Characters Discussed

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The first narrator

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The first narrator, a traveler (perhaps a knight) who comes upon the castle in the woods and joins the guests, who recount their tales through the medium of tarot cards. Weary from many recent trials and combats, the narrator feels unstable and confused in his perceptions. His confusion contributes, as the story unfolds, to his uncertainty about reading the various stories accurately. The uncertainty of reconstructing stories from emblematic representations, a dominant theme of the book, originates in this state of mind of the narrator.

The alchemist

The alchemist, who selects the King of Cups tarot card to represent himself. He is identified with Faust, and the tale of the bargain with the devil for the secret formula of gold begins with the alchemist’s reading of the Ace of Cups and the Popess cards, which conclude the tale of a knight who narrates before him. The alchemist challenges the others with his elliptical and allusive style in representing his story. The many symbolic possibilities of the cards he employs and the rich complexity of the Faust legend make his audience restless and impatient for clear exposition.

Roland

Roland, the mythical knight of the Charlemagne legend, who identifies himself with the King of Swords card. Roland is referred to as gigantic, moving his leaden arms and ironlike fingers slowly. Domineering and threatening, he hoards the most beautiful of the tarot cards for the colorful tale of his going mad in pursuit of Angelica. As he recounts his tale, Roland undergoes a visible transformation. Ending with the card of the Hanged Man, he takes on a serene, radiant expression, from which the narrator infers an acceptance of reason over the paladin’s former unrestricted passion that led to his defeat.

Astolpho

Astolpho, the English knight who, in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516), recovers the wits of Roland. The first narrator, longing for further testimony of Roland’s adventures, finds this small, humorous, childlike youth among the guests and hands him the Knight of Clubs card. The youth tosses it in the air, and when it lands on the table, he begins the tale of Charlemagne sending Astolpho to the moon to find Roland’s reason. His tale maintains the theme of defeat that links the tales of the other guests. The youth ends his tale cryptically, with suggestions of failure and foreboding. Rather than discovering harmony of sense and meanings on the moon, he reports that the moon is a desert, an empty horizon where all poems and discourse begin and end.

The second narrator

The second narrator, who finds himself, like the first narrator, at a banquet with other travelers who are struck mute and communicating their adventures with a tarot deck. The second narrator, like his fellow banqueters, is white haired from the sudden fear at finding himself in the mysterious forest. This narrator sees himself mirrored in three cards: the Knight of Swords, the Hermit, and the Juggler. He describes himself as a writer whose impetuosity and anxiety are akin to those of a warrior. He reads his fate as a writer in the images of famous paintings of Saint Jerome and Saint George. The first, the hermit and saint, represents his solitude and devotion to finding order in chaos; the second, the dragon slayer, depicts his struggle with confronting inner and outer demons. The second narrator thus sees himself as representing the other travelers and all who attempt to recount and interpret the elusive meanings of their lives.

The Queen of Clubs

The Queen of Clubs, a woman who identifies herself by beginning with this tarot card. A gigantic maiden of powerful arms and hands, she impels the narrative forward by controlling the cards when others are grabbing wildly, threatening to take control and disarrange the cards. The maiden jostles her fellow travelers and wrests the cards from them until the guests are subdued into watching her unfold her own tale of her giving birth to twins by a prince and controlling his father.

The Characters

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The narrators, who in reality are one person, are clearly the most important individuals in Calvino’s collection of tales. They are the interpreters of the cards and therefore control the stories as they are told. This control is limited, however, since each person provides variant readings of the cards and even supplies narrative when gaps exist within the stories. Because the cards also appear in the margin as they are mentioned, the reader can also function as narrator by rejecting variants or by supplying personal interpretations, particularly of the evocative picture cards.

The other characters fall into three broad categories, themselves tangential: folkloric, mythic, and literary. Each has some hamartia or flaw which has led to a ruinous miscalculation in life. The Ingrate, for example, rejects the love of the woman who rescues him and pays for his ingratitude with his damnation in the forest of self-loss, the very place in which all Calvino’s storytellers find themselves. Astolpho, the English knight and companion of Roland, ascends to the moon in an attempt to retrieve Roland’s lost reason but discovers that every human undertaking begins and ends in the realm of madness. In the end, one always returns to the center of an empty horizon. The Waverer, like the Ingrate, also rejects love, though doing so because of indecision rather than selfishness. His near possession of the “City of All,” the place where all alternatives are reconciled, is withheld when he insists on possessing the sea to satisfy his thirst. He, too, finds himself in the forest of self-loss and confronts his other self, the man prohibited from choice by his double’s refusal to choose.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

Calvino, Italo. The Uses of Literature, 1986.

Carter, Albert Howard. Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy, 1987.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays, 1986. Edited by Helen Wolff and Kurt Wolff.

Olken, I.T. With Pleated Eye and Garnet Wing: Symmetries of Italo Calvino, 1984.

Perosa, Sergio. “The Heirs of Calvino and the Eco Effect,” in The New York Times Book Review. XCII (August 16, 1987), p. 1.

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