David Johnston's 1973 Ballantine Books cover for Orlando furioso
- not the version I read.
A gently sinuous line, superimposed like the orbit of a satellite over a map[i] of the continents, traces the travels of Ruggiero, a courageous knight errant, who, a millennium before the first manned spacecraft, rides astride the back of a flying hippogryph, a winged half-lion, half-horse, to survey the world from Spain to China, from Japan to Paris. This voyage is but one of the many delightful surprises in Ludovico Ariosto’s 16th century poem, Orlando furioso, and its deliberate internationalism but one remarkably modern element in Ariosto’s lightly satirical world of starkly bold, memorable characters; codes of courtesy and dignity; rich inventiveness; and philosophical musings on aspects of love. Across the entirety of its 39,000 lines, Ariosto’s work is unflaggingly fresh, good-hearted, and supremely entertaining.
The sheer ambitiousness of the poem - Voltaire referred to it as “The Iliad, The Odyssey and Don Quixote all rolled into one” - creates an immense panorama of the 9th century world in which Ariosto situates most of the action. At the historical heart of Orlando furioso is the battle to defend Charlemagne’s Christendom against the onslaught of Moors and Saracens, with depictions of key confrontations including the siege of Paris and the decisive battle at Poitiers. The poem ranges widely geographically and even, beyond Ruggiero’s stratospheric travels, to the moon. Ariosto also cuts broadly across cultures, amplifying and playing with hand-me-down versions of Anglo-Saxon, French and Italian romances and an enormous cast of historical and mythological figures from Greek gods to African kings, from Tristan and Iseult to the Arthurian legends, from the Icelandic sagas to Marco Polo’s travels. A glossary of locations and characters in the Oxford Press edition I read runs to nearly 60 pages. Christians from all corners of Europe, Saracens and Moors from North Africa and the Middle East, Indians, Nubians, Ethiopians, central Asians, Circassians, Nordic and Chinese princesses (Orlando’s great love, Angelica, hails from Cathay) - all come together here. Tales of courtly love, knightly challenges, and fierce battles of a frequently gruesome realism entwine with acts of magic, supernatural feats, enchanted castles and hideous sea serpents, and deliriously imaginative inventions. In addition to the lightening-fast flying hippogryph, there’s a cornucopia of magical arms, adornments and devices: a shield so brilliant that it temporarily blinds any who look at it; a horn that produces such a terrifying sound that even the bravest knights flee in terror; books of spells; a ring that deflects any and all magic; a castle that causes all who enter to perceive illusions.
The narrative centers on a primary cast of heroes and heroines joined by love and/or blood: Orlando, Ruggiero, Rinaldo, Marfisa, Bradamant, Astolfo. Though the title implies Orlando’s centrality, he’s absent for much of the book, although his frenzy, the “furioso” of the title, indeed occupies its heart. Bereft of his senses due to complications of unrequited love, Orlando roams the world stark naked and filthy, attacking people at random and “lost to himself.” Fortunately for the fate of the western world, his friend Astolfo journeys to the moon, where all things lost on earth are to be found in a dizzying diversity of new guises, including an enormous mountain of liquid brains contained in vials. Here Astolfo locates Orlando’s lost wits (in a vial conveniently labeled “The wits of Orlando”), and returns them to Earth, but not before remarking the stupefying number of vials of partial wits, including some of his own, and more surprising, those of others on earth whom Astolfo mistakenly “had credited with having all their wits about them.”
