I had tons of experience in tilting at windmills when I first presented this post in 2012.
It may surprise you to know that my favorite literary character is not John Carter of Mars, or Conan the Barbarian, or even Frodo Baggins. That distinction goes to a rather odd, middle-aged, seventeenth century Spaniard named Alonso Quijano. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll surely know the name of his alter ego: Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Novelist Miguel de Cervantes wrote his epic work in two parts and published them in 1605 and 1615. Alonso Quijano, who at the start of the story may already be approaching senility, reads incessantly about days of old, when knights were bold and chivalrous. So inspired is he by these tales that he decides to sally forth under the knightly name of Don Quixote to right all wrongs, reach the unreachable stars, fight all unbeatable foes, and in general bring back chivalry to a non-virtuous world. He dons a ton of armor, recruits a local farmer named Sancho Panza to be his squire, mounts a skinny nag that he dubs Rocinante, and off he rides.
Weird, huh? So what is it that attracts me to this character? Maybe it’s the fact that no matter how much he’s put down for being so different, no matter how seemingly difficult—even impossible—the obstacle before him appears, DON QUIXOTE DOESN’T GIVE UP. This truly resonates with me, as I’ve tilted with more than my share of windmills throughout my life, as Don Quixote does in his “second sally.” He falls down, gets up, and tries all the harder. I like that.
There is nowhere in my home that you won’t encounter DQ in some form or another: artwork, statuary, wood carvings, porcelain, pewter, etc. This all began in 1987 when, newly single, I spent most weekends riding my bicycle up and down the coast of San Diego and Orange Counties. One Saturday I stopped at a flea market in Encinitas and found my first piece, an 18” skinny Don Quixote made of wood. The vendor wanted two bucks for him. I shoved him in my backpack and, with his head and his lance sticking out and generating some odd looks, I rode the twenty miles back to my apartment.
Scores of artifacts followed, some picked up during travels through Europe, Central and South America, and all over the U.S. Family and friends would bring pieces back with them. (I have a Don Quixote thimble, for crying out loud!) My wife, Jacqueline, got caught up in my DQ passion, and she freaked when we found a four-foot-tall sheet metal one at a flea market on a Native American pueblo in New Mexico. This DQ now welcomes visitors to our home.
One of the advantages of being a writer is the ability to pay homage to whatever we care about the most. My 1993 satirical science fiction novel, The 22nd Gear, is the third in a trilogy that includes Bicycling Through Space and Time and The Ultimate Bike Path. My main character, Jack Miller (a thinly disguised me), is a writer and avid bicyclist from Del Mar, California. An alien study group has implanted an extra gear in his 21-speed Nishiki mountain bike, and by shifting into it Jack can travel through time, dimensions, other planets—even into literature. So it’s no surprise that Jack winds up in a big honkin’ book by Cervantes, where he gets to sally forth with one of his heroes.
Here are a few scenes from The 22nd Gear. Jack first encounters Sally Fuerte, a kitchen slut/whore, and rescues her from a couple of goons. She gives him a hug, and then, after she propositions him…
“Uh-uh, the hug was fine,” I assured her. “So, your name is Sally?”
“Yes, Sally Fuerte. And yours?”
Her eyes went wide, and she crossed herself. “You are Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior? O Blessed Mother!”
“No, it’s nothing like that. Look there!”
Two mounted guys were coming from the direction in which I had been traveling. The one in front sat astride a bent horse that gave new meaning to the word nag. It had to be a glue factory reject. Its rider was also a piece of work, an old, skinny fellow with a pointy beard and a soulful face. He was wearing eight hundred pounds of rusty armor and something that looked like a cracked bowl or bedpan on top of his head. Tucked under his arm was a lance, at the moment aimed in the general direction of Sally and me.
Yeah, you’re right, it was Don Quixote.
Sancho Panza, his chubby squire, was just behind the knight-errant, riding one of the little mule-things. Both were staring at me intensely. I stared back; so did Sally, who was a feisty lady.
“I don’t like the look of these doofuses,” she said (I swear!).
Don Quixote reined Rocinante to a stop near where I had left the Nishiki. Sancho’s mule-thing ran into the horse. The Don was knocked forward and would have fallen off, except the lance got stuck in the road and held him up. Sancho climbed off his mount and pushed his master back straight, then worked the point of the lance free. Don Quixote maintained an air of proper decorum, like nothing had happened.
“We had come to yon ridge,” he said, pointing behind him with the lance (and nearly putting it up against the side of Sancho’s head), “when the winds carried to us the cries of yon fair damsel in distress. By the nature of my calling I would have succored her, but then saw thou timely arrival astride yon enchanted thing.” He indicated the bike and nearly impaled one of the tires. “Oh, how thou routed yon louts! But now thou must tell me something.”
Whoa, I think he was pissed. “What’s that?”
“Be thou sorcerer, or be thou knight?”
Oh, well, that was okay. “A knight, for sure a knight. I am known as Don Jack of Del Mar.”
