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«Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words»

Wisdom in Art, Culture, Folklore, History, Literature and Mass Media

Wolfgang Mieder

The ten chapters of «Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words» present a composite picture of the richness of proverbs as significant expressions of folk wisdom as is manifest from their appearance in art, culture, folklore, history, literature, and the mass media. The first chapter surveys the multifaceted aspects of paremiology (the study of proverbs), with the second chapter illustrating the paremiological work by the American folklorist Alan Dundes. The next two chapters look at the effective role that proverbs play in the mass media, where they are cited in their traditional wording or as innovative anti-proverbs. The fifth chapter discusses proverbs as expressions of the worldview of New England. This is followed by two chapters on the proverbial prowess of American presidents, to wit the proverbial style in the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams and a discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal proverb «Don’t swap horses in the middle of the stream.» The eighth chapter traces the tradition of proverb iconography from medieval woodcuts to Pieter Bruegel the Elder and on to modern caricatures, cartoons, and comic strips. The last two chapters deal with the origin and history of the proverbial expression «to tilt at windmills» as an allusion to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the many proverbial utterances in Mozart’s letters. The book draws attention to the fact that proverbs as metaphorical signs continue to play an important role in oral and written communication. Proverbs as socalled monumenta humana are omnipresent in all facets of life, and while they are neither sacrosanct nor saccharine, they usually offer much common sense or wisdom based on recurrent experiences and observations.


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9. “Tilting at Windmills” A Proverbial Allusion to Cervantes’ Don Quixote 277


While most proverbs and proverbial phrases are based on repeatedly observed or experienced natural phenomena or human behavior, there are also those formulaic expressions that summarize events from classical mythology, par- ables of the Bible, Aesop’s fables, folk narratives, and also literary works into succinct and memorable statements that belong to the general cultural literacy of humankind.i The “Trojan horse,” “Achilles’ heel,” “the labor of Sisyphus,” “Pandora’s box,” “the Gordian knot,” “the golden calf,” “the handwriting on the wall,” “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “sour grapes,” “the Pied Piper,” “a Faustian bargain,” and “beauty and the beast” readily come to mind. The proverbial allusions can be heard throughout the world in oral discourse, and they appear with considerable frequency in all types of writing. This is doubtlessly also true for the well-known phrase of “tilting at windmills” that alludes to Don Quixote’s unforgettable adventure with the windmills in chapter eight of part one of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s massive novel Don Quixote (1605/1615). In fact, if people know anything about this voluminous literary work, it is that Don Quixote in his delusions mistakes windmills for giants and consequently loses his human fight against the overpowering machines.ii One might even go so far as to maintain that the entire novel has basically been reduced to the word “quixotic” in the meaning of being impractically idealistic and the proverbial “Tilting AT Windmills” A Proverbial Allusion to Cervantes’ Don Quixote C H A P T E R N I N E Mieder-09.indd 277 6/2/2008...

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