an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

Monday, June 13, 2011

VIII: can't stop, must stop

Canto VIII

Little life lessons as canto openers seem to be a recurring thing. In this case, the lesson we're told to take from Ruggiero's bamboozlement by Alcina is that there are a lot of fake-ass people out there— and not just the magic ones.

Now back to Ruggiero's escape, and one of the chasiest chase scenes that ever were chased. Ruggiero is riding on a black horse called Rabicano, whose former owner was none other than Astolfo the myrtle tree. He's away from the palace and heading into the woods when he runs past “a servant of the fay” (i.e. of Alcina), a nondescript man who's got a falcon, a dog, a horse, and a stick. The falcon goes shooting off after Ruggiero, followed by the horse, the dog, and the man, all running alarmingly fast. (The endnotes inform me that these four have allegorical meanings, representing “allurements of sensuality”; an odd choice of symbols if so.) Soon Ruggiero is having more trouble than he did with a whole mob of monsters:
The man, approaching, gives him a sharp blow.
The dog, in that same moment, bites his foot.
The horse, unbridled, likewise is not slow
To rear its mightily crupper and lash out,
Three times and more— a formidable foe.
The falcon swooping on him, follows suit …
Unlike the earlier fight where he thought it wouldn't be fair to use his magic shield, this time he decides to be practical and removes the curtain from the shield, putting the mini-mob to sleep with a blaze of light. (The man, the dog, and the horse just keel over, but the bird hilariously “in vain / Attempts to fly on wings that droop and fold.”)

Meanwhile Alcina is enraged, storming around and calling herself an idiot. She really isn't thinking very well, as she sends all of her troops out after Ruggiero (including some on ships, in case he's somehow managed to get across the water already); this leaves the city to Melissa, who quickly goes around restoring hundreds of people who had been turned into animals, vegetables, or minerals, or who were just in jail for whatever reason. And the last one is Astolfo! Thank goodness— he deserved a break.

Melissa carries Astolfo with her on her horse, heading for Logistilla's place, but first she stops to find a valuable item Alcina had stolen from him: a golden lance that can't miss. He won it from Argalìa. Argalìa who? It sounds like we're supposed to know him, so I presume this is another character from Orlando Innamorato. Yes: according to the index, he is actually Angelica's brother, and he is also the dead knight whose ghost criticized Ferràu in Canto I for taking his helmet. So quite a few of our protagonists are people Angelica has reason to be mad at.

Ruggiero's horse is good but not as good as Melissa's magic one, so he has to go the long way to Logistilla's domain, and it's through a terrible desert:
The near-by mountain wall in the sun's glare
Throws back a blaze of heat so furious,
It liquefies the sand and turns the air
To fiercer blast than a glass furnace-house.
All birds, in the rare shade, are silent there.
Only the cicadas' monotonous
Refrain, rising where desert plants abound,
Fills hills, dales, sky and sea with deafening sound.
I had to quote the whole verse because, damn, that is just amazing. Ariosto could've just given us a featureless landscape and gone on about how hot it is, but instead he drops in one feature, the mountain wall, just enough to give the place a physical identity; and then he tells us how hot it is, and there's the silence of the birds; and then when you're thinking about heat and silence there's incredibly loud cicada buzz everywhere. If you've ever heard a lot of this on a hot day, you know how it makes the heat even more actively miserable. I salute the translator for bringing in that sound dead last.

Slogging through “heat and thirst and pain” with no end in sight is as good a place as any to leave Ruggiero. So now we turn back to exotic but temperate Scotland, where Rinaldo is still hanging out with the king.

Now that the princess issue is resolved, Rinaldo remembers about the war he's supposed to be in, and tells the king that Charlemagne would like some troops from Scotland (there was no mention of this earlier, as he'd been sent specifically to England, but why not). The king instantly agrees, and says he'll put his son Zerbino in command as soon as he gets back from wherever. The king sees Rinaldo off at Berwick on the south shore of Scotland, and bursts into tears when that nice young man leaves. Finally Rinaldo arrives in London, asks the English for some troops as well, and gets them. And that's all that Rinaldo does in this canto.

How about some more of Angelica? She's been out of sight since the beginning of Canto II, when a helpful hermit used magic to get Rinaldo off her trail. Ariosto now picks up her story exactly where he left off, and it's much the same story: she has stalkers everywhere.

The nice old hermit is not so nice after all. Feeling a thrill in “the frigid marrow of his bones,” he starts trying to follow her on his decrepit donkey, but fails; so he resorts to magic again, conjuring a demon to possess Angelica's horse. As with his earlier use of a genie, it's not immediately clear what the plan is with this, since Angelica is still getting away. As she gets to the coast of Gascony, the demon sends the horse crazy and it swims out to sea. This horse (the one she's been on since the beginning, an unnamed palfrey) is a very good swimmer, and eventually Angelica is marooned at night on a distant rocky shore.

After having been in mostly constant headlong motion since the beginning, now she has nowhere to go. She's not doing anything at all:
She stood stock still; none any sign might trace,
Nor in her immobility remark
If she a woman were of flesh and bone,
Or else a painted image made of stone.
Bemused and motionless, on shifting sands …
She starts to speak, the first dialogue we've heard from her. She accuses Fortune of treating her badly, and she has a point: she's far away from home, her father the Great Khan and her brother Argalìa are dead, and so far nearly every man she's seen has pursued her with unchivalrous intent. She asks to be put out of her misery, say, by a wild animal. But instead, here's the hermit.

He's caught up to her, “By demons through untrodden paths conveyed,” six days ago— how long has she been stranded? Not recognizing him, she cries on his shoulder and tells him her story; he responds by groping her, and when she tries to push him away, he spritzes a sleeping potion in her eyes. She's unconscious and things are looking very bad. Fortunately, the hermit forgot he was impotent:
Years having undermined his aptitude,
The more he strives, the less he can make good.
Whatever methods he experiments,
His lazy courser simply will not jump ….
To sleep beside her, then, is less expense.
If only all rapists were as inept as this one and Sacripante. The hermit is about to get an even worse surprise. Here Ariosto makes an abrupt detour, to bring in some more mythology that will be part of the book's most famous scene.

