(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 a seemingly endless, and perhaps pointless, series of holy wars. At the end of the review comes Sir Agilulf, a non-existent knight: nothingness within a suit of pure white armor. It is not his non-existence that makes Agilulf unpopular with the other knights but his scrupulous attention to all military and chivalric rules. He does manage to gain one follower, the youth Raimbaut, who is intent on avenging his father’s death by killing the Saracen Isohar in battle. Raimbaut is very nearly disabused of both his idealism and his desire for revenge when he actually experiences the absurdity of battle conducted according to Calvino’s burlesque set of chivalric codes. These rules include a Superintendent of Duels, Feuds, and Besmirched Honor, as well as interpreters to translate oaths and insults for...

(The entire section is 749 words.)