Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (trans. Barbara Reynolds)

My silence for the last few weeks may be attributed to my heroic efforts to get through both volumes of the Orlando Furioso. And here is the fruit of my labours!

Written over twenty-seven years, roughly 1300 pages long in my Penguin Classics edition, and full of non-stop adventure, the
Orlando Furioso is, with Dante's Divine Comedy and Machiavelli's The Prince, one of the defining texts of the Italian Renaissance. Almost unheard-of these days, the Orlando Furioso was once famous world-wide. It had a great impact on both Renaissance humanist and Reformation Christian literature, and it did not truly fade into obscurity until the late 1800s.
Popular scholars like the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams and others) and Dorothy Sayers preferred to focus on the Divine Comedy or Spenser's Faerie Queene, with good reason. Both Spenser and Dante arrange their works in praise of God; Ariosto arranges his work solely in praise of his patron, Cardinal Ippolito of the House of Este. To Spenser and Dante, widely as they differ, love is above all else sacred in the context of God; to Ariosto, it is sacred mainly in the context of lust. In Spenser and Dante, one senses unplumbed philosophical depths; in Ariosto, one splashes easily through the shallows.
So the Orlando Furioso has been overlooked. Yet for several centuries it had an enormous effect upon the world's literature. Sir Walter Scott was a fan, and in Rob Roy he has the hero attempt a translation. But by far the most obvious effect the story has had is on Edmund Spenser. In writing The Faerie Queene, Spenser intended to provide the English and Puritan answer to the Italian humanist Ariosto. This is obvious in the similar settings and adventures shared by the similar heroes—for one example, while Ariosto's lady-knight-heroine is named Bradamante, Spenser's is named Britomart.
The great books of the world have always been engaged in conversation; a conversation that has lasted for millenia. And The Orlando Furioso is a fascinating, though forgotten, part of that conversation.
I first discovered the poem when reading Bulfinch's Mythology, which is still the authoritative work on the legends of Western Civilisation. “The Legends of Charlemagne,” the last division in the book, includes Bulfinch's retelling of two great Italian poems: the Orlando Inammorato by Boiardo and the Orlando Furioso by Ariosto.
The shorter Orlando Inammorato tells how Angelica, the supernaturally beautiful daughter of the king of Cathay, came to France; and how King Agramante, the Saracen king, made war on King Charlemagne to avenge the death of his father. Like the British King Arthur, Charlemagne had gathered about him a society of knights called paladins, and the greatest of these, Orlando (or Roland), falls in love with Angelica and follows her around the world.