It seems there is an island “Beyond Ireland, among the Hebrides” called Ebuda, where the king's daughter caught the lustful eye of Proteus, a sea god. Proteus raped her and gave her a child; that made her a pariah to the Ebudans, who killed her and the baby too. Proteus went wild and attacked the islanders with swarms of unspecified monsters, until they found a way to appease him: leave a young naked woman tied up on the shore once a day. They're basically the Skull Island tribe in King Kong. Proteus isn't interested in women as such any more, he just wants endless revenge, so he feeds them to one of his monsters (it's referred to as an orc, which seems to just mean “monster” in general and may be related to “orca”— not the gobliny creatures Tolkien used that name for). The islanders keep doing this every day, and when they're short of young women, they grab them from other towns. Ariosto sums it up by saying that life for women is even worse in Ebuda than it is in other parts of the world.

Angelica is now picked up by these miserable bad people; they take the hermit too, although they're not sure what to do with him. After some delays in which they keep putting other women in line ahead of her because she's just too beautiful, she's finally led off to the sacrificial post. And Ariosto is so overcome by horror (he says this story would disturb even snakes, tigers, and poisonous desert reptiles) that he has no choice but to leave off her story there— and switch to another character you may have wondered if you would ever hear of again:

Orlando! Yes, after seven and a half cantos, the title character of Orlando Furioso has appeared for the first time. This unstoppable warrior isn't involved in furious action, he isn't doing anything at all. He's just very nervous:
Orlando that same night lies wide awake,
His thoughts, distracted, rambling here, now there.
He tries to concentrate but cannot make
His troubled conscience settle anywhere,
As on the crystal surface of a lake
The trembling shafts of sunlight mirrored are …
He's thinking of course about Angelica. Orlando's obsession with Angelica drove the action of Orlando Innamorato and, even though she never returned his affection at all, he's convinced that everything would've been great if only he hadn't let her out of his sight. This is all conveyed directly in monologue, and the only other character whose thoughts we've heard like that was Angelica just a while back. Orlando's thoughts are just as flowery and self-pitying as hers, except that she was focused on her own real problems; Orlando is just driving himself nuts with what he claims is concern for her, but clearly it's something a bit creepier— his greatest fear is basically what if someone else took her virginity, so now I can't? If that happens, he'll kill himself.

He's not enjoying these thoughts. He can't sleep (there's a nice half-verse about how every other creature in the world manages to get to sleep somehow, except him) and then finally he sort of does, but he's dreaming a rather cinematic dream: he sees Angelica's shining face, there's a huge storm and everything's ripped apart and he can't find her anywhere. As he's searching he hears a voice: “Confirmed are all your fears!”

The nightmare flings him out of his anxiety trance and, as Angelica did in the beginning, he starts off in no particular direction on his horse (Brigliadoro). He goes incognito, and he's all in black, lest anyone mistake him for a happy knight.

Charlemagne is indescribably pissed to hear that his star warrior has snuck off at midnight— and to pursue the same woman that the emperor had been trying to keep out of his range! He's now a wanted man. The first knight on his trail is Brandimarte, Orlando's friend. All we know about this person so far is that he's got a sweet girlfriend named Fiordiligi who doesn't know that he's going to look for Orlando, because
he hoped within a day's
Duration to complete the task in hand.
Events detained him longer than he planned.
Fiordiligi waits a month; there's no news of Brandimarte; so she goes off looking.

Counting the characters we might reasonably expect to see again, we now have three on rescue missions, one lost in the desert, two on the verge of unknown action, one waiting patiently, one doing his job, and one about to be eaten alive. This was the longest canto since V, and about ten times more eventful than that one— things have shifted into higher gear lately, and with a great variety, like a bouquet of different kinds of suspense.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

VII: be a man

Canto VII

An introductory message from Ariosto: Are you an unimaginative homebody who thinks crazy adventures in far-away places are implausible? Then this story is not for you. It's for people like my man Ippolito, who can really understand it.

So, Ruggiero has arrived, ready for a fight, at the bridge occupied by Erifilla. Except for being a “monstrous giantess,” she's not described physically, but all of her accessories are impressive: she's got multicolored jeweled armor, a shield with the image of a poisonous toad, and a “sandy-coloured surcoat, like the frocks / Which prelates wear at court”; and she rides on a wolf the size of an ox. None of it helps much: Ruggiero immediately hits her so hard that she flies off the wolf and lands six yards away. He's ready to kill her, but the unicorn-riding damsels from the golden city show up and tell him to let her be. It doesn't occur to Ruggiero that this was a suspiciously easy quest.

They ride together through the woods until they get to the most beautiful palace in the world, and here's Alcina, the most beautiful woman in the world. Just as the palace is described as being not only fancy but full of very classy people, Alcina isn't some sleazy seductress, she's an ideal beauty with subtle charms:
Beneath two finely pencilled eyebrows, dark
As are the brilliant eyes they frame, her glance,
Compassionate, will lingeringly mark
The target where Love's arrows, not by chance,
Will accurately strike, until the spark
Becomes a flame …
Still, Ariosto doesn't beat around the bush here: she is also hotness incarnate.
Two ivory breasts, firm as young fruit, below
Her bodice move, as when soft breezes pull
The waters at the margin to and fro.
Her other parts would be invisible
Even to Argos with his hundred eyes,
But from the rest their beauty we surmise.
Ruggerio likes what he sees and doesn't put up a struggle at all. He remembers Astolfo telling him about her evil ways, but he decides that that story was obviously bogus and that if she did turn Astolfo into a tree, it was probably for some good reason. Lest we think Ruggiero was too easy, Ariosto tells us that we shouldn't blame him, because it's magic and there's really no way to fight it. That's what they all say.

