The Non-Existent Knight
“The Non-Existent Knight”, by Calvino, is a short story which features Agilulf, a knight who purportedly does not possess a human body, yet is able to exist as a suit of armor amalgamated with ‘will power’ and ‘faith’. 1 Even though Agilulf is devoid of a human body, he is well respected and revered, and is viewed by compatriots as a superior knight. In this way, Calvino utilizes Agilulf’s suit of armor as a focal point from which to express the imperfection of knights. As knights tend to be portrayed as flawless and ideal characters in literature, the author seems to be attempting to offer a more realistic depiction of knights.
The features of a knight which are satirized include the exaggerated honor, strength and romance that society believes they exude. I believe that it is the precise notion that a knight is incontrovertibly a quixotic character which is confronted by Calvino, through the use of a suit of armor in “The Non-Existent Knight”. Calvino employs a suit of armor to portray the way in which a knight’s honor is exaggerated. A knight’s honor is exhibited through the suit of armor that he wears, as it is proof of his rank and value.
However, as the suit of armor is used as an exhibition of a person’s honor, the flaws of the person actually wearing the armor are largely ignored. Agilulf indicates this by contrasting the armor that knights wear, which is ‘proof of rank and name, of feats, of power and worth’, with the owners of the armor, who were ‘snoring away, faces thrust in pillows, with a thread of spittle dribbling from open lips’. 2 The disgraceful portrayal of knights lacking armor highlights the fact that knights are ostensibly strong, yet underneath their suit of armor are merely human.
Due to the strong and polished appearance of a suit of armor, the knight it is associated with is given an almost supernatural quality; the armor, in essence, produces a depiction of a knight which exaggerates his appearance. The symbols which demonstrate a knight’s value and honor are, similar to the knights themselves, fragile. Torrismund emphasizes this statement by asserting that ‘paladin’s shields with armorial bearings and mottoes are not made of iron; they’re just paper’. 3 Knights, therefore, are heavily dependent on their suit of armor for their popularity and honor, rather than their appearance underneath the armor.
I insist on reiterating that knights should logically be valued for their actions and true physical features, rather than the splendor of the suit of armor that they own. Agilulf is a clear representation of this concept. It is ironic that Agilulf, the most revered and respected officer, owns the most impeccable suit of armor, yet does not have a human body. The mere fact that a piece of armor deprived of a human body is superior to any human body deprived of a suit of armor is an indication of how our perception of knights relies excessively on the suit of armor that he wears.
The notion that the greatest knight in “The Non-Existent Knight” is a person with the best suit of armor, but no human body implies the insignificance of a person’s appearance underneath the suit of armor in determining one’s value. The theme of society’s misconception of a knight’s appearance is further represented by the character of Bradamante. Calvino uses Bradamante as an example of how a suit of armor can deceive or exaggerate the appearance of the person within it. During a battle, Raimbaud is rescued by a knight with ‘a robe of periwinkle blue over his armour’.
Addressing the rescuer as ‘brother’, Raimbaud thanks the knight with a periwinkle robe. 5 Subsequent to this event, however, Raimbaud glimpses the knight when the ‘poleyns and cuisses were taken off’, and sees that the ‘naked flesh was a woman’s’, who turns out to be Bradamante. 6 As can be observed, Bradamante’s femininity is concealed only because she was wearing a suit of armor. Indeed, the suit of armor had shaped the preconception of Bradamante by Raimbaud, to the extent that he ‘could not believe his eyes’ when he saw that Bradamante was a female.
Bradamante’s suit of armor has distorted her authentic appearance, demonstrating how knights are often misrepresented. Again, this highlights the disparity between society’s rather common view of a knight as handsome, righteous, and infallible, with the more realistic view of a knight that is as immoral, ignorant and common-looking as any human of average standing. Bradamante’s status as a woman adds a sexist dimension to the misrepresentation of knights, which serves to strengthen the difference between Raimbaud’s preconception of Bradamante’s looks and her real appearance.
This occurs because it is the actual gender of Bradamante which disagrees with Raimbaud’s perception, rather than mere minor details of her facial appearance or any other physical feature. The horse, an animal inextricably linked to a knight, is used by Calvino to deride the portrayal of a knight as strong and indomitable. During the battle of Charlemagne’s Christian army against a Moorish army, Raimbaud’s horse is protected by armor similar to the type worn by Raimbaud himself.
Although it gives the horse a robust and resilient appearance, it does not alter the fact that underneath the protection, the horse is still fragile and, more importantly, mortal. During a point in a battle, Raimbaud discovers that ‘his horse did not budge’, and that ‘a blow from a Moor’s sword had penetrated the chinks of the bard and pierced the heart’. 8 Raimbaud’s horse ‘would have crashed to the ground long before had not the iron pieces round flank and legs kept it rigid as if rooted to the spot’.
The horse’s suit of armor produces an exaggerated impression of the strength and mortal state of the horse itself- a fact easily forgotten when it is draped in highly protective armor. One can observe that a suit of armor is used to indicate the weakness of people or animals, even if protective attire that is worn produces contrasting appearances. The death of Raimbaud’s horse, which came as a shock to the knight, exemplifies this basic fact. The rather incorrect, yet common portrayal of a knight as a romantic figure is attacked by Calvino through the encounter of Agilulf with Priscilla.
During a night that Agilulf spent with Priscilla, he managed to romantically seduce her in a way that no human has been able to. He simply states to her that ‘the most sublime of sexual emotions is embracing a warrior in full armor’, as opposed to an exposed person. 10 Although one may excuse Priscilla’s adulation of Agilulf as an effect of his behavioral characteristics rather than the armor that he is composed of, Priscilla perspicuously admits her affection for Agilulf’s physical appearance.
Calvino describes how Priscilla’s ‘eyes shut in ecstasy’ upon the thought of having a completely armed and equipped knight lying in her bed. 11 By specifying the passion that Priscilla experiences as a byproduct of Agilulf’s suit of armor rather than what lies beneath the armor, Calvino is attacking the bloated view of a knight as a passionate and romantic character in two ways. Firstly, Priscilla’s adulation of Agilulf is focused on his suit of armor, and ignores his lack of a body- this in itself is ridiculous, and serves to symbolize the great reliance of knights on suits of armor for their romantic reputation.
Yet, Priscilla’s affair with Agilulf also has the secondary effect of signifying the mundane appearance of knights without their armor, as Priscilla enjoyed Agilulf’s company most out of all knights, despite his deprivation of a body. The imperfections of generic knights are thus exposed by the affair. Bradamante’s deep-seated attraction to Agilulf further exemplifies the way knights are excessively praised as romantic figures. Despite the affection she receives from Raimbaud and other such knights, she prefers Agilulf due to his rigidity.
She perceives the other knights to be mere humans coated in attractive armor, which in fact is a more realistic view of knights. In Bradamante’s case, Calvino directly criticizes the common depiction of a knight as a romantic figure, rather than by utilizing subtle allusions. In conclusion, I can assert that suits of armor are used by Calvino to emphasize the fact that knights are, despite contrasting appearances, humans who are fragile and imperfect.
The use of Agilulf, as a suit of armor which lacks a human body is in this way used to distinctly mark the difference between a person who wears a suit of armor and one who doesn’t. Suits of armor worn by all knights in general, as well as armor worn by Raimbaud’s horse, further highlight the disparity between the popular depiction of a knight, and their more realistic appearance and capabilities. Hence, Calvino successfully satirizes the overly vainglorious depiction of medieval knights, and additionally manages to accomplish this in an idiosyncratic manner that deserves literary credence.