The Baron In the Trees

Cosimo, a young Italian nobleman of the 18th century, rebels against parental authority by climbing into the trees and remaining there for the rest of his life. He adapts efficiently to an arboreal existence—hunts, sows crops, plays games with earth-bound friends, fights forest fires, solves engineering problems, and even manages to have love affairs. From his perch in the trees, Cosimo sees the age of Voltaire pass by and a new century dawn.

That’s what is says on the back cover of the Harvest edition of Italo Calvino’s, The Baron in the Trees. I have only started reading and the imaginative fantasy has me captivated. Cosimo takes for the trees early on so the adventure has already begun.

We mentioned Calvino in an earlier post. As a member of OULIPO, he was certainly surrounded by more experimental approaches to the novel. Several works by Calvino follow a structural approach to the narrative and others are more like very imaginative retellings of famous old fantasy stories which Calvino made up himself. A delightful adjunct to his personal folklore is his collection titled Italian Folktales (not to be missed).

Other titles by Calvino include:

  • Il sentiero dei nidi di rag no (The Path to the Nest of Spiders)
  • Il visconte dimezzato (The Cloven Viscount)
  • La formica argentina (The Argentine Ant)
  • Fiabe Italiane (Italian Folktales)
  • Il baron rampant (The Baron in the Trees)
  • La speculazione edilizia (A Plunge into Real Estate)
  • l cavaliere inesistente (The Nonexistent Knight)
  • La giornata d’uno scrutatore (The Watcher)
  • Marcovaldo ovvero le stagioni in città (Marcovaldo or the Seasons in the City)
  • La nuvola di smog (Smog)
  • Le cosmicomiche (Cosmicomics)
  • Ti con zero (t zero)
  • Il castello dei destini incrociati (The Castle of Crossed Destinies)
  • Gli amori difficili (Difficult Loves)
  • Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities)
  • Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a winter’s night a traveler)
  • Palomar (Mr. Palomar)

It got me through grad school, but now my Italian is mostly non-existent. You, however, might want to read these works in the original Italian. Pour the wine and go for it!

The Nonexistent Knight

For such a short work this Italo Calvino novella is rather rich in themes which can result in great discussions.

First, the entire tale is being written by a cloistered nun as an act of penance, ostensibly being translated from a very obscure old work. The narrative structure starts each chapter with the thoughts of the nun about the suitability of her writing about courtly love, or knights in armor, or violent battles and gory corpses. Along the way the nun has plenty of opportunity to make comments on the construction of fiction, sort of a writer’s manual.

But the story is about a nonexistent knight, a paladin in liege to Charlemagne who wears immaculate white armor but never takes it off because there’s actually no one inside the armor. Agilulf, the nonexistent knight, is identified with the best parts of being a knight—piety, faithfulness, chivalry. Since this novella has been interpreted as a satire on modern life, does that make Aigilulf the corporate man, the loyal worker, or maybe robo-cop?

The quest, which is required in this type of literature, is to find the daughter of the Scottish King and prove or disprove her virginity, which will then suggest the birthrights of a knight or two. In several complex suppositions, one knight is deemed to have the entire Knights of the Holy Grail as his father. But when he gets to a village in the north of France, he finds that the villagers have nothing and they explain that the Knights in the forest (later identified as the Holy Grail knights) regularly come to town and take the food and other provisions for themselves.

When the Knights of the Holy Grail again descend on the village, they are told there is nothing for them, so the Knights attack the villagers and Torrismund (the questing knight) bands with the villagers, commands the defense, and defeats the Knights. Sounds a lot like The Magnificent Seven (or The Seven Samurai) right? What we learn is that the Knights are so focused on the Holy Grail they will do anything to maintain that focus:  illegally take provisions, leave peasants to starve, attack weaponless peasants with swords and lances, burn down villages, etc. I can think of two analogues for this story:  the first is the spread of Christianity which often saved the soul of a non-believers by burning them at the stake; the other is more contemporary and political, not religious. Can you think of a political entity that will steal from the common people to make the rich richer, who will subvert the common good claiming it is bad to help those who need help, who would rather see people suffer and die if it is in line with their ideology, and who prefer a bald-faced lie to the truth if it is not in accordance with their ideology? Is an unwavering focus on an ideology one of the things Calvino is warning against in his tale of the Knights of the Holy Grail?

Calvino died in 1985, right in the middle of the Reagan revolution that kicked off the rapid decline of the United States. Was Calvino prescient?