The next 14 verses describe the very nice place where Ruggiero now lives— the golden city from the last canto, apparently not the same place as this, was just a warmup— and what a good time he has there. Whereas the other magic leisure castle he was trapped in before (Canto IV) sounded like a pleasant but limited and repetitive place in a sort of Hotel California way, this one sounds a lot more like somewhere you'd want to spend a lot of time on purpose. It's teeming with cool people enjoying food, drink, music, poetry, stories, party games, gardens, hunting, fishing, and sex— especially sex between Ruggiero and Alcina. Although these scenes are less physically explicit than the earlier descriptions of Alcina's eyes/breasts/etc., they are still very, very steamy, thanks to the lengthy buildup in which Ariosto describes how Ruggiero waits up every night listening as she walks toward his room in a transparent silk slip, which she then removes, and... we must imagine the rest, but we do know that “No lack of pleasure causes them distress” and that they're changing their clothes two or three times a day.

Of course, this is not what he's supposed to be doing. For one thing, the war is going on without him— although Ariosto's brief reference to this is slightly confusing, since Ruggiero is fighting on the “wrong” side and would only cause more problems for our other heroes if he were back in France. But we don't have to think about that at the moment, we can just root for Bradamante to get him back.

Bradamante has been looking everywhere, including in the Saracen camps, where she sneaks in with her invisibility ring and then convinces the soldiers that she's one of them; but no luck. Finally it occurs to her to go back to Merlin's cave and ask the sorceress Melissa, who seems to know everything. Sure enough, Melissa is fully aware of Ruggiero's enjoyable detour— which is now described a little more judgmentally:
So now he wastes the flower of his youth,
And in unending idleness this knight
Would have consumed his soul and body, both;
And that which lingers when the rest is quite
Defunct ….
Would have dispersed upon the wind like fume.
Melissa decides to rescue him, although she knows he won't like it— she compares her role to a doctor who uses “poison, knives and cautery” for the patient's own good. By contrast, we're reminded that the other magician, Atlante, also thought he was doing what was best for Ruggiero, but was “blind with love” and didn't want to allow him to suffer at all. In fact, we now learn, Atlante is actually responsible (presumably by controlling the hippogriff) for Ruggiero ending up on Alcina's island.

Unlike Canto III in which she sent Bradamante off with instructions, Melissa will take care of this mission herself; not only is she able to leave the cave, she can also conjure up a nifty high-speed horse (all black except for one red foot). She borrows the magic ring from Bradamante and leaves her to wait in Provence while she zooms off to the island. There, she changes from her usual form (a plainly dressed woman with bare feet and messy hair) into an illusion of Atlante, with some great visual touches:
Over a palm in stature first she grew ….
Guessing Atlante's size, she chose the norm
Of all the necromancers whom she knew.
That done, she draped a beard about her chin,
Furrowed her brow and wrinkled all her skin.
Why Atlante? Apparently, although the old magician did kidnap Ruggiero earlier, he'd known him since childhood and the knight still respects him— at least that's how this passage reads to me, as Melissa-as-Atlante berates Ruggiero for having abandoned his past badassery:
Was it for this on marrow-bones I fed you
Of lions and of bears? And, as a child,
Was it for this along ravines I led you,
Hunting for snakes to strangle in the wild?
Ruggiero certainly isn't eating any lions now; he's wearing gilded silk, scented hair oil, and jewelry. Although this is described as being the result of Alcina's magic spells, it seems more like a parody of a manly man's worst nightmare: getting so far gone over a girl that you let her dress you! This fits with the locker-room tone that pseudo-Atlante adopts when describing Alcina: “she leads you by the nose …. She whom you make a queen, what has she got / More than a thousand whores, that you're enraptured?” However, Melissa also throws in a reference to the prophecy about Ruggiero's noble descendants (although this is the first he's heard of it): he's got to get back together with Bradamante so that, among others, the awesome Ippolito and his brother can be born (“For in their valour they will be sublime”).

This rant is persuasive enough that Ruggiero is willing to try on the protective ring that Melissa/Atlante offers him, which breaks the spell. Melissa resumes her real form, and so does Alcina— it turns out that all those descriptions of her eyes etc. were false, and she's really an old hag. How grossed out and embarrassed is Ruggiero now? This much:
… as a boy who hides a fruit away
And then goes off, forgetting all about it,
On finding it long afterwards one day
Within a drawer or cupboard where he'd put it,
Astonished at the sight of such decay,
Is more than willing now to do without it ….
In preparing to escape, Ruggiero shows a little more subtlety and patience than he has previously: he doesn't let on that he's seen through the spell, he just finds excuses to get his armor out of storage and to obtain a horse— he leaves the hippogriff behind for now— and sneaks off to a side gate, where he finally releases all the violence he's been saving up as he annihilates a bunch of guards within three lines. He gallops off toward freedom and responsibility, probably still wearing his scented hair oil.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

VI: don't be a tree like me

Canto VI

It's almost time to get back to Ruggiero's adventures, but we're not out of Scotland yet. The first fifth of the canto revisits the end of the Ginevra/Polinesso/Rinaldo story from a new point of view: the mystery knight who turns out to be Ariodante, Ginevra's sweetheart, not dead after all.

He did throw himself off a cliff into the sea, but then changed his mind about the suicide. After swimming to safety, naturally his first question was whether Ginevra cried about his death; when he learned that she did, he decided he might have been wrong about her. That meant he would have to fight his brother Lucranio, who brought the charges against Ginevra; Ariodante couldn't let anyone else take on that fight, because no one else is as good at fighting as he is. Fortunately it all worked out well.

After Ariodante has revealed himself, the king rewards him by giving him Ginevra's hand in marriage, and Polinesso's former title of Duke. But what about Dalinda, who helped in the evil plot? It's clear that she meant well, so no problem. Having had enough of Scotland and of men, she decides to become a nun in Denmark.

Now, enough of courtroom drama: Ruggiero is still being propelled through the sky on a hippogriff. He's already left Europe and is somewhere “over the forbidden seas,” three thousand miles away. (Of our three main characters so far, Bradamante is the only one who's still on the continent.) Finally the hippogriff decides to land in a very nice place:
Mid cultivated plains and rounded hils,
Lush meadows, shadowed banks and sparkling rills,
Welcoming groves of laurel, cool and soft,
Of palm, and myrtle, fragrant and most sweet ….
In myriad lovely forms which twine aloft
A leafy shelter from the summer's heat ….
And every creature frolics without risk.
Ruggiero leashes the hippogriff to one of the myrtle trees and takes a much needed rest, until he notices that the animal has started freaking out and pulling on the rope, causing so much distress to the tree that the tree moans, shrieks, and finally speaks.