At the point where the Orlando Inammorato ends and the Orlando Furioso begins, King Agramant and the Muslim army are advancing to besiege Paris. Meanwhile, most of Charlemagne's paladins and many of the Muslim knights are off having adventures of their own. There's a huge cast of characters to keep track of, but hopefully this will give you an idea of the most important:
Charlemagne, in Paris, is being beseiged by Agramante. Things look black for Christian Europe!
Orlando, Charlemagne's greatest knight, is seeking the lovely Angelica high and low, tortured with jealousy, for she spurns him. Hint: the title means Orlando Goes Mad. Will he recover in time to rejoin Charlemagne and rescue Paris from the pagans' grip?
Angelica, the proud and haughty daughter of the King of Cathay, is so beautiful that all the unattached men she meets fall in love, or lust, with her on sight. None of them are good enough for her...until she meets—well, you'll have to read it to find out.
Ruggiero, the main character of the poem, was born a Christian, but was stolen in infancy by an enchanter. The greatest Muslim warrior, he falls in love with the lady Bradamante and is destined to father the House of Este.
Bradamante is a valiant lady knight, one of Charlemagne's greatest warriors. As good as she is beautiful, she loves and wants to marry Ruggiero. But war, honour, and misunderstandings avert the happy ending...for thirteen hundred pages.
Rinaldo, another of Charlemagne's paladins and Bradamante's brother, drank a love-potion by mistake and is now also crazy about Angelica. Charlemagne, however, sends him off to Scotland to raise troops.
Zerbino, the Prince of Scotland, faithfully loves Isabella, a Moorish princess. They're among the nicest characters of the poem, but don't get too attached to them.
Rodomonte, the king of Algiers, is one of the greatest Muslim warriors and a ruthless killer.
Marfisa, Ruggiero's long-lost twin sister, is a lady knight on the Muslim side. She loves killing things.
Astolpho is another of the paladins, and a Prince of England. Initially not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he ends up saving the day.
And many, many more...
Humanism, Love, and Chivalry in the Orlando Furioso
Today we live in a world where humanism is starkly divided from Christianity. Humanism now attacks Christendom on all sides, and has even infiltrated much of the Church. However back in Ariosto's day, in Renaissance Italy, humanism had not yet found a way to exist without God.
Today we understand how radically opposed Christendom and humanism are. It comes as a schock to the system to revist Renaissance Italy, where God may be sovereign in one stanza; and man in the next.
The writer clearly believes in some idea of God, even an orthodox, predestinating God. But this God is not omnipresent enough to affect the characters' behaviour. The strongest impulse in the poem is not a desire to serve God, but Love: God comes second to human ties and human lusts.
Meanwhile, for the knights on both sides, knighthood means the accumulation of as much glory as possible; not self-sacrificial service.
One of the most moralistic passages in the poem occurs early on, when Ruggiero is captured and seduced by the sorceress Alcina. He is rescued from her and escapes to the chaste and temperate Logistilla, who teaches him to guide his appetites in the allegorical shape of the hippogriff which brought him to Alcina's country. On the face of it, this episode shows the hero being captured by sin, which, powerless to resist, he must be rescued from before Logistilla can teach him self-control. But several things underlie, this tale, rendering it ineffective:
First, Ruggiero's lust for Alcina is the product of enchantment. He is absolved of fault.
Second, Alcina's influence is bad not because it causes him to sin but because it keeps him from earning knightly fame. Glory, not virtue, is the highest good.
Third, even after receiving Logistilla's teaching, Ruggiero almost immediately trips up again when he meets Angelica, again with the excuse that desire has bereft him of his senses. It's true that once Ruggiero is converted and taught by a hermit, he remains faithful to his fiancee Bradamante, but that occurs right at the end of the story: he doesn't have the time to err again!
Meanwhile, the other characters fulminate on the need to win glory and a woman's duty not to turn away someone who really, really badly wants to sleep with her (see Canto IV, 63; and Canto XXXIV, 11, where the souls Astolpho meets in Hell are those of women who have not entertained their lovers!). Again and again, Ariosto excuses some frankly terrible behaviour on the excuse that Love (read: human lust) is sovereign...and though God seems to prefer chastity, He doesn't get too upset about immorality. When Ruggiero falls into Alcina's clutches, it forms only a brief wayside adventure. By contrast in Spenser's Faerie Queene, when Redcrosse likewise falls victim to Duessa, it nearly kills him and it endangers his the very success of his quest.
Although the Orlando Furioso is intended to praise love and chivalry, too often it praises self-gratification and self-glory instead. The substitution makes the good bits ring false; everything becomes trivial. It's hard to feel really concerned about a story that's 1300 pages long and half an inch thick!
1300 Pages Spent In The Mind of An Italian Courtier and What I Found There
Alright, so the Orlando Furioso wasn't all bad. It's exciting and interesting, despite the number of times the story grinds to a halt so that Ariosto can sing the praises of his patron and family, including, believe it or not, Lucrezia Borgia, the famous murderess and intriguer, who according to Ariosto was a chaste and beautiful paragon of virtue! --And for all Ariosto's praise of his patron, Cardinal Ippolito, for all the vows that Ippolito's name shall be known forever, I've never heard of the guy outside Ariosto. He should have hired more poets!
And in fact, according to the family tree provided in the footnotes, the House of Este has not lived forever—the last legitimate heir was that same unhappy Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination sparked the Great War!
All rather interesting, but where was I? Yes—the story is fairly exciting, and the characters grow on you. I said above that the story is so shallow it's hard to care about the characters, but the last three cantos of all provide a genuinely emotional climax, with Ruggiero torn between his love for Bradamante and the debt of honour he owes the man who saved his life. Here, at last, the story rings true.
One interesting theme of the poem is the theme of Christendom versus Islam. Within the story itself, there seems little to choose between Christians and Muslims—both have their villains and their heroes. However, Ariosto also includes some asides to the reader—take this, about the churches of the Holy Land, for instance:
In all the churches, which the Turks of late,
To our eternal shame and contumely,
With their usurping presence desecrate,
While Europe blazes, everywhere at war,
Except where Christian arms most needed are.--Canto XV, 99.
Later on Ariosto spends some time enlarging on this theme:
If 'the most Christian' rulers you would be,
And 'Catholic' desire to be reputed,
Why do you slay Christ's men? Their property
Why have you sacked, and their belongings looted?
Why do you leave in dire captivity
Jerusalem, by infidels polluted?
Why do you let the unclean Turk command
Constantinople and the Holy Land?”--Canto XVII, 75.
A fascinating look into the mindset that produced the Crusades.
Marfisa is a rather interesting character. While Bradamante, the other lady knight, swerves between capable action girl and sobbing emotional mess, Marfisa is a feminist dream come true. She doesn't pair up with anyone throughout the poem, and she is comically battle-fain. “If it moves, I can kill it,” is her motto, and her reply to a knight who declares his intention of killing her companions and taking her as his lady could have been lifted right out of a modern book:
Raising a haughty face, Marfisa said,
'The premisses of your remarks are wrong.
Right would be on your side, I will concede,
And you could justly claim me, if among
These cavaliers, who on the ground lie spread,
Were one who is my lord; but I belong
To no one but myself; and so you see,
Who wants me must do battle first with me.'
In fact she would be a rather dull character, if it wasn't for her pairing up with the more emotional Bradamante. In between cutting armies to shreds, Bradamante goes into a fit of hysterics over whether Ruggiero (Marfisa's brother) might be playing her false:
Marfisa shrugs; what little she can say
To comfort her, she says; she has no doubt
Ruggiero will return to her straightway
And claim her as his bride; if he does not,
Marfisa will not let him get away
(She gives her solemn word) with such a blot
On his escutcheon (which is hers as well):
Fulfilment of his vows she will compel.

