Search This Blog

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Windmills of our mind – ‘outrageous giants’

It’s probably not surprising that windmills figure in writing, both fiction and poetry over the years, since these structures were vital, hard-working machineries of joy in their time. Windmills were one of the first eco-friendly machines. Here on the Costa Blanca we see many derelict windmills; you'll see a tilt of windmills in La Mancha.

The most memorable reference in popular culture is doubtless the song ‘Windmills of your mind’, music by Michel Legrand, English lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. This version was used as the theme for The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen, and it won an Oscar for Best Original Song; it was performed by Noel Harrison, who died last year, aged 79. A version by Sting featured in the 1999 remake of the film.
The Windmill Theatre, London was opened in 1932 and had the motto during WWII that ‘We never close’. It was built on the corner of Great Windmill Street just off Shaftesbury Avenue. An enjoyable film about the Windmill Theatre at this time – and the notorious nude tableaux – is Mrs Henderson Presents, starring Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench.

In literature, perhaps Cervantes’ inclusion of windmills in his masterpiece Don Quixote (1605 & 1615) is now iconic, where being quixotic means ‘tilting at windmills’:

As they were thus discoursing, they discovered some thirty or forty windmills are in that plain; and, soon as the knight spied them, ‘Fortune,’ cried he, ‘directs our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished: look yonder, friend Sancho, there are at least thirty outrageous giants, whom I intend to encounter; and, having deprived them of life, we will begin to enrich ourselves with their spoils: for they are lawful prize; and the extirpation of that cursed brood will be an acceptable service to Heaven.’
- Part One, Book I, Chapter VIII Don Quixote, translation by P.A. Motteux, 1700.
Quixote: Dore illustration, engraved by Pisan

In the same chapter and scene, Sancho Panza says, 'Did I not tell you they were windmills and that nobody could think otherwise, unless he had also windmills in his head?' - which gave birth to the phrase 'To have windmills in your head', that is to be full of fancies. 

Crime writer P.D. James featured a windmill in her Adam Dalgliesh thrillers. In Devices and Desires, Commander Dalgliesh has just published a new book of poems and takes a brief respite on the remote Larksoken headland on the Norfolk coast in a converted windmill left to him by his aunt. But he cannot escape murder, as a psychotic strangler of young women is at large in the area…

The 1974 film The Black Windmill starred Michael Caine and Janet Suzman. It was a spy thriller based on the Clive Egleton novel Seven Days to a Killing, involving Caine as Tarrant, a spy involved in an investigation of an international arms syndicate. Tarrant’s son is kidnapped and held to ransom… The film was made, in part, on location at Clayton Windmills, south of Burgess Hill, in West Sussex.
Molinology is the study of windmills and other kinetic energy devices, the term coined by a Portuguese industrial historian João Miguel dos Santos Simões in 1965. Molino is Spanish for a grinder or mill, and a molinero is a miller.

My short horror story features a windmill, too, and can be read here

In April, my wife Jennifer is planning to sing a solo of ‘The Windmill’, words by Longfellow, music by George Rathbone:

The Windmill

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Behold! a giant am I!
Aloft here in my tower,
With my granite jaws I devour
The maize, and the wheat, and the rye,
And grind them into flour.

I look down over the farms;
In the fields of grain I see
The harvest that is to be,
And I fling to the air my arms,
For I know it is all for me.

I hear the sound of flails
Far off, from the threshing-floors
In barns, with their open doors,
And the wind, the wind in my sails,
Louder and louder roars.

I stand here in my place,
With my foot on the rock below,
And whichever way it may blow,
I meet it face to face,
As a brave man meets his foe.

And while we wrestle and strive,
My master, the miller, stands
And feeds me with his hands;
For he knows who makes him thrive,
Who makes him lord of lands.

On Sundays I take my rest;
Church-going bells begin
Their low, melodious din;
I cross my arms on my breast,
And all is peace within.​

The modern version of the windmill, wind turbines, figure in my novel set in Tenerife,
Blood of the Dragon Trees published by Crooked Cat. An article on these and an excerpt can be read here






Anonymous said...

Windmills are romantic work-horses. A windmill is one of those things that, when you see it, you have to stop and gaze, admire its size and beauty, be fascinated by the wind in its sails, then look back again and sigh at the simple masterpiece that it was.

Nik said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon. Yes, I totally agree! Their lure is strong, even when derelict.