Where another writer might have just said a voice came from the tree, Ariosto describes the voice in inventive detail, first saying that it's like the rushing of air through a hollow log that's on fire, and then that it's actually sap that flows through the tree's bark and is converted into sound. But Ruggiero isn't interested in how this works and, after a brief double-take, he's not even all that surprised; he just apologizes to the tree for tying the unruly hippogriff to it, and asks if he can do anything to help.

The tree introduces itself as Astolfo, a French knight who is another one of Orlando's cousins. Returning from a long ocean adventure, he and Rinaldo and some others had run across the mysterious Alcina, who was standing on the shore fishing without a hook or net— fish just offer themselves up to her. You might think that that's someone you should hesitate to approach, but Astolfo is drawn in by her “courteous manner and disarming speech,” and also because, as he now admits, he tends to do things without thinking.

Alcina isn't just any magician; she's one of King Arthur's half-sisters, the one you haven't heard of, since Ariosto invented her. She's a lot like her famous sister Morgana le Fey, who in this version of the myth is purely evil, but they've got a third sister who's purely good, Logistilla (also original to Ariosto).

Astolfo doesn't know any of this yet and he follows Alcina onto what he thinks is a small island, where she promises to show him a “fish menagerie” and also a siren. But the island is really a whale, and he's quickly carried away with Alcina. She wastes no time in finding “ways of consoling” him, and by the time they get to her castle, he's far gone:
Alcina in great bliss now held me in
Her toils, and with a love insatiate
She burned, and I enamored was no less ….
Naught can I do but on her beauty stare.
But after two months she meets someone else, gets bored with Astolfo, and turns him into a tree, as she's done with her last thousand lovers (except for a few who are now animals or streams). In case this cautionary tale wasn't clear, Astolfo spells it out for Ruggiero: do not date this woman— not only for your own sake, but also for the poor guy before you, who will get turned into a rock as soon as she sees your pretty face.

Ruggiero thinks this is a very sad story (especially because Astolfo, being a tree, can no longer do “noble deeds which for a knight win fame”), and he agrees that he should under no circumstances go anywhere near Alcina. He asks how to get to the domain of the good sister, Logistilla, and he sets off that way on foot along with the hippogriff.

It's a difficult hilly path, especially since he's within sight of the solid gold city where Alcina lives and it looks very inviting; this seems to be an allegory about self-restraint. He's making a good effort, until he's ambushed by a huge mob of diverse monsters, “female or male or both”:
Some, human downwards from the neck, were seen
With cat or ape-like heads to be ill sorted ….
Some old and slow, some young, with urchin grins,
Some naked, and some clad in furs or skins ….
The monster who was captain of this crew,
His belly swollen and his lips distended,
Upon a turtle rode ….
On this side and on that were ruffians who
With kind solicitude on him attended;
For he was drunk …
They're not well armed or armored but there are a lot of them, and Ruggiero is having difficulty killing them all. He's actually carrying the magic shield that came with the hippogriff, which could just render the whole crew unconscious, but he feels it would be unfair to use “the aid of fraud.” Fortunately for everyone, the monsters suddenly stand aside as two beautiful young women appear from the golden city, in high style— extremely well dressed and riding on unicorns. He forgets all about Alcina and, “with a rosy blush upon his face,” follows them inside.

The golden city, much like Atlante's steel castle, is a perfect oasis of gardens, games, love and leisure. The young people there are kept in a permanently moony state by arrows from swarms of little Cupids who flutter around in the treetops. (Ruggiero, ask yourself why there are so many trees.) But our hero doesn't intend to stay there; he just observes, and follows the two young women as they lead the hippogriff away and replace it with a cool new horse bedecked with jewels.

They claim to need his help. Outside the city there's a bridge guarded by a monstrous giant fanged woman, Erifilla, who prevents people from crossing the bridge and also raids the garden from time to time; some of the monsters Ruggiero has just fought were her children. The women leave it at that without actually asking Ruggiero to do anything in particular, but he gets the idea and agrees to help them out:
I wear this coat of mail, not for the sake
Of conquest or of plunder, but that I
May honorably serve the good and true,
And, most of all, fair damsels such as you.
I imagine that somewhere behind him, a tree is swearing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

a drawing (IV)

from Canto IV: knights and ladies freed from steel castle, Ruggiero flies away on hippogriff by mistake

V: do right woman

(Edited a little because I misread the fight scene the first time.)
Canto V

Less complicated than previous installments, this canto tells a more or less self-contained story about the wronged princess Ginevra. It also has a moral lesson: some guys are just no good. Ariosto opens with a rant against the worst villains of all, men who hurt women:
No creatures on the earth ….
Are hostile to the females of their kind. …
The she-wolf and the wolf at peace appear;
The heifer from the bull has nought to fear. ….
What dreadful plague, what fury of despair
In our tormented bosoms now holds sway,
That wives and husbands constantly we hear
Wounding each other with the things they say? …
An outrage against Nature he commits
Who with his gentle helpmeet stoops to fight,
Or in her face a lovely woman hits ...
This is directed, a little oddly, at the two thugs from whom Rinaldo has rescued Dalinda— oddly since they're not domestic abusers, they're hired assassins, and even wolves are known to kill other wolves they're not married to.

Still, Dalinda certainly did have a terrible boyfriend. Hopelessly in love with Duke Polinesso, she's been using Ginevra's room for trysts with him. She describes the affair as a classic teenage disaster, misguided but so very hot:
For many months and days, joys not a few
We shared; in our delight, no amorous game
Was left untried, and, as our pleasure grew,
I seemed on fire with a consuming flame.
Blinded by love for him, I little knew
How much he feigned …
Polinesso tells her he's going to woo and marry the princess, but it's strictly business; they'll still have their secret love. Dalinda thinks that's just fine. But it's not in the cards anyway, as Ginevra already loves another. Polinesso, who had assumed he was irresistible, decides that if he can't have her then no one can, so he frames her for fornication— by convincing poor Dalinda to dress up as the princess at their next tryst. If this plot sounds familiar, it's because it was reused in Much Ado About Nothing.

