Why do we continue to hold Don Quixote up as a hero when he is out of touch with reality?
Why does the charge of tilting at windmills still carry a tinge of respectability or does it?
Don Quixote, fully titled “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” is a novel written by Spanish author Miguel de Servantes [Wikipedia]. The author was born in Alcala De Heneres near Madrid. His family was far from affluent, and the level of formal education obtained by the author is not known. Early in his life he was enlisted as a soldier. He was injured in a battle against the Muslims and lost use of his left hand in 1571. In romance and finances, the Servantes was quite singularly unsuccessful throughout his life, but he wrote quite prolifically, producing more than twenty plays and 2 novels in his life. However only 2 of his plays are today extant. [Parker 1998]
His popular masterpiece, his novel Don Quixote, tells the story of a middle aged country gentleman, Alonso Quixano, who, carried away by tales of chivalry and valor loses his tentative grasp on reality and starts perceiving the mundane everyday world around him as a series of quests and himself as the knight who must save the day. The book is written in two parts, which were written at the interval of a decade(1605 and 1615). The tone of the first part is humorous and jocular, but the second part is more serious and the tale ends sadly with the illusion created by Alonso’s madness breaking with the return of sanity, leaving him devastated in the wake of reality.
Almost 400 years have elapsed since the novel was first written, but its popularity has continued unabated. Successive generations of children and adults have enjoyed the adventures of Don Quixote. The reason for the popularity of Don Quixote lies in the fact that people of all ages find it easy to relate to the lead character. Other heroes perform great deeds, fight wars, achieve great things. They capture the public imagination for a while but the everyday man does not feel an affinity to them. This affinity is present in no short supply, when faced with a man fighting the demons of his everyday life. All of us, everyday, face a million small challenges that are to each of us, nothing short of the quests of the greatest heroes. This “universality” of Don Quixote is well exemplified by comments such as those of Motteux, “Every man has something of Don Quixote in his humor”, and of Dr. Johnson, “very few readers, amidst their mirth or pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind.” [Skinner 1987]
At a superficial level, Don Quixote may appear to be out of touch with reality but the simple truth of the matter is that his immense popularity through the ages bears witness to the fact that his character, with its inability to accept the world as it really is, strikes a chord with many readers. It cannot be denied that “Don Quixote speaks to us and has inspired so many novelists that flourished after its publication because the hopes and doubts expressed in its pages, emblematic of Cervantes time, are universal. Indeed, today we are still enthralled by the same high hopes and tormented by the same nagging doubts.” [Duran and Rogg 2006]
The phrase “tilting at windmills” from Cervantes masterpiece has assumed an idiomatic status in the English language, being used to mean fighting an imaginary enemy. The phrase derives from a scene in the book when Don Quixote takes windmills as giants and rides forth to battle them…”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.”
As most readers who understand the meaning of the phrase from having read it in the context of the book already perceive, the story, and all the little vignettes that form it, work on two levels. The surface level of entertaining, sometimes cruel slap-stick humor, but something deeper, darker and more disturbing underneath, perhaps a commentary on the vulnerability of human nature and the superficiality of all we live for and believe in. perhaps it’s the realization of this hidden message that is responsible for the strong feelings the book seems to generate. As german writer Thomas Mann said after finishing the book, “ pain, love pity and boundless reverence filled my heart altogether.” [Duran and Rogg 2006] so yes, the charge of tilting at windmills does carry a tinge of respectability, the reason being that it is perceived as a component of mans eternal battle against the vagaries of fate, a battle that he cant win but one in which giving up is not an option either. Don Quixote played the hand fate dealt him. If he saw giants where there were windmills he went ahead and fought them anyway. Its this ability to fight against the odds that makes Tilting at windmills an acceptable practice.
2. Parker, Mary. “Spanish Dramatists of the Golden Age: a Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook.” 1998. pg 63.
3. Skinner, John. “Don Quixote in 18th-Century England: A Study in Reader Response.” Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 7.1 (1987): 45-57.
4. Duran, Manuel. Rogg, Fay. “Fighting windmills: encounters with Don Quixote.” 2006. Pg 249. and pg 4.