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Tilting at windmills

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.

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:

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 contextEdit

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.

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.

Popular cultureEdit

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.

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...".[2] 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".

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ citation needed