The narrative style of Orlando furioso is both linear and divergent. After opening each of the poem’s 46 cantos with a philosophical reflection, usually on love, the narrator weaves together disparate narrative threads, periodically stopping mid-action to pick up another strand or apologize for a digression, always concluding each canto with a teaser that politely asks the reader to stick around for the next episode, and even, in one instance, suggesting that readers “skip this canto: it is not essential – my story is no less clear without it.” One almost wishes that all narrators could be so considerate. Despite the spacious immensity of the work and its nearly innumerable characters, Orlando furioso retains an intimacy thanks to this graciousness and amiability of its narrator (qualities shared by the narrator of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed some three centuries later). This thoughtfulness extends to the narrator’s acknowledging within the poem its many sources, particularly the historian Turpin, and occasionally admitting of and apologizing for lack of more precise knowledge of the events being reconstructed, a degree of humility refreshingly conveyed in the narrator’s aim:
He who travels far afield beholds things which lie beyond the bounds of belief; and when he returns to tell of them, he is not believed, but is dismissed as a liar, for the ignorant throng will refuse to accept his word, but needs must see with their own eyes, touch with their owns hands. This being so, I realize that my words will gain scant credence where they outstrip the experience of my hearers./Still, whatever degree of reliance is placed on my word, I shall not trouble myself about the ignorant and mindless rabble: I know that you, my sharp, clear-headed listeners will see the shining truth of my tale. To convince you, and you alone, is all that I wish to strive for, the only reward I seek.
A work with as grand and rich a scope as Orlando furioso can hardly be encompassed briefly, so I’ll just note two elements of the poem I especially appreciated: the manner in which Ariosto creates a remarkably tolerant and open-minded ethos around prescribed codes of behavior, and the poem’s notable feminism.
The code of honor that permeates Orlando furioso reveals itself in a myriad of guises. One is the priority given to individual heroism and character over cultural or even religious persuasion. The principals in the poem hail from different lands and different religious traditions. Ruggiero fights on the side of the Sultan, for instance, and though the ostensible moral core of the work may rest with the triumph of Christendom, Ariosto often celebrates the personal virtues of Christians and Muslims alike; by contrast, the larger theological battle is treated almost incidentally. Many times, out of personal loyalties and obligations, his characters fight for parties on opposite sides of their own ideologies. Only in the poem’s final pages are religious allegiances rather hurriedly herded into line by Charlemagne’s victory.
For all the considerable blood-splattering that occurs - for a work so spry and comical in tone, an awful lot of heads and limbs go flying - the narrator repeatedly distinguishes between honorable battle and the waste and horror of useless conflict. On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Astolfo is struck by Christian shrines having been “usurped by impious Moors” while “Europe is in arms and aches to do battle everywhere except where battle is needed.” Though there are terrible scenes of butchery on the battlefield, these contrast with the many honorable confrontations that consist of one-on-one challenges of arms, frequently instigated simply to test one’s skills and with no small amount of gaiety. As often as not, such clashes culminate in agreement by the adversaries to halt for the night and resume the next morning after passing a pleasant evening of convivial dining and drinking. Under chivalric governance, requests to participate in more critical battles such as the defense of Paris or other exigencies interrupt some of these fights. Valor and fairness are utmost in importance, and some 500 years before the Geneva Conventions, Ariosto’s narrator recognizes that not all is fair in war. This is most powerfully demonstrated in a ferocious “aside” concerning the invention of firearms:
Wicked, ugly invention, how did you find a place in human hearts? You have destroyed military glory, and dishounoured the profession of arms; valour and martial skill are now discredited, so that often the miscreant will appear a better man than the valiant. Because of you no longer may boldness and courage go into the field to match their strength./ Many a baron, many a knight now lies in earth, and so shall many more on your account, before this war is ended which has brought tears to all the world but most of all to Italy. I have said it, and I speak no lie: the man who invented such abominable contraptions was crueler by far than all the most evil of evil geniuses the world has known./ To his eternal punishment I believe that God must shut his cursed soul away in the blindest depths of hell, with Judas the accursed.[ii]
These codes, which extol personal courage and prowess, respect and tolerance, and a strong sense of justice, reveal Orlando furioso’s unabashed (albeit not entirely secular) humanism; despite the narrator’s frequent invocation of God, Christ is almost completely absent from the poem. Combined with the unusual universalism of the poem - a work in which, with a palpable poignancy, one can look back from the moon and just descry the “unilluminated” Earth – the qualities exalted by the narrator infuse the poem with an astonishing freshness and forward-looking modernity.
