The Nonexistent Knight Themes
The main themes in The Nonexistent Knight are fantasy versus reality, bureaucracy versus humanity, and conflicting emotions.
- Fantasy versus reality: Calvino’s novel juxtaposes fantasy and reality by consistently subverting readers’ and characters’ expectations of how the story will unfold.
- Bureaucracy versus humanity: Throughout the narrative, bureaucracy is depicted as acting in opposition to authentic human experiences.
- Conflicting emotions: The novel’s characters are often plagued by conflicting emotions, which result from their multiple identities and motivations.
Fantasy versus Reality
The novel juxtaposes fantasy and reality, creating a gap between readers’ and characters’ expectations against how events actually play out. This fantastical story about nonexistent knights promises to follow in the tradition of Arthurian legend, but it consistently lets readers down in this capacity. Early in the story, the narrator claims that it is “not rare . . . to find names and thoughts and forms and institutions that corresponded to nothing in existence.” The battle scene is a prime example of this; Raimbaut has built the battle up in his mind and believes he will avenge his murdered father. Instead, the dust agitated by the horses’ hooves makes seeing the battle impossible, and the piles of bodies prevent movement in the field. The opposing forces resort to bandying insults at one another. This is not an epic battle so much as a row among school children.
Another example of fantasy giving way to reality is Agilulf’s treatment of love in chapter eight, in which Priscilla attempts to sleep with him. Though his actions are romantic throughout the encounter—a long speech on the nature of love, a moonlit walk on the battlements of the castle, moving her bed so that the sun does not wake her—she is clearly disappointed by her interaction with him because he never succumbs to lust.
There are various scenes where expectations established by fantasies about how things should be are negated by the way things are. In fact, nearly all scenes with the knights result in these unmet expectations. Rarely are they chivalrous or disciplined, as Arthurian legend might have us believe. Instead, they are bawdy and prone to distraction. The Knights of the Grail are the extreme form of this. They have no desire to protect the innocent; they are instead catatonic religious zealots who pillage local townsfolk, justifying their actions through their religious zeal.
Bureaucracy versus Humanity
Many scenes in the story reflect the ways in which bureaucracy negates authentically human experiences. Arguably the most prominent example of this occurs when Raimbaut is discussing avenging his father. There is an entire agency related to vendettas and vengeance, and when he goes to claim his grievance against Isohar for killing his father, the bureaucrats at the agency calculate his father’s worth and determine a formula for vengeance. The formula is complicated even more when they need to correct an error in their books which would result in Raimbaut killing no one; by their calculations, Raimbaut’s father has already been avenged, despite the fact that his killer still lives.
Agilulf’s strict adherence to rules is another example of how bureaucracy seems to undermine the human experience. He is, for instance, annoyed with the pace that Charlemagne sets the march of the knights. Charlemagne, despite going into battle, still wants to see sights, which aggravates Agilulf. Early in the story, Agilulf would like friendship, but he does not know how to go about it, and he makes a poor attempt to make friends by upholding the rules and regulations within the camp: “He just felt himself a nuisance all round and longed for any contact with his neighbors, even if it meant shouting orders or cursing.” This same scene seems to repeat itself several chapters later as the knights are sitting in a banquet hall boasting about their adventures. Rather than boasting with them, Agilulf continuously undermines their stories by finding technicalities or holes in what they are saying. It seems that throughout the story, protocols and technicalities thwart meaningful experiences and connections. Perhaps it is true that the pace of the army...
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should be faster, and it may be the case that the knights should stick to facts, as Agilulf insists. However, experiences such as sightseeing and storytelling provide greater meaning to the characters and their lives.
Throughout the story, characters are portrayed as having multiple motivations and identities, which often results in confluences of conflicting emotions. In the opening chapter, the knights are introduced to Charlemagne, as they list their various homelands, families, and feats. However, at the end of the chapter, they have stripped off their armor, their “proof of rank and name . . . all reduced to a shell, to empty iron, and there lay the men themselves.” While they are knights, they are also human beings, and throughout the story, we find that these knights, presented as evidently perfect in the beginning, are subject to human whims and foibles. The only one who seems to be above these human qualities is Agilulf, who does not exist. However, Agilulf, too, experiences a variety of emotions as a result of his identity. As the other knights are capable of stripping off their armor and becoming vulnerable humans who sleep and eat, Agilulf at once feels superior to them and envies them.
These conflicting emotions occur throughout the story. In chapter four, Raimbaut, for instance, experiences a radical confluence of emotions when Isohar is killed, feeling both vindicated for the death of the one who killed his father and sad because he was not the one to do the killing. Shortly after, when Bradamante saves him, he feels admiration, murderous resentment, longing, and love. Bradamante herself is described as having a complicated relationship with love, given her own motivations. She can only love one who is regimented, following all social protocols; however, loving her entails a loss of control, and thus when her lover returns her love, she can no longer love him back. Further, she herself is not terribly regimented given the disorganized state in which she keeps her tent. The Nonexistent Knight celebrates the complexity of human emotion and identity, showing how humans simultaneously think and feel in dissonant ways.