„Fighting against Windmills“ is an idiom we say if something’s useless, stupid or bound to fail. When we say this, we’re about to resign. For what could be more absurd? In the story this idiom came from, however, all is different. The absurd is the norm; its heroes don’t resign, no matter how strange their ways are. At any rate, it has created one of world’s best-known figures of fiction.
We’re talking about the adventures of Don Quixote, of course, an impoverished, elderly landowner who reads so many tales of knights and their heroic deeds that he ultimately sets out to emulate them. Astride an old mare, self-made bucket helmet sitting proudly on his head, he is ready to fight anything that might be in his path all across Spain. If you’re persistent enough to get through the many hundreds of pages chronicling the mad adventures of this scatterbrained fellow, you are no doubt wondering: how on earth did this sad, often ridiculous character become one of the world’s most famous literary heroes?
A persistent Anti-Hero
For many of his adventures end anything but chivalrously. More likely, the frail knight is to be found all shaken and battered in some quarrel his imagination has triggered. But whether it is windmills to be taken for giants or fights against herds of sheep resulting in scuffles with their drunken herdsmen-never does Don Quixote hesitate. The way he sticks to following his goal has turned the character into an endeared symbol that seems to call out: Whatever the odds and adversaries, follow your own vision, your own rules.
Moreover, the author, Miguel Cervantes, has made his story an immortal one with his astonishing literary inventiveness. With many a side-plot making it difficult to follow at times, it is this very quality that turned the book into the first modern novel.
In fact, the author invented literary stylistics which became the backbone of many of today’s novels. For example, the story turns out to be a story within itself. Following the success of the first volume, Cervantes delivered a second one in 1615. Here, we encounter characters who reflect on having read a book about a certain knight. And the author himself pretended to have translated the whole thing from old documents. This great novelty, fiction mirroring itself-intertextuality-is the main reason for the book to be recognized as the first example of a new kind.
What is more, the sad knight and his creator have become messengers of Spanish culture. Since the author cleverly hinted, but never really clarified place names, there are countless Quixote-related trails, sights and towns all over the region called Mancha. The Spanish Institute of Culture is called Centro de Cervantes. Thus the two characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are known all over the world. Considering that, it doesn’t really matter if the battle against some stubborn windmills was lost, doesn’t it?!