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Tilting at Windmills

Tilting at Windmills is an idiom that refers to wasting time, fighting imaginary enemies, or to pursue an imagined but impossible goal. It comes from the Spanish novel by Cervantes 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. This was originally published in two parts the first was published in 1605, the second in 1615. The was in the middle of what is called the Spanish Golden Age, which was a period when the Spanish Habsburg monarchy was at the height of its imperial power, wealth and dominance. Since then the imagery of tilting at windmills has entered the public imagination. 

The novels depict the misadventures of Don Quixote. It is a satire of Chivalric Romances, which depicts Don Quixote as wanting to pursue chivalric ideals, however his attempts always ending disaster and embarrassment. He is accompanied on this adventures by Sancho Panza who agrees to support his adventures and is often the voice of reason, as well as his trusty steed Rosenantes.

In the incident that has led to the idiom, Quixote sees a group of windmills from a distance. Believing them to be a group of giants he charges them. However his lance gets caught in a sail, it shatters and Quixote is thrown from his horse.

“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.”