Dalinda doesn't know the real point of the scheme; he tells her he's developed the hots for Ginevra and wants to role-play his fantasy just this once, so she does it to make him happy. The translator in her notes finds this willingness “not convincing,” but of course it is. Dalinda is a kid in love, they're making up their own rules. Maybe she thinks his fake-princess fetish is a lovable weakness that he was brave enough to admit to her, or maybe she thinks it's kind of fun; it's imaginable either way or both, and Polinesso's choice of such a non-innocent cover story shows him to be a very manipulative guy who understands what'll work with her.

Anyway, the charade works: Ginevra's beau Ariodante goes crazy with jealousy, runs away, and is later seen flinging himself into the sea. His brother Lurcanio accuses Ginevra, and volunteers to prove her guilt in a duel. (Trial by combat was still legal in some places in Ariosto's time, but just barely.) Rinaldo steps up to fight for her innocence, after hearing Dalinda's story— which Polinesso had tried to have her killed to cover up, in case there was any doubt that he is the worst boyfriend in the world.

Rinaldo shows up for the duel, but there's already someone else there to take Ginevra's side: a mystery knight, in generic armor with his face covered. The fight gets under way, but Rinaldo feels bad for Lurcanio (who's after all just a hothead acting on bad information), calls it to a halt, reveals the real story to everyone, and challenges Polinesso. Pretty much everyone in town hates Polinesso and is hoping that he's guilty, but they can't be sure without a duel. It's over soon: impaled on a lance, Polinesso briefly confesses and dies.

That's pretty much it, although there's a passing mention of Ginevra's father the King of Scotland, and her brother Zerbino (somewhere far away), which makes me think they may be important later on. By the way, the king was no help: despite being totally devoted to his daughter, he either couldn't or wouldn't change the anti-nookie law on her behalf— a law that even the monks thought was too prudish. The law isn't mentioned again, so I assume it's still on the books in Scotland to this day. Be careful there.

Monday, June 6, 2011

IV: fun and no fun

(updated below)
Canto IV
Sensing that some of his readers may have qualms about Bradamante's “kill the guy who's trying to rescue Ruggiero, so I can rescue him instead” plan (even though Ippolito would probably be OK with it), Ariosto explains that sometimes these things just have to be done; also, her intended victim Brunello is now described as a villainous trickster, although he doesn't seem to have done or even planned to do anything bad.

But the rationalizations are interrupted by a mysterious uproar from outside. Everyone's agog at someone on a winged horse passing overhead: the sorcerer from the steel castle. Ruggiero, Gradasso, and Pinabello's girlfriend aren't his only victims; he's been abducting young women from all over, causing a general panic, which Ariosto depicts not altogether seriously:
The wretched damsels he so terrifies

That any who are beautiful, or deem

They are (he takes whichever he can get),
Remain indoors until the sun has set.
Brunello and Bradamante agree to assault the castle together; he doesn't mention his magic ring, and she doesn't mention that she knows about it. Some travel ensues, with vivid descriptions of the mountain setting; we're supposed to be in the Pyrenees, although I don't know if the geography makes sense.

They're almost there, and as Bradamante gets ready to kill her companion, she finally succumbs to conscience and can't do it. Instead she just clocks him, ties him to a tree (why wasn't that the plan to begin with? Melissa seems to have gone right to murder as the first option), takes the ring, and sounds a challenge in front of the castle.

The sorcerer arrives, even more excessively powered than before: he's got an open book of spells with him, reading while he rides, to materialize all sorts of weapons. And we finally get a good look at his steed:
His horse was not a fiction, but instead

The offspring of a griffin and a mare.
Its plumage, forefeet, muzzle, wings and head

Like those of its paternal parent were.

The rest was from its dam inherited.

It's called a hippogriff. Such beasts, though rare,
In the Rhiphaean mountains, far beyond

The icy waters of the north, are found.
Since a griffin's head is just the head of a big eagle, the hippogriff really looks more like a bird (although with four legs) than a horse, but either way it's impressive. Unlike many of the horses, it doesn't get a name. Ariosto makes a point of saying it's not magical or mythological, just one of those rare animals you may have heard of from a place you haven't been to.

The sorcerer messes around half-attacking for a while, then unveils the beam of his magic shield; Bradamante's ring protects her, but she pretends to be knocked out, and seizes him when he approaches. That was easy. In fact, within a single verse, he's lost all his fearsome panache; he's revealed as a weak and sort of cute old man, and the story he tells her is the opposite of what you'd expect.

It's all about Ruggiero. The sorcerer, Atlante, was just trying to help the kid: a prophecy showed him coming to a bad end some day, so Atlante decided to put him in a steel castle to keep him absolutely safe. All the girls and the other knights were abducted to keep him company. They've been hanging out in a mellow but decadent party:
That they may stay contentedly confined,

I make their every need my sole concern.

From every quarter, joys of every kind:

Games, music, clothing, food, at every turn.

All pleasures, all amusements you will find

For which the lips can ask, the heart can yearn.
Defeated, Atlante begs for Bradamante to either put him out of his misery or let him keep Ruggiero. She refuses on both counts and tells him to free everyone. He does so, by breaking some smoking magic urns; instantly the whole castle disappears, and so does Atlante, leaving just the captives and the hippogriff standing in an empty field. (Ariosto here gets in another dig at shallow women, suggesting that the girls probably were sorry to leave the fancy castle.)

The lovers are reunited, but only briefly. It's a lovely, playful scene: Ruggiero walks through the valley with her, and in their happiness at being with each other, they start goofing around with the hippogriff, which is being cute and letting them almost catch it. Then Ruggiero does catch it— and suddenly he's a thousand feet up in the air, realizing he has no idea how to fly this thing. Bradamante helplessly watches him zoom off into the distance.

