Remembering Knulp


Have you ever heard of Knulp?  Today, I am remembering him.  Actually, Knulp is not a real person.  He is a fictional character and the protagonist in Hermann Hesse’s book of the same title.  As vivid as Hermann Hesse had him come to life in his pages, he might as well be real.  Knulp is a treasure of a book.  It is one of Hermann Hesse’s less known works.

I read Knulp many years ago and was mesmerized.  Only then, I did not know specifically why it made such an impression on me.  I was too young to be able to point out the profundity in it.  Knulp is one of those rare, unforgettable stories.  It will stay with you and have you ponder.  Recently, I picked up my old, yellowed copy again and read it once more.  It was eye-opening. There was the answer!  Now I know why this story stuck with me all these years.  If you don’t know Knulp, I will have to tell you about him.

Most people would probably consider Knulp a vagabond or drifter.  I liken him to a wandering Taoist.  He has no permanent shelter or possessions to call his own.  The country roads are his home.  This is not out of misfortune, but rather out of choice.  Knulp may not be rich in terms of material things, but he is extremely intelligent, very resourceful, has a broad knowledge of things, and more wisdom to offer than the average person.  He learned about life from direct experience and keen observation.  Today, we would call him a mindful person.  Like a migrant bird, he is in tune with nature and wanders to the places that are the most agreeable for the time of the year.  Usually, he has no problem finding comfortable accommodations for the night.

One might think that Knulp is a loner, but that is not so.  He has an abundance of friends in many places all over the country.  Most of his friends are hard-working, accomplished family men with longstanding careers and plenty of material comforts.  Why is it then that they feel honored to put up this vagabond for as long as he likes whenever he drops in on them unexpectedly?  Why do they feed him, bathe him, mend his tattered clothes, and nurse him back to health when he is sick, without ever charging even as much as a penny in return?

Knulp has something they don’t: he has no attachments.  Enmeshed in the myriad responsibilities of family and work, they secretly yearn for a life like Knulp’s and admire him.   But deep down inside they know they don’t have the courage to even think about a life severed of all attachments.  So his friends complain about the burden of their responsibilities and duties, knowing that Knulp is a good, loving, and compassionate listener.  When they vent their frustrations, they know that they can count on his full, undivided attention.  Moreover, Knulp always has just the right response to offer, one that gives them new encouragement to go on in life and feel grateful for what they have.  He tells them that his vagabond life is not as glamorous as they may think.  It also has its pitfalls.  He, too, is mortal and his own suffering is no less.

Knulp is a man of integrity.  He is steadfast in his moral principles, but he is not a moralist.  His friends respect him for that.  They know that they can trust him.  Although, sometimes they may ask him why he does not just settle down, they accept him as he is.  In fact, they admit that Knulp wouldn’t be the person that is so dear to them if he tried to conform and live a ‘proper’ life like theirs.

His presence warms any room he enters and any heart he touches.  People feel at ease around him.  They open up to him.  Knulp is humble and modest.  A friend of mine once gave me her business card.  Upon closer inspection, I noticed her ‘job title’.  It read in German ‘Lebenskuenstler’ or ‘master in the art of living’.  There is no better title to attribute to Knulp.  That is not to say that his life is free from pain.  Masters are only human, too, and pain and suffering are part of the human condition.

At the end of the story, Knulp’s fatal illness is taking a turn for the worse.  Knulp knows his end is near and chooses to face death alone near the place where he was raised.  It is important for him to reconcile with God his life and the reason for the course it had taken.  (Or is he actually reconciling it with himself?)  He has doubts that perhaps he wasted his life with his endless wandering and wants to know if it may have all been in vain.  After some questions and exchanges, he comes to realize that, despite of his doubts and regrets, everything was exactly as it was meant to be, and he finds solace in that and peace at last.

There is so much to be learned from this story.  It would seem that ideally we want to be the family man, but never let go of our Knulp nature.  We don’t want to get entangled in our responsibilities and work to the point where we stop walking on our way in life and leave all the other things we are meant to do unaccomplished.  There is no need to entirely sacrifice one for the other.

Knulp certainly shows us how to be true to oneself and kind, loving, and compassionate to others.  His listening skills teach us the value in giving someone one’s undivided attention.  Often, that’s all people need to resolve things with themselves and to find the courage and gratitude to go on.  Above all, Knulp reminds us to find happiness and satisfaction in the basic things in life, such as beautiful nature, our feet that take us wherever we desire to go, the company of the people we love, meaningful conversations, opportunities to always observe, learn and do new things, good food, and a comfortable shelter.  And putting a smile on someone else’s face is bound to make our own heart smile every time.

Don’t most of us already have everything we need to be happy?

(This review can also be found on