400 Years Tilting at Windmills

On April 23rd we remembered the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes, a well-known writer from the so-called Spanish Golden Age. On the same year of his death, 1616, the first edition of his master piece was published: Don Quixote of La Mancha.

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You may have heard that Don Quixote is considered the first modern novel, translated into more than 50 languages (actually, it is translated fully or partially into more than 140 languages), and that its author wrote part of the story while he was in prison… Well, all that is true as is the fact that the influence of Cervantes’ work on Spanish language and other foreign languages has remained to the present day. No wonder that Spanish is often referred to as la lengua de Cervantes (the language of Cervantes). Let us see some examples:

  • The term “quixotism”, which refers to impracticality in pursuit of ideals or extravagantly chivalrous actions.
  • The adjective “quixotic”, which means that something is extremely idealistic, unrealistic and impractical, just as Don Quixote’s actions.
  • The term “quixote” referring to a person who puts his ideals ahead of his own benefit and acts selflessly for the sake of good causes.

English has adopted all these terms. However, this is not the most fascinating contribution Cervantes made to the language of Shakespeare, from my point of view.

The windmills episode is, par excellence, the first thing that comes to our minds when we hear the words “Don Quixote”. Our noble knight errant charges fiercely at a pile of windmills, thinking that he is seeing thirty or so fearsome giants and fully convinced that he is saving humanity from a serious danger. Well, it is precisely from this quixotic scene where the English idiom “tilting at windmills” comes. Figuratively speaking, it means fighting imaginary enemies.

Certainly, Don Quixote inspired a plethora of concepts associated with an idealized vision of the world, with a desire to defend good causes  by means of noble but clumsy, impractical actions, all of this encouraged and distorted by a grain of folly.

Today, being confident that all of us have a quixotic side, I would like to honor this intrepid knight errant and the man who gave life to him.




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