Cut to our other detoured traveler, Rinaldo, last seen trying to sail to England. His ship's been blown off course to Scotland— which, in Ariosto's imagination, is a savage but awesome place that's chock full of knights having adventures, even more so than France; Arthur et al. are name-dropped here briefly. Rinaldo tells the rest of the crew to keep sailing to England and he'll meet them there; this makes no sense, he's clearly just trying to avoid his mission, but they agree. He goes off riding randomly around Scotland in search of chivalrous kicks.

He doesn't have to look for long. Friendly monks tell him of an available quest: rescue the princess Ginevra, who's been unjustly condemned to die, because
The law of Scotland, harsh, severe, unjust,

Decrees that every woman who in love

Bestows herself (except in marriage) must

Be put to death …
The penalty is burning at the stake, unless a knight will defend her honor by single combat. Rinaldo doesn't have to think twice. He even ignores the monks' insistence that Ginevra is a good girl, and declares that he'd rescue her even if (or especially if) she had done the deed.

He justifies his position at length and from a somewhat confused point of view. First, he defends the right— nay, the duty— of girls to have sex, as a generous act of “solace” for their boyfriends. In fact, he'd like to reverse the law: “Death rather to such damsels as refuse.” But then he allows that passion should be mutual and that girls like it too; and then he's outraged at the unfairness of the law, because men get away with these things all the time.

Clearly Ariosto's notions of chivalry and Arthurian romance don't have much to do with the mores of the era he's writing about; he's a Renaissance man, so he's permissive one minute, judgmental the next, and often so drily satirical that you can't tell which is which. Shakespeare would certainly understand.

Anyway, the monks applaud his logic (just what goes on in Scottish monasteries?), and the next day Rinaldo and his new squire ride off toward Ginevra's city. The road goes through the woods— always a good place for meeting new characters, and sure enough, here's another damsel in distress, about to be killed by “two rough villains” who immediately run away. The girl isn't just frightened, she's terribly sad about something. Ariosto ends the canto literally as she opens her mouth to speak.

Update: I wrote this and the last one too hastily, and missed at least two things:
1. One of the prisoners freed from the steel castle was Sacripante. How'd he get there? Very recently he was fighting with Rinaldo and had a broken arm. It's a mystery or possibly a mistake.
2. The beginning of Melissa's endless prophecy in Canto III actually contains some important information: Ruggerio is doomed to be betrayed and killed at some point after having a son with Bradamante. The overprotective magician Atlante also foresaw something like this, so he probably really is doomed. Or if not, then Bradamante certainly thinks so by now.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

a drawing (I)

I probably won't make a habit of these. Click to enlarge.
from Canto I: Ferráu tries to retrieve helmet; is berated by ghost

III: the magic cave of ass-kissing

Canto III

In the longest authorial aside so far, Ariosto asks for divine inspiration to help him do his story justice. Although he and his heroes are nominally Christian, it's the Renaissance, so he'll take whatever kind of divinity he can get: Phoebus Apollo for instance. The poet is on a prophetic mission to tell the world about the great race of heroes who happen to be his patron's ancestors. (Ippolito thinks: I knew we were awesome, but I had no idea we were that awesome.)

Back to Bradamante, lying stunned in a cave. Pinabello is sure he's killed her and he departs, stealing her horse; Ariosto assures us that he'll come to a bad end.

But it's not just a cave; there's a passage to a new fantastic setting:
A spacious room, it seemed like a revered
And hallowed church, much sanctified by prayer,
And by the skill of architecture reared

On alabaster columns choice and rare;
And at the very central point appeared

An altar where a lamp burned bright and fair.
She's met by a woman in plain dress (in contrast to the imaginary lady of “fair aspect and … costly gown” that Pinabello claimed to have seen in the cave)— Melissa, although her name isn't given for a while— who greets her by name and introduces what sounds like a crazy new layer to the story:
… I had recognizance
Of your predestined journey to this shrine,
For Merlin said, in a prophetic trance …
Yes, Merlin. This is an Arthurian romance, sort of. Merlin however does not not appear, since the legend requires him to stay sleeping in living death in his cave (here relocated to France):
His spirit with his corpse will ever dwell
Until the trumpet on the Day of Doom

Shall summon it to Heaven or to Hell,
When a dove's form, or raven's, it assume.
Alive, too, is his voice. Clear as a bell
You'll hear it issue from the marble tomb …
The prophecy, introduced in Merlin's voice and continued by Melissa (who's in effect his intern), goes on for 42 verses— more than half of this canto. However, it's not really the cool magic subplot you might be hoping for. It consists entirely of a list of the illustrious men who will be Bradamante's and Ruggiero's descendants for the next 700 years, and a summary of the great deeds they'll do… leading up of course to Ippolito, whose greatest deed was paying for the poem.

(The translator's introduction clarifies that Ippolito was not so much the harmless rich dim bulb I've imagined him as, but more of an insanely well-connected (appointed as archbishop at age 18) horrible thug, who once was so annoyed by a lady liking his brother more than him that he had one of the brother's eyes put out. Ariosto even mentions some of his victims in this scene, vaguely, just to say that they deserved it.)

It's just pandering filler; there's not enough space to make these hundreds of non-characters interesting, and Ariosto describes their deeds so briefly that he must have assumed Ippolito either knew all those stories or didn't really care. But the fantasy setup of the scene is still striking, full of evocative visuals, and an interestingly ambiguous attitude toward “good” magic, as Melissa conjures up a huge crowd of semi-demonic spirits to illustrate her story: they fill the room ominously, pressing up against her protective circle, even as they're playing the roles of history's greatest heroes. The rest of the scene can't live up to that, although in its sheer length and hyperbole, it's got to be one of the most audacious feats of brown-nosing in literary history.

Finally concluding this commercial interlude, Melissa returns to the subject at hand: rescuing Ruggiero from the steel castle and its sorcerous ruler. To get past the dazzling shield and other hazards, Bradamante will need a particular magic ring. It has two powers: protecting against all spells when it's worn, and making you invisible when it's held in your mouth.

Melissa hasn't got the ring. It's with a Saracen knight, Brunello, who happens to be going the same way and for basically the same reason: he's off to rescue Ruggiero, sent by King Agramante of the Moors (word certainly travels fast). But, Melissa explains, this won't do, since Brunello's not really up to the task and also he's ugly. So here's what to do: pretend to team up with him, then kill him and swipe the ring. We seem to have left chivalry behind for now.

