the nonexistent knight

by italo calvino

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the nonexistent knight summary

the nonexistent knight is a 1959 novel by italo calvino centered on the adventures of an unusual knight named agilulf.

  • during the crusades in france, charlemagne discovers that one of his knights, agilulf, is nothing but an empty suit of armor, who claims he does not exist.
  • agilulf encounters characters like raimbaut, a young man seeking vengeance for his father, and gurduloo, who believes he is whatever object he is interacting with.
  • the story’s narrator reveals herself as theodora, a nun, and describes how raimbaut falls in love with a female knight named bradamante and bradamante with agilulf.


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last updated november 3, 2023.

the nonexistent knight begins during the crusades in france. charlemagne inspects his troops and comes to a paladin named agilulf. there is no one inside agilulf’s suit of armor; despite speaking and moving, agilulf informs charlemagne that he does not actually exist. later, the knights set up camp, and agilulf, who neither needs to eat nor sleep, investigates the camp, noting minor infractions. he returns to the other knights to show them their oversights, explaining in detail the proper way to run a camp. even after all the knights have gone to bed, agilulf continues to make rounds, and after talking to a sleep deprived sentry, he considers indexing every infraction and impropriety in the camp.

agilulf meets raimbaut, a young man looking for vengeance against a moor, isohar, that killed his father. when raimbaut asks for battle advice, agilulf directs him to the superintendency for duels, feuds, and besmirched honor. raimbaut goes to the superintendency and explains his predicament, but they give him unsatisfactory bureaucratic answers. as he is about to complain, a call to move out sounds.

as the army marches, agilulf is perturbed by the lack of order in the army. during the army’s travels, they happen upon gurduloo, a man who believes himself to be whatever object he is interacting with: if he is around ducks, he squats and quacks; if he is around pears, he hangs in a tree. charlemagne makes this man agilulf’s squire.

at this point in the story, we learn that it is being recounted by a nun named theodora. she describes an ensuing battle between the moors and charlemagne’s army. raimbaut tries to find isohar, mistakenly fighting the incorrect person several times before finding isohar’s spectacle-bearer. raimbaut succeeds in destroying isohar’s glasses as another knight kills isohar. raimbaut is avenged but feels upset that he was not the one to kill isohar.

raimbaut begins to fight with two other moors and is saved by a knight in periwinkle armor. following his savior, he finds that the knight is actually a woman, and he instantly falls in love. he later learns that her name is bradamante. raimbaut finds agilulf and tries to explain his feelings about bradamante to the nonexistent knight, but agilulf simply assigns raimbaut various duties. agilulf, raimbaut, and gurduloo then go to the battlefield to bury the dead, where gurduloo, mistaking himself for a body, attempts to bury himself.

later, raimbaut comes upon bradamante practicing with a bow and arrow. when agilulf happens by, bradamante lends him her bow, and he scores a bullseye. it becomes clear that bradamante, also a lover of rules and order, has fallen for agilulf. raimbaut, beside himself, speaks to another young knight named torrismund, who tells him that nothing in life matters. still, raimbaut is determined to win over bradamante.

theodora then describes a banquet in which agilulf nit-picks stories that the knights are telling. when agilulf claims only to be interested in facts, torrismund challenges agilulf’s knighthood. agilulf had won his knighthood by protecting a virgin woman, sophronia, from rape. however, torrismund claims to be sophronia’s son, born before agilulf accomplished this feat; therefore, his knighthood, which was based on preserving virginity, is a lie. agilulf leaves to find sophronia and confirm her virginity, believing torrismund’s story to be a lie. in the meantime, torrismund, because of his background, is no longer eligible for knighthood. he must find his father, one of the knights of the holy grail, to reinstate his knighthood. bradamante, upon learning that agilulf has left, rides off after him, and raimbaut rides after her.

during agilulf’s journey, he...

(this entire section contains 1271 words.)

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is stopped by a damsel who tells him that her mistress’s castle has been besieged by bears. he is warned by a beggar that the whole story is a trap; however, agilulf agrees to help. they find the castle surrounded by bears, and agilulf fights them off. the head mistress of the castle invites them to stay the evening. throughout the night, she attempts to get agilulf to sleep with her, but he does not yield to her advances. instead, he performs a series of romantic acts that ultimately seem unwanted, such as giving a long speech about the nature of love, fixing her hair, and rearranging her room. at dawn, agilulf and gurduloo set off again.

agilulf and gurduloo finally arrive at sophronia’s convent, which has been sacked by moors. the women have been taken to morocco as slaves. agilulf sets course for morocco, but before leaving, he learns that sophronia was perceived to be one of the most chaste nuns. on the way to morocco, the ship is attacked by a whale and sinks, but gurduloo rides a sea turtle until he is picked up by some fisherman on the coast of morocco, and agilulf simply walks to morocco after sinking to the bottom of the sea. agilulf tracks down sophronia, who is now married to a sultan. that night, she and the sultan are to consummate the marriage. agilulf fights through a series of guards and rescues her. they sail back to brittany, and he keeps her in a cave until he can find charlemagne to verify her purity.

meanwhile, torrismund has been searching for the knights of the grail. he learns that the knights are staying on the outskirts of a village in the woods. he finds a knight playing a harp and follows him back to the camp, where torrismund introduces himself. the knights are standoffish, and only one will talk to him. the knights have devoted themselves to the power of the grail, and they enter meditative trances, attempting to move beyond the physical and profane. the knight invites torrismund to attempt this oneness with the grail, but he is unimpressed with their ways.

while torrismund is with the knights, they demand tribute from the local village. when the starving villagers refuse to give the knights food, the knights begin slaughtering the villagers and burning their houses, and torrismund helps rally the villagers to fight off the knights of the grail. unsure of what to do next, torrismund wanders the land until he happens upon sophronia in a cave. he does not know that it is sophronia, and he makes love to her.

agilulf brings charlemagne back to the cave as sophronia and torrismund finish making love. once they realize what has happened, torrismund rides off in shame; agilulf, disgraced, also rides away. however, torrismund returns, realizing that his supposed mother was a virgin until he made love to her. it is revealed that sophronia and torrismund are half-brother and sister, not related through blood. it was, in fact, the queen of scotland who gave birth to torrismund after an affair with the knights of the grail. at the same time, sophronia was born to a peasant woman with whom the king of scotland had an affair with. to preserve the queen’s character, a story was concocted in which sophronia gave birth to torrismund, and she was sent away to care for him. raimbaut searches for agilulf to tell him the news. however, he finds only a pile of agilulf’s armor with a note bequeathing it to himself. torrismund takes gurduloo as his squire and goes to live with sophronia in the town that he had previously saved from the knights of the grail.

as the story concludes, we learn that theodora is in fact bradamante, who has fallen for raimbaut after all. she hears his voice at the door of the convent, and she ends her story to pursue him.


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