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Italo Calvino: Il cavaliere inesistente (The Nonexistent Knight)

The third novel in Calvino’s Ancestors trilogy takes us further back in time, in this case to the eight century. Calvino uses some of the characters from Orlando Furioso as well as inventing some of his own for this story set in the reign of Charlemagne. One character he does invent is the eponymous Agilulfo Emo Bertrandino dei Guildiverni e degli Altri di Corbentraz e Sura, cavaliere di Selimpia Citeriore e Fez. When Charlemagne is inspecting his troops at the beginning of the story, we see Agilulfo resplendent in his armour, a brave and noble knight. The only problem is that he does not exist, for the suit of armour is empty. As with the other novels in this trilogy, the other characters also have their problems. The heroine, the Amazon Bradamante, is in love with Agilulfo, as he is the only man who measures up to her standards. The young Rambaldo, who worships Agilulfo and is intent on avenging his dead father, is in love with Bradamante, in one of those convoluted love triangles found in medieval tales. Agilulfo, of course, has his Sancho Panza, in this case, Gurdulù who does exist but is far less sure of his existence than his non-existent master.

As in all good tales of this kind, there is a quest. The young knight, Torrismondo, who is jealous of Agilulfo and annoyed by Agilulfo picking on him, challenges one of Agilulfo’s deeds, saying that the maiden he rescued was not, in fact a maiden. Agilulfo sets out to prove that she was and sets out on his quest, followed by Bradamante, who is, in turn followed by Rambaldo, while Torrismondo sets out to find his own roots, believing himself descended from the Knights of the Holy Grail. Of course, it all becomes horribly convoluted as Calvino wickedly and funnily skewers the Arthurian legends and medieval tales of bravery and chivalry. Things become more complicated when the narrator turns out not be the person we thought. Calvino does it very well and clearly had great fun in writing this novel but you will never read Arthurian legends the same way again.

Publishing history

First published 1959 by Einaudi
First published in English 1962 by Random House
Translated by Archibald Colquhoun