, Philip II deployed his armies and regained control over most of the rebelling provinces. Under the leadership of the exiled William the Silent, the northern provinces continued their resistance. They eventually were able to oust the Habsburg armies, and in 1581 they established the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The war continued in other areas, although the heartland of the republic was no longer threatened; this included the beginnings of the Dutch Colonial Empire, which at the time were conceived as carrying overseas the war with Spain. The Dutch Republic was recognized by Spain and the major European powers in 1609 at the start of the Twelve Years' Truce. Hostilities broke out again around 1619, as part of the broader Thirty Years' War. An end was reached in 1648 with the Peace of Münster, when the Dutch Republic was definitively recognised as an independent country no longer part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Peace of Münster is sometimes considered the beginning of the Dutch Golden Age.

Habsburg Netherlands Historical region in the Low Countries, 1482–1581

Habsburg Netherlands, also referred to as Flanders during the early modern period, is the collective name of Holy Roman Empire fiefs in the Low Countries held by the House of Habsburg. The rule began in 1482, when after the death of the Valois-Burgundy duke Charles the Bold the Burgundian Netherlands fell to the Habsburg dynasty by the marriage of Charles's daughter Mary of Burgundy to Archduke Maximilian I of Austria. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor was born in the Habsburg Netherlands and made the Low Countries the core of his "empire on which the sun never sets".

The movie They Might Be Giants (1971) features a reference to Don Quixote thinking that the windmills are giants, and the movie is named after that reference.

<i>They Might Be Giants</i> (film) 1971 American film based on the play of the same name directed by Anthony Harvey

They Might Be Giants is a 1971 American comedy mystery film based on the play of the same name starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. Sometimes mistakenly described as a Broadway play, it never in fact opened in the United States. It was directed in London by Joan Littlewood in 1961, but Goldman believed he "never got the play right" and forbade further productions or publication of the script. To coincide with the film's release, however, he did authorize an illustrated paperback tie-in edition of the screenplay, published by Lancer Books.

Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, in a 1972 album release by the same name, wrote and recorded the song Don Quixote which contained the lines "through the woodland, through the valley, comes a horseman wild and free; tilting at the windmills passing, who can the brave young horseman be...".

The alternative Santa Barbara band Toad the Wet Sprocket released the album Dulcinea in 1994. Named for the love interest of Don Quixote, the album features the song "Windmills." The first lyric reads, "I spend too much time raiding windmills We go side by side laughing until it's right...".[ citation needed ] The lyric may reflect how Don Quixote, true to his romantic tendencies, puts Dulcinea on a pedestal. As such, the reality of the character Dulcinea does not correspond to Don Quixote's fantasy of her.

The US punk band ALL, on their 1988 album Allroy Sez, released a track titled Don Quixote written by singer/songwriter Dave Smalley featuring the line "tilting at windmills".

Australian folk rock band Weddings Parties Anything released the album Roaring Days in 1988, which contained the song "Tilting at Windmills".

The Big Bang Theory Series 04 Episode 01 – The Robotic Manipulation. Sheldon: Don’t bother. I’ve wasted many an hour tilting at that particular windmill.

Quillette features an article by Terry Newman called "In the Culture Wars, Be a Sancho Panza, Not a Don Quixote" (2019). The article uses the literary metaphor "tilting at windmills" to explain the tendency of the progressive left to reduce anyone who holds views which are conservative, libertarian, or even liberal to white supremacists and Nazis. [2]

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Man of La Mancha</i> musical

Man of La Mancha is a 1965 musical with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh. It is adapted from Wasserman's non-musical 1959 teleplay I, Don Quixote, which was in turn inspired by Miguel de Cervantes and his 17th-century novel Don Quixote. It tells the story of the "mad" knight Don Quixote as a play within a play, performed by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners as he awaits a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition. The work is not and does not pretend to be a faithful rendition of either Cervantes' life or Don Quixote; for example, the historical Cervantes had no contact with the Spanish Inquisition, and Don Quixote's horse Rocinante is never stolen. Wasserman complained repeatedly about people taking the work as a musical version of Don Quixote.

Sancho Panza character in Don Quixote

Sancho Panza is a fictional character in the novel Don Quixote written by Spanish author Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in 1605. Sancho acts as squire to Don Quixote and provides comments throughout the novel, known as sanchismos, that are a combination of broad humour, ironic Spanish proverbs, and earthy wit. "Panza" in Spanish means "belly".

<i>Monsignor Quixote</i> novel by Graham Greene

Monsignor Quixote is a novel by Graham Greene, published in 1982. The book is a pastiche of the classic Spanish novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes with many moments of comedy, but also offers reflection on matters such as life after a dictatorship, Communism, and the Catholic faith.

The Eternal Quest is a novel published in 2003. It is the first novel by the writer Julian Branston and concerns the writing of the novel Don Quixote. The U.S. title refers to a famous episode on Don Quixote where the title character comes upon a windmill and mistakes it for a giant.