Bradamante finds Brunello at an inn and, as they start to negotiate with mutual wariness and she waits for the right moment to stab him in the back, there's a loud noise. What is it? Tune in tomorrow.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

II: fight and flight

Canto II

Ariosto reflects briefly on the unfairness of love, then returns to the fight where we left off. Rinaldo is on foot and Sacripante is on horseback, but the horse he's on used to be Rinaldo's and feels belatedly loyal to him; in a nice comedy bit, Sacripante
tries to urge it on: the horse stops dead.
He tugs the rein: it breaks into a trot;

Then suddenly it checks and ducks its head,
Arches its back and with its hoofs kicks out.
He finally realizes the horse is not an advantage and dismounts. In an intense high-speed swordfight, Rinaldo breaks Sacripante's sword and also his arm. Angelica, watching, realizes Rinaldo is winning and will go after her next, so she flees again.

She's not alone for long: here's a kindly old hermit, who happens to also be a magician. Angelica asks for help in getting out of France, preferably by sea. The hermit's well-intentioned but not directly helpful response is to conjure up a genie, which flies back to where the knights are still fighting vigorously (Sacripante is presumably fighting with his feet) and tells them they'd best run off the other way: Angelica is with Orlando, heading for Paris. (This is a lie, but we haven't really seen Orlando yet and have no idea where he is.) Rinaldo swears and gallops away— on his own horse, finally.

Speaking of the horse, Ariosto finally clarifies that Baiardo isn't as fickle as he seemed: he's actually been leading Rinaldo all over the place in an attempt to reunite him with Angelica. A smart horse, in fact so smart that he understands the genie's story; but a trusting horse, so he's fooled by it too.

Rinaldo gets to Paris, but before he can find out that Angelica was never there, Charlemagne reminds him that he's still supposed to be in the army and sends him on a mission to England. Next thing he knows, he's on a ship from Calais and it's caught in a terrible storm. And Ariosto once again points out his cliffhangery narrative methods:
But many threads are needed for my tale

And so, to weave my canvas as I please,
I'll leave Rinaldo and the plunging prow,
And turn to talk of Bradamante now.
We learn that the warrior maid is Rinaldo's sister (another character borrowed from Orlando Innamorato). No military glass ceiling here; Bradamante is famous and universally respected. And the love of her life— although they've only met once, and they're on opposite sides of the war— is our other top-billed hero, Ruggiero.

After humiliating Sacripante in Canto I (he “kissed our ancient mother,” i.e. the dirt), she's on her way to nowhere in particular, when she meets a weeping knight by a creek: Pinabello. Unlike the previous sad knight, this one seems to be a decent guy. He tells her his story, and it's a good one.

Pinabello's girlfriend has been abruptly abducted by someone on a flying horse. He follows them to a rocky valley, surrounding an unclimbable spire, upon which is a huge castle all made of steel:
From far away it seemed to glow like flame.
No glaze, no marble, has such radiance.
When nearer to the shining work I came

And saw the marvel of its walls, at once

I knew that demon masons of ill fame

With incense, exhalations and weird chants

Had clad the castle walls with finest steel,
Forged in the fires and cooled in streams of Hell.
And he's not the only adventurer on the scene: Ruggiero and another knight, Gradasso, guided by an anonymous dwarf, are also on the trail of the aerial bandit,
the castle's owner, who,
Clad in full armour, travels through the sky
Aboard a bird-like quadruped, a new,
Unheard-of means of transport.
These two promise to rescue the lady, and Pinabello watches from a safe distance (hmm, maybe not such a nice guy after all) as they ride toward the castle and engage its owner. The villain has an effective fighting technique based on diving from a great height and smashing them into the ground again and again, but eventually he gets bored with this and unveils his secret weapon: a magic shield that knocks everyone unconscious with a beam of light. When Pinabello recovers, he's alone.

(Ariosto pauses during the fight scene for another authorial aside: “This is the truth: I added not one jot …. Here fiction is less marvelous than fact.” I imagine Ippolito's jaw dropping as he realizes: It's all true?! So the part about me being descended from Ruggiero and being the coolest guy ever is also true! He hands Ariosto another well-earned sack of gold.)

Back to the present: Bradamante is moved by the story and vows to help, hoping to rescue Ruggiero at the same time. But, as we're now informed, Pinabello is well known by everyone except her (and presumably his girlfriend) to be a treacherous schmuck. When he learns that she's been assigned to the army defending Marseilles, and is therefore an ally of a noble house that he has a grudge against, he decides to betray her somehow as soon as possible.

Distracted by scheming, Pinabello forgets where they're going and gets them lost in the woods. But he spots a cave leading to a deep dark hole, and evil inspiration strikes: telling Bradamante that he thinks he sees a helpless princess trapped in the cave, he gets her to climb part way in, then drops her into the pit. End-of-canto cliffhangers (or cave-floor-hangers) are definitely a regular feature, but this one feels less arbitrary than some: hero loses consciousness, fade to black.

Friday, June 3, 2011

I: horse trading

Canto I
Of ladies, cavaliers, of love and war,
Of courtesies and of brave deeds I sing ….

The wit to reach the end is all I ask.
Ariosto introduces the story's setting, the war between Emperor Charlemagne and the Saracens 700 years earlier. He dedicates the poem to his patron, Ippolito, claiming that the hero Ruggiero is one of Ippolito's superhuman ancestors. Ruggiero who? Never mind for now. First we hear a bit about the other hero, the one the book is named after, although he's not doing anything yet.

Orlando has just joined Charlemagne's army, bringing with him the object of his affection, Angelica. She's also caught the eye of Orlando's cousin Rinaldo, so to forestall trouble and get the boys' minds back on the war, the Emperor has taken Angelica off their hands and offered her in marriage to one of his allies. But Angelica has no use for any of these three guys, and the first thing we see her do is run away on a horse, with no particular plan.