The poem’s feminism is another aspect of this freshness and modernity. Samuel Butler, in his 1897 book The Authoress of the Odyssey, argued that Homer’s epic had been written by a woman, but save for the historical record Butler might well have proposed a similar hypothesis for Orlando furioso. Ariosto’s poem frequently denounces the injustices directed towards women and contains a memorable cast of active, daring female characters who challenge and subvert accepted notions of courtly love and of gender.
While Ariosto ostensibly follows the staple pattern in romances of exalting and idealizing the virtues of women (the male knights errant are motivated almost entirely by pursuit and defense of lady loves worshipped from afar), many of the women of Orlando furioso are courageous fighters, astute tacticians and sexual libertines. Early in the work, a brave knight, after defeating another, dramatically whips off his helmet, and, with long tresses falling, reveals herself as Bradamant, an expert in combat. In a later scene, the skilled woman warrior Marfisa performs the same dramatic trick after winning escape for her shipwrecked colleagues from a matriarchal “city of killer women,” turned vengeful and murderous by the wrongs of men, and who send their strongest male slaves to battle with any hapless captives in a contest for their freedom.
Gender-masking and unmasking recur throughout the poem, with frequent instances of courageous women mistaken for male knights and other scenes in which men don female attire when it’s to their advantage. Most memorably, this last occurs in an amusing passage, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, when Marfisa’s fraternal twin brother assumes his sister’s identity in order to take advantage of a young woman who has fallen head over heels for Marfisa under the initial assumption that she is a man, and is then driven nearly mad by frustratingly unfair rules of behavior that forbid her from loving a woman. This gender-swapping underscores the narrator’s conviction, often made explicit, that women are on par with men and deserve full equality. The poem repeatedly inveighs against this gender disparity, including protesting violence against women: “That a man should bring himself to strike a fair maiden in the face or break but a strand of her hair I take to be not merely a great wrong, but an act wrought against nature, an act of rebellion against God.” The narrator also underscores the unfairness of men who disparage women’s capacities and courage, or who would deny them pursuit of their own desires, as when Rinaldo denounces the double standard in matters of love:
If the same ardour, the same urge drives both sexes to love’s gentle fulfillment, which to the mindless commoner seems so grave an excess, why is the woman to be punished or blamed for doing with one or several men the very thing a man does with as many women as he will, and receives no punishment but praise of it?/ This unequal law does obvious injustice to women, and, by God, I hope to show how criminal it is that such a law should have survived so long.
There is even, in Ariosto’s poem, explicit notice of the way in which male writers dismiss the talents of women, and are “so eaten to the heart with malice and envy…that they must also take it upon themselves to disclose any blemishes in woman…as though the fair sex’s honour would cloud their own.” The narrator urges “ladies who incline to meritorious deeds” to “persist in following your bent; do not be deflected from your high calling by the fear of not being paid the honour due to you.”
The broad-minded receptivity of Orlando furioso, reinforced by the playful bantering tone of its narrator, embraces an optimal world that celebrates joy, desire, and lightness of heart, one where “dancing and play-time, and the hours went by in one continuous festivity. Grey-headed Thought could not dwell here in a single heart, not even for a moment.” Though such a world may be nearly unattainable in reality, Ariosto has supplied his readers its literary equivalent, a poem that, with such openness of spirit and amiable narration, and despite its length, one is sorry to see come to an end – the kind of book to make much other literature, regardless of period, seem stale, circumscribed and even retrograde by comparison.
[i] This map is one of two in Barbara Reynolds’ Penguin Books translation, which makes a helpful supplement to the Oxford Press translation by Guido Waldman upon which I principally relied. Waldman explicitly notes that his prose translation is an effort to focus on sense more than sound, a way of maneuvering around the plethora of rhyming word endings in the original Italian ottava rima. Reynolds’ attempt to keep to the rhyme scheme for Orlando’s 39,000 lines is nothing short of heroic. Switching back and forth between the two versions proved revealing and rewarding.
[ii] An interesting speech to bring to the table in a debate with a gun fetishist.