Sunday, July 19, 2009

Latin Root Word Origins of Italo Calvino's The Nonexistent Knight

Welcome back fans of Latin roots as they relate to English vocabulary words, and great talks about life-changing books, with a focus on great literature! In this series that I'm offering, I am expounding upon books that have made an impression upon myself and many other readers, and the Latin root words inherent in their English titles. Let's look today at the great Italian writer Italo Calvino's book The Nonexistent Knight, which, next to Don Quixote, is one of the funniest books I've ever read, and most certainly one of the strangest.

The word nonexistent comes from the Latin verb existere: to come forth, be, come into being, a compound verb of the Latin verb sistere, stand firm, stand still, both of which are the source of the following SAT vocabulary words:

consistent: If one exhibits consistent excellence, one etymologically ‘thoroughly stands firm’ in that laudable behavior.

subsist: When one "subsists" on the bare minimum, she "stands firm under" a small amount of sustenance. Note the Latin prefix sub, which I chatted about in my last blog entry which discussed the word origins of Crime and Punishment. "Subsistent" is the related adjective.

irresistible: Etymologically "not capable of standing back," that is, something that one must have, and cannot "stand firm" against.

desist: As in "stand firm from," as in stopping oneself from doing something, from the common phrase "cease and desist."

coexist: When people can "coexist," they can live together peacefully, from the Latin prefix cum with, together, thoroughly, the spelling of which gives us the following SAT word list: coagulate, coerce, cohesive, cohort, coherent, coalesce, etc. For more English vocabulary words that come from this prolific Latin prefix, check out, a site where you can find the most comprehensive Latin roots dictionary of English vocabulary words available today.

consist: When something "consists" of a particular ingredient, like dark chocolate for instance (eat dark chocolate, my friends; not only does it taste great, but it's very good for you...try cacao content of at least 70% or above; Green and Black's makes an excellent organic variety!), it "thoroughly stands firm" in it. Note the Latin prefix "con," which is yet another spelling permutation of the Latin preposition, cum, giving us the following SAT vocabulary word list: concord, congregate, conglomeration, concomitant, contemptuous, etc. etc.: for more, check out where you can find the most extensive list of SAT vocabulary available.

Now, on to iItalo Calvino's rather unusual work, The Nonexistent Knight.

Agilulf is a knight who owns a beautiful white set of armor, with an iridescent plume, but does not exist; i.e., there is just a suit of armor walking around. Nevertheless, Agilulf does talk, think, fight, and strictly follow the code of chivalry of the paladins (douzepers) of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, to the great annoyance of all the other knights, who, once off the field of silliness called war (where, in a great comic scene, translators rush about from Infidel to Christian, making sure that insults are properly understood), are quite slovenly and lackadaisical. Despite the fact that Agilulf doesn’t exist, Bradamante, a knight with a periwinkle robe and superior puissance, who is also a woman because she was attracted by the ideals of knighthood, falls madly in love with him; she has become bored with the battle/bedding routine every night, and disillusioned by the glaring imperfection of all the existing knights. The narrator, a nun in a convent who is writing the story about Agilulf as a penance and as a path to perfection, says that Agilulf apparently came to life from sheer willpower on his part, or perhaps as the crystallization of the wills of all those people who exist who will themselves not to, i.e., spend meaningless lives of no renown whatsoever, and therefore melt away into nonexistence (a veiled allusion, perhaps, to the yogic notion of putting a carapace, or armor, over one's true self, and always and never not revealing the false self as a protective mechanism); Agilulf is therefore the decoction, as it were, of all the nebulousness of squandered wills and unlived lives. He does yearn to have a body, and does things, such as dine, even though he eats nothing; at one of Charlemagne’s great feasts, he spends hours upon hours cutting up his food and transferring it from dish to dish, all the while carrying on with captious remarks as the other paladins attempt to recount their glorious exploits in war (and failing utterly as Agilulf is there to remind them of what really happened, a glorious and highly comic scene). At one such banquet, his right to bear arms is questioned, as one squire named Torrismund indicates that indeed the woman Agilulf rescued from defilement was actually not a virgin, but his mother! Agilulf is incensed, and goes on a quest to find Sophronia, the woman he saved; Raimbaut, an enterprising young idealist who has joined the Frankish army, follows as well, as he is madly in love with Bradamante, who had already left to follow her beloved but nevertheless nonexistent Agilulf. Torrismund goes to find his father, the order of the Knights of the Grail, who are his “collective father;” i.e., one day Sophronia was out in the woods, came upon the knights, and came back pregnant. Agilulf clears his name, although when he returns a misunderstanding is bruited that is immediately cleared up, although not before Agilulf flees into the woods; later, after a knight has found him (Raimbaut), all that is left is his armor, so Raimbaut dons it, sees Bradamante, who thinks it is Agilulf returning at long last to her, and she gives herself to him, with her eyes closed, muttering all the time that she knew love was possible between them (even thought Agilulf is nonexistent); post coition, she opens her eyes, sees that her lover is really Raimbaut, and screams, telling him to leave at once. Agilulf is never seen again, although his squire, Gurduloo, whom everyone in the world seems to know of, except by different names, searches for him for evermore, looking in any container—the last scene of this was Gurduloo looking into an empty bottle, calling out Agilulf’s name. The nun, who has given us interesting anecdotes about her convent, is revealed at the end as Bradamante! Who, when she hears a horse’s hooves clattering upon the flagstones of the convent, looks out the window and sees her very own Raimbaut coming for her, and she gladly runs off to be with him once more (a rather startling turn of events, especially considering her former highly negative reaction to Raimbaut).
To only parade about in one's false self, and not even knowing what one's true self is, is more nonexistent than Agilulf himself,who seems much more real than most of the existent knights. If indeed one does but follow rules that society sets upon one, one indeed does not exist, but is merely a formulation of a code of societal conduct. 
     A fine edition of The Nonexistent Knight,which also includes The Cloven Viscount, is listed below. 

Fascinated with English vocabulary words? Want to pick them apart into their constituent Greek and Latin roots? Want to know even more words that come from the Latin root words
existere and sistere, and most especially the prolific prefix cum? Studying hard for the SAT or GRE verbal section, and just can't get a handle on all of those vocabulary words? Check out, where you will find the most comprehensive Greek and Latin roots dictionary available today, and also the most's in full color, and artistically designed. There's even a Greek and Latin roots poster available, which nicely illustrates the full power of what Greek and Latin root words can do for you.