Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes - Tilting at windmills by Gustave Doré
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes – Tilting at windmills by Gustave Doré

You’ve heard the phrase “tilting at windmills” and you probably wonder what it means, or where such a phrase even originated? After all, you know what a windmill is:

Windmill: A machine that converts the kinetic energy of wind to electricity (power).

You’ve likely seen many windmills, particularly in some areas of the U.S., where wind farms cover the hillsides.

You could probably also figure out what “tilting” means, at least in a general way.

Tilting: To incline, slope or slant.

Their connotation of “tilting” may make you remember back to childhood when you sang “I’m a Little Teapot…” and tilted your small body back and forth… but there’s another denotation:

Tilting: To charge, aim or challenge (as in a joust); attack.

So, what does “tilting at windmills” reference?

The phrase refers to the exploits of Don Quixote (Alonso Quixano), in the novel, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote De la Mancha (Don Quixote), by Miguel de Cervantes (Part One was first published in 1605). His delusional imaginings (ravings?) are influenced by his love for romanticism and chivalry. His feverish reading of those adventures causes him to see himself as a knight-errant, with his trusty (skin-and-bones) stead and his faithful squire (a farmer, Sancho Panza).

His adventures are numerous, but one of the most memorable incidents involves Don Quixote’s confrontation (all-out attack) with windmills, which he imagines are giants.

“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.”
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter VIII

So, why use the phrase “Tilting at Windmills”?

You’ve likely heard the phrase in relation to the crazy, even insane, actions of a character in a novel (or in “real” life). Just as Don Quixote attacked the standing monsters (windmills), your very own crazymaker may use words and/or actions to demonstrate their off-kilter, madcap view(s) of the world. You may see them as delusional, but (like Don Quixote), the person may believe in the fantasies, and may even think his/her actions are justified (in a particularly slanted vision of reality).

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