Plaza de España, Madrid square in Madrid, Spain

Plaza de España is a large square, a popular tourist destination located in central Madrid, Spain at the western end of the Gran Vía. It features a monument to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and is adjacent to two of Madrid's most prominent skyscrapers. Additionally, the Palacio Real is only a short walk south from the plaza.

<i>Don Quixote</i> (ballet) ballet

Don Quixote is a ballet in four acts and eight scenes, based on episodes taken from the famous novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. It was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa to the music of Ludwig Minkus and first presented by the Ballet of the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow, Russia on 26 December [O.S. 14 December] 1869. Petipa and Minkus revised the ballet into a far more expanded and elaborated edition in five acts and eleven scenes for the Imperial Ballet, first presented on 21 November [O.S. 9 November] 1871 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre of St. Petersburg.

<i>Man of La Mancha</i> (film) 1972 film by Arthur Hiller

Man of La Mancha is a 1972 film adaptation of the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. The musical was suggested by the classic novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, but more directly based on Wasserman's 1959 non-musical television play I, Don Quixote, which combines a semi-fictional episode from the life of Cervantes with scenes from his novel.

Ricote is a fictional character who is referred to in Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote. He was a wealthy Morisco shopkeeper and old friend of Sancho Panza, who was banned from Spain in 1609 like all Moriscos. The expulsion of the Moriscos was a highly topical issue at the time when Don Quixote was written - occurring in between the publication of the first part (1605) and the second one (1615).

Quixotism is impracticality in pursuit of ideals, especially those ideals manifested by rash, lofty and romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action. It also serves to describe an idealism without regard to practicality. An impulsive person or act might be regarded as quixotic.

Tilting at windmills is an English idiom which means "attacking imaginary enemies", originating from Cervantes' novel Don Quixote.

Don Quixote (1933) is the English title of a film adaptation of the classic Miguel de Cervantes novel, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, starring the famous operatic bass Feodor Chaliapin. Although the film stars Chaliapin, it is not an opera. However, he does sing four songs in it. It is the first sound film version of the Spanish classic. The supporting cast in the English version includes George Robey, René Donnio, Miles Mander, Lydia Sherwood, Renée Valliers, and Emily Fitzroy. The film was made in three versions—French, English, and German—with Chaliapin starring in all three versions.

<i>Don Quixote</i> (Picasso) 1955 sketch by Pablo Picasso

Don Quixote is a 1955 sketch by Pablo Picasso of the Spanish literary hero and his sidekick, Sancho Panza. It was featured on the August 18–24 issue of the French weekly journal Les Lettres Françaises in celebration of the 350th anniversary of the first part of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Made on August 10, 1955, the drawing Don Quixote was in a very different style than Picasso’s earlier Blue, Rose, and Cubist periods.

<i>Donkey Xote</i> 2007 film by José Pozo

Donkey Xote is a 2007 Spanish-Italian 3D computer-animated children's adventure comedy film produced by Fabio Massimo Cacciatori, Filmax International, Lumiq Studios and Julio Fernández, based on the Miguel de Cervantes novel Don Quixote, starring Andreu Buenafuente, David Fernández, Sonia Ferrer and José Luis Gil. Under Lumiq Studios executive producers Giulia Marletta, Paco Rodríguez and Carlos Fernández, the screenplay was written by Angel Pariente and directed by José Pozo. The lead character of Rucio intentionally bears a resemblance to the character of Donkey from the Shrek film series. The film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012. The film was theatrically released on November 22, 2007 by Lumiq Studios and Filmax International. The film earned $18,000,000 (€12,000,000) on a $19,000,000 (€13,000,000) budget.

Don Quijote cabalga de nuevo is a 1973 Spanish-Mexican comedy film directed by Roberto Gavaldón based on Miguel de Cervantes's novel Don Quixote, starring Cantinflas as Sancho Panza, Fernando Fernán Gómez as Don Quixote, and María Fernanda D'Ocón as Dulcinea.

Don Quixote is a 1923 British silent comedy film, directed by Maurice Elvey, based on the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The film stars Jerrold Robertshaw, George Robey, Frank Arlton, and Marie Blanche.

Sancho Panza is the name of a premium cigar brand in Cuba dating from 1848, and still produced there for Habanos S.A., the Cuban state-owned tobacco company.

Don Quixote is a 2015 American adventure drama film starring Carmen Argenziano, Horatio Sanz, Luis Guzman, James Franco, Lin Shaye and Reinaldo Zavarce. It is based on the novel of the same name by Miguel de Cervantes.


  1. Ammer, Christine (September 13, 2003). What does "tilt at windmills" mean?. The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN   0618249532. Archived from the original on April 15, 2013. Retrieved May 31, 2013. ISBN   978-0618249534
  2. "In the Culture Wars, Be a Sancho Panza, Not a Don Quixote". Quillette. 2019-04-07. Retrieved 2019-04-10.