The Non-Existent Knight Summary
by Italo Calvino

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The Non-Existent Knight Summary

Charlemagne's troops, including the nonexistent knight, Sir Agilulf, are poised to fight the Saracen army. Though his helmet appears to be empty when he raises his visor, Agilulf claims to do his job "'By will power . . . and faith in [Charlemagne's] holy cause!'" He is not well-liked, because he is so conscientious and such a stickler for the rules. He does not sleep; he cannot eat. He meets a young knight named Raimbaut, who has come to slay in battle the Saracen who killed his father, and he looks up to Agilulf. They meet Gurduloo, a peasant who always identifies himself with whatever is near him—a duck, a frog, a pear—and Charlemagne appoints him to be Agilulf's squire. He is all physical while Agilulf is all cerebral.

We learn that the narrator is a nun named Sister Theodora, who has been assigned the job of writing this tale as her penance. Back to the story, a periwinkle knight fights alongside Raimbaut, and he eventually learns that the knight is an Amazon woman named Bradamante. Raimbaut falls in love with her. She, however, falls in love with Agilulf.

One night at a banquet, another young knight, Torrismund, claims that the woman whose virginity was saved by Agilulf was not actually a virgin at all; he says that she'd already given birth to him before Agilulf protected her from brigands. This means that Agilulf is not actually, by rights, a knight (though he is more knightly than anyone else who claims the title). He sets off an a quest to prove that Sophronia was a virgin when he saved her. Bradamante follows him, and Raimbaut follows her. Torrismund claims that his father is the Knights of the Holy Grail, and he, now, goes in search of them. Agilulf finds the convent where Sophronia went years ago, but she's been kidnapped to be a Sultan's wife in Morocco. He goes there and finds her, tricking the Sultan in order to reach her. She is still a virgin, and he absconds with her back home, leaving her in a cave until he can fetch someone to verify her virtue.

Meanwhile, Torrismund learns that the Knights of the Holy Grail aren't nearly as honorable as he thought they were. They do not protect people, but exploit them. Terribly disappointed, he leaves, finding Sophronia (who calls herself Azira or Sister Palmyra now), and they sleep together. He doesn't realize that she's the woman he believes to be his mother. In the end, we learn that she is not his mother but his step-sister, and they get married. However, Agilulf leaves before it is revealed that Sophronia was a virgin when he saved her all those years ago. Before Raimbaut reaches him, Agilulf removes his armor and dissolves into the air, bequeathing his armor to Raimbaut. Raimbaut dons the armor and sleeps with Bradamante (she believes that he is Agilulf), and when she learns his identity, she runs away. Ultimately, we learn that Sister Theodora, the story's narrator, is actually Bradamante, and when Raimbaut finds her in the convent, she runs away with him.


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

As its title suggests, Italo Calvino’s The Non-Existent Knight is a work of fabulation. It begins, simply enough, as a comic fable, a parodic satire on the medieval romance and all that that literary form implies about heroes, holy wars, and chivalric ideals. It soon becomes apparent, however, that, for all of its comic brevity, Calvino’s novella is more complex and far-reaching than its opening pages suggest. Gradually, characters are added and authorial intrusions begin to break the narrative flow, until it becomes clear that the subplots and digressions constitute integral and parallel parts of the larger whole. Calvino’s simple story becomes a narrative mare’s nest, the untangling of which may be, if not quite impossible, ultimately beside the point, as the reader comes to understand that the tale being told is of no more, and no less, importance than the postmodern tale of its telling.

The novella opens with Charlemagne reviewing his troops shortly before they are to do battle against the Saracens in one of...

(The entire section is 1,268 words.)