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1959 - The Nonexistent Knight

1959. Iconic movies. The Nun’s Story. Italo Calvino writes The Nonexistent Knight.

“Apart from religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hanging, invasion, sacking, rape and pestilence, we had no experience. What can a poor nun know of the world?” (Italo Calvino, The Nonexistent Knight)

On January 29, Walt Disney releases Sleeping Beauty, his 16th full length animated film, and last adaptation of a fairy tale. It is one of many iconic movies that comes out this year:

There is a lot to say about these movies. Ben Hur has an epic film and an epic set – over 200 camels and 2,500 horses are used in the shooting of the film, and there are roughly 10,000 extras. It also has an epic star in Charlton Heston who gets to show off his skill as a Jewish prince, a galley slave and chariot racer.

Some like it hot, is probably the greatest comedy of all times, and shows, yet again, that Marilyn Monroe can seduce pretty much anyone no matter what she’s not wearing. It’s also groundbreaking in that it features two men in drag competing for her attention. Her ukulele scenes are a must watch!

My current favorite, though, is The Nun’s Story starring Audrey Hepburn as Gabriel Van Der Mal, a young Belgian woman who decides to enter a convent and become a nun, Sister Luke. The movie is a faithful adaptation of a book with the same name written by Kathryn Hulme.

An immense amount of research was put into this movie. The screenplay was sent to Rome for review. To prepare for the role, Hepburne met with both Hulme and Mary Louise Habets, the inspiration for the book and film. The three of them spent a lot of time together and became known as “the 3-H club.” Their friendship will last long after the movie is released.

This research more than pays off as we get to see some very detailed scenes of Sister Luke’s training as a nun. These scenes manages to faithfully convey the sacrifices required, and why this path is not for everyone. The clergy in this movie are very much human beings. They have put their faith before themselves and the world; but it is a faith that requires them to help and heal others. It is a very fine line, and the movie walks it excellently.

Sister Luke is an intelligent, dedicated woman. All she wants to do is to help others while being true to herself, to her sisters and to God. She is the complete opposite of Sister Theodora, the nun who narrates Italo Calvino’s satirical novel, The Nonexistent Knight.

“These interpreters, by tacit agreement, on both sides, were not to be killed.” (Italo Calvino, The Nonexistent Knight)

Italo Calvino (1923 – 1985) was an Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels who was greatly admired in Britain, Australia and the United States.

Calvino was one of those people who was born to be a reader. His father was a tropical agronomist and botanist who also taught agriculture and floriculture. His mother was a botanist and university professor. Growing things and science was the family business. Calvino, though, preferred to read books.

After high school, he enrolled in the University of Turin, and studied agronomy to please his family. This was the period of World War II, and that pretty much disrupted everything. Calvino refused military service, and at his mother’s encouraging, entered the Italian resistance. He fought in the Italian Alps for twenty months until May 8, 1945 – V-E day, and then he started writing.

Initially, he wrote short stories in his spare time, while completing his Master’s Thesis on Joseph Conrad. From there, he graduated to writing full length novels, starting with The Path to The Nest of Spiders (1947), and then three more realist novels, which Calvino considered to be defective. This lead to a journey of self-discovery, which culminated in the realization that instead of writing the books he felt he should be writing, he should write the books he wanted to read: “the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic”.

This realization lead Calvino to fabulism, a mixture of the fantasy and fable genres. In 1951, at age 28, he wrote The Cloven Viscount, what became the first volume in his Our Ancestors trilogy. The novel tells the story of an Italian nobleman who is split into two people by a cannon shot – the good and bad sides of his personality.

In 1957, The Soviet Union invaded Hungary, and Calvino became disillusioned with politics and ideologies. This inspired him to write the second volume in his trilogy, The Baron in The Trees. The book is an allegorical fantasy and tells the story of a boy who climbs a tree with the intention of never coming down. The final volume in this trilogy, is the novella, The Nonexistent Knight.

“‘And how do you do your job, then, if you don’t exist?’ ‘By will power’, said Agilulf, ‘and faith in our holy cause!’” (Italo Calvino, The Nonexistent Knight)

The novella is a satirical fantasy story in which Calvino sets out and succeeds in shattering pretty much any and every romantic notion the reader may have had about war. The two World Wars, the Cold war, the Korean war, countless civil wars and Soviet invasions should have already gotten this point across, but Calvino wasn’t willing to take the risk.

The story is about Agilulf, a holy Paladin, serving in Charlemagne’s army, fighting the holy fight against the infidels. Agilulf, doesn’t exist. He’s an empty suit of armor who exists through willpower and faith. There is no need for a mortal body to kill non-believers. For Agilulf, the body is an unnecessary distraction that requires food, sleep, and social skills. As a suit of armor, the paladin can focus all his attention on what is truly important – army regulations.

Agilulf has memorized every letter of every rule written for conducting wars and he can, and often does recite them verbatim to whoever doesn’t ask for the information. He can tell you how to file a request with the Superintendency of Duels, Feuds and Besmirched Honor, instruct knightly aspirants on the best way to inspect kitchens, and unintentionally seduce women by making their bed.

The narrator of Agilulf’s story is Sister Theodora, a nun who is introduced in chapter 4. Her penance is to write stories, and she does this through occasional research, gossip, and a very active imagination, which is the only way you can tell the story of someone who doesn’t exist.

“One can never be sure of saving one’s soul by writing.” (Italo Calvino, The Nonexistent Knight)

I enjoyed this book a lot. It makes fun of pretty much everything, and shatters most of the popular tropes.

Some examples:

  • The fool is actually insane. It doesn’t stop him from delivering profound advice, such as: “All is soup!”

  • A young man joins the army to avenge his father. Bureaucrats try and get him to settle for three majors or four captains.

  • A young woman joins the army as a knight. She can outfight all her male counterparts. However she is a slob, and is passionately in love with Agilulf because he doesn’t exist.

  • Forbidden love is resolved through a very convoluted set of circumstances leading to a pretty disturbing happily ever after.

And I can go on. I would not be surprised to discover that Calvino was one of Terry Pratchett’s sources of inspiration (although, I have no actual idea). This story reveals a level of genius very rarely encountered outside of insane asylums. The novel is a stand-alone story so you don’t need to read the other books first. Regardless, I plan on seeking them out, but first I’ve got some movies that need rewatching.

#thejourneycontinues. ***** P.S. We've finished a decade! Next week, I'll be writing a Welcome to the Sixties post in which I introduce the decade and how it influenced the development of science fiction and fantasy.

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