He got so excited he nearly fell off his horse (again). “Oh, I knew I was not the only one left to heed yon calling! I am Don Quixote of La Mancha, aka Knight of the Soulful Countenance, and yon unwashed one be my squire, Sancho Panza. Perhaps thou hast heard of my exploits, which warrant comparisons to those of Amadis of Gaul and the Knights of the Round Table?”
“For sure, you are well known to me.” This was true; it was one of my favorite classics.
This really got the Don all excited. “Sancho, get off thou ass and help me down. I would shake the hand of this worthy.”
“But, Master, I am not on my ass,” the little guy told him.
“Indeed. Then what are thou waiting for?”
Sancho bent over and became a footstool. Don Quixote handed him the lance and walked toward me, armor creaking; sounded as bad as that door in Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. He shook my hand, and I gotta say, he had a hell of a grip.
While he was thus engaged, Sally leaned over and whispered, “I fear this fool is a couple of wineskins short of a six-pack.”
After a bit more goofy dialogue, Don Quixote notices Jack’s yellow bike helmet. This gets him all excited:
“No! I don’t believe it!” he exclaimed. “It cannot be! And yet I am sure…”
“Oh, no,” Sancho groaned, “not the golden helmet bullshit again.”
Sancho caught it when he tossed it away, then glanced at Sally and me. “He stole it from a poor medical student. The Holy Brotherhood will hang him by the balls for it. But he is in so much trouble, a little more would hardly matter.”
So the quest continues, with Don Jack of Del Mar joining Don Quixote, Sancho, and Sally, the latter now worshiped by DQ as the Princess Rosabel of Belarose. A short time later they come across the windmills. Neither Sancho nor Sally want anything to do with DQ’s plan to engage them in battle. But he has someone else in mind:
“Sir Knight, attend me, I prithee,” Don Quixote said, and yeah, he was looking in my direction.
“Who, me?” I asked dumbly.
“Why of course!” I think he was appalled. “Is this not what we have sworn our mighty arms to defend against? Is this not the purpose of our lives?”
Well, I could’ve made an argument there, but why disillusion the old fellow? Actually, when you thought about it, tilting with windmills was pretty cool. Through the centuries, scholars have assigned all sorts of symbolism to this ludicrous combat. Be it challenging any bureaucracy, questioning old ways and traditions, whatever, the bottom line is that the tilting itself is the most important thing, not whether you succeed in kicking the shit out of the “giants,” or whether they stomp you into the ground. At least you tried. And yeah, I could relate to it, because I’d tilted with a few windmills in my time.
Nodding at Don Quixote I said, “Let’s do it.”
The man was elated. He unsheathed his sword and handed it to me. I’m sure he would have reared high on Rocinante, had the steed been able to raise more than one foot at a time off the ground. He adjusted the golden helmet of Mambrino on his head.
I adjusted the Padres cap on my head.
There we stood, Don Quixote of La Mancha astride the noble Rocinante, Don Jack of Del Mar astride the noble Nishiki, ready to sally forth in glorious combat against…giants.
“That’s Sally Fuerte,” Sally said.
We charged the windmills at the best speed Rocinante could muster, which was the equivalent of nearly-falling-over. Don Quixote held his lance horizontally, not aware that he was still pointing it the wrong way.
When we were ten yards from the nearest of the windmills, the whole lot of them turned into giants.
Neanderthal types, ugly, hairy, and cyclopean, and every one over fifteen feet tall.
I braked to a stop.
Don Quixote, having straightened out his lance, waded in amid them, yelling and screaming and all kinds of shit.
“Yo, Sir Knight, I don’t think you want to do that!” I yelled after him.
But you know what, he did, and he was having a ball! The giants bellowed and blustered and in general tried to rip his head off, but the Don kept jabbing away with his lance. His aim was occasionally deliberate, mostly accidental. Every time he swung the damn stick around, he impaled one of the buggers. Let me tell you, he was really pissing them off!
“How many have you felled, Don Jack?” he called out, and it was understandable why he couldn’t see for himself, because the bike helmet had fallen down over his eyes.
“Oh, I’ve lost count!” I answered. “They’ve been felled left and right!”
I glanced back at Sally and Sancho, who shook their heads disdainfully. They were not impressed.
All right, what the hell, with my sword thrusting and parrying I waded in amid the giants. Even managed to inflict a flesh wound on the thigh of one…
Before they all turned back into what they had first been.
Don Quixote ceased his jousting and pushed the helmet back up on his head. He looked around, then turned to me. “Now they’re windmills,” he said, and rode back to the fair Princess Rosabel of Belarose.
Doofus or not, Alonso Quijano lived life on his own terms as knight-errant Don Quixote de la Mancha. He dared to dream the impossible dream. It does sadden me that, before dying, he “regains his sanity” and renounces his mad ways, influenced by others, no doubt, as well as his poor health. I much prefer the “revised” ending in the wonderful musical, Man of La Mancha, where Alonso Quijano, hearing the impassioned pleas of the loyal Sancho and the fair Aldonza, his Dulcinea, stands tall and vows to resume the quest before passing on.
In my mind, Don Quixote will always be tilting at windmills.