I find the mental image of Marfisa propelling Ruggiero to the altar with a sword in his ribs rather amusing.
While the Orlando Furioso is fairly light and uncomplicated for a medieval epic, it's not for everyone, punctuated as it is with some fairly bawdy episodes. I was surprised to find these, since the Bulfinch retelling contains nothing to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty. The original contains plenty.
At thirteen hundred pages long, half an inch deep, and somewhat dirty, I don't recommend dipping into the Orlando Furioso if you just want to know the outline of the story. After all, we've got Bulfinch for that. But if you're interested in Italian Renaissance literature or the great conversation of classics, the Orlando Furioso is an important work.

Project Gutenberg etext of English translation by William Stewart Rose.

4 comments:

CStanford said...

I just found this blog, and I've been reading Guido Waldman's prose translation of the Furioso for the past month - about four cantos from the end now.

Gutenberg does have William Stewart Rose's English translation, but I prefer to read foreign poetry in prose translations, and have been enjoying Waldman's immensely (skipping over the bits about the house of Este).

Suzannah said...

Thank you for the heads-up--when I posted this review the Gutenberg site wasn't working for me, so I had to guess! All fixed now. Enjoy the rest of the 'Furioso'!

orinococds said...

Thanks for the precis. I came to this via Russell Hoban's adaptation of the Angelica storyline for a recent novel, and also an opera composed by Vivaldi. So the influences are all around.

Anonymous said...

The title does not mean "Orlando Goes Mad."

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