This has all flashed by in a few verses, and one might wonder who the hell Orlando and Angelica and Ruggiero are. I turn to the introduction and learn that Orlando (a.k.a. Roland) was a familiar character from French and Italian romances from way back, a somewhat generic hero whose main personality traits were recklessness and romantic obsession, based loosely on a real guy who fought for the Franks. He'd most recently figured in Orlando Innamorato, by Boiardo, which also introduced Angelica— the daughter of the Great Khan of Cathay (China, or more generally, “somewhere east of here”)— and Ruggiero, a knight in the Muslim armies. Ariosto has borrowed his three main protagonists from Boiardo's earlier epic. Interestingly, two of them are from the “wrong” side, i.e. the Saracens or their various allies, whom Ariosto describes indiscriminately as “pagans.”

Anyway, immediately after escaping, Angelica meets a knight who has misplaced his horse. Bad luck: it's Rinaldo. She flees into the woods and meets a second, unfamiliar knight, Ferráu. This one is currently occupied with trying to retrieve his helmet which he's dropped in a creek, but he's interrupted by Rinaldo. Since Ferráu is a “pagan,” they fight briefly, until Rinaldo points out that the pretty girl is getting away; they team up (both on Ferráu's horse) to go after her:
O noble chivalry of knights of yore!

Here were two rivals, of opposed belief ….

Yet to each other no resentment bore.
Never mind that “knights” and “chivalry” were unknown concepts in eighth-century Europe, and that a Frank and a Saracen would probably not have made nice like this; Ariosto is trying to convey an ideal, and for him chivalry means the non-ideological coolness of the good old days, when even the enemy could be a good guy.

They start scouting the woods, but Ferráu can't resist trying one more time to get that damn helmet out of the water. Here's one of the many instances where Ariosto switches suddenly from fast-paced adventure to carefully observed realistic action, usually for comic effect, as the knight tries using a branch—
Which delicately in the stream he dipped,

Poking with care in every nook and hole,

Although with patience he was ill-equipped.

Boredom at last began to try his soul …
But he's interrupted again, this time by the ghost of the knight whose helmet it used to be, or at least his upper half, rising out of the stream. The ghost curses Ferráu out for a while, and then tells him there's a much cooler and more appropriate helmet out there somewhere— and Orlando has it. Ferráu is so impressed that he vows to give up wearing helmets until he can find Orlando and get his. Pretty girls are all well and good, but helmet quests are serious business, so he rides off. Shortest team-up ever.

Rinaldo is now horseless again; the horse appears briefly in the distance, ignoring him. He is not a happy man.

Angelica wanders through the woods, which are beautifully described:
Where flowering thorn with the vermilion red

Of roses is made gay, glassed in the brook,

With shady oak-trees arching overhead.

In its recess, as she draws near to look,

She finds a sheltered space, untenanted,

Branches and leaves together so entwine,

No sunlight can within directly shine.
But here's another knight! A sad one— “the cavalier of grief,” lamenting to himself about his hopeless love. This is Sacripante, king of Circassia, another of Charlemagne's opponents. Angelica recognizes him from back home, and the girl he's been pining over is her. She's got stalkers everywhere.

Although Angelica has no intention of getting together with Stalkerpants, she rather coldly decides to play on his feelings, since she could use some help in whatever it is she's trying to do. But her vamping is too successful: the king thinks he's going to get lucky right there in the woods. Fortunately he hears a noise and runs off to investigate (he wasn't well prepared to commit sexual assault anyway, since “he always wears full armor”).

The noise is from an unknown knight in white. Without a word, the two start fighting on horseback, and then playing chicken— which goes badly for Sacripante when their horses collide head to head, and his instantly dies and falls on him. The white knight does a victory lap and departs.

Sacripante crawls out from under his ex-horse, horribly embarrassed. Angelica tries to soothe his pride by pointing out that the white knight left the field first and therefore, in a way, lost. He's ready to accept this, until a messenger appears, sent to inform him that he was in fact defeated by a woman. The white knight was the warrior maid Bradamante; more about her later.

This shame-o-gram has the intended effect: the mortified king “knows neither what to say nor what to do.” So he rides off aimlessly with Angelica (both on her horse), trying to forget all about it.

They meet a solo horse: the one Rinaldo was chasing, named Baiardo, no relation to Boiardo. (Horses are prominent characters here; there's a list of their names in the introduction.) Notable for his leaping skills and his cool gold harness, this fickle beast seems to have ditched his owner without a second thought, but he recognizes Angelica and likes her, as everyone always does. So now she and the cavalier of horny grief both have horses. And just in time, since here comes Rinaldo, jogging miserably over hill and dale in his clanking armor, in the tireless hope of one day having both a horse and a girlfriend.

Ariosto chooses this point to provide more background for these two, and it turns out that this particular one-sided love story is less random than the rest. Some time ago, Rinaldo and Angelica accidentally drank from two magic springs; unfortunately, his was a love potion and hers was a hate potion.

Back to the present: as Rinaldo very gradually approaches, Angelica feels that this would be a good time to move on, but Sacripante feels a need to fight someone and not lose. As he prepares to attack this (to him) totally random person, he reminds Angelica of the many great victories he had prior to getting thrashed by Bradamante, including
the night when I, alone and nude,

King Agrican and all the field withstood
—but alas, that's all we hear about that intriguing scene.

Ariosto ends the canto on this cliffhanger, telling the boss that he'll have to wait till the next installment to find out what happens. Despite having described his patron as the smartest and most awesome guy in the world, whenever he addresses Ippolito directly I get the feeling that he regards him as an excitable six-year-old kid. Actually, there's also something about the storytelling so far that reminds me of such a kid— a feeling of breathless improvisation: there's a girl and she sees a knight and he lost his horse and then he meets another knight and they have a fight and there's a ghost with a helmet and then the girl meets the… and so on. If Ariosto knew about dinosaurs, surely one would pop up at any moment, and two pages later it would be gone.


For as long as I can keep it up, I'm going to read and summarize the epic poem Orlando Furioso (first published from 1516 to 1532) by Ludovico Ariosto, in an English translation by Barbara Reynolds (Penguin Classics).

I have no prior knowledge of the poem or of Renaissance romances in general, and I'm only slightly familiar with the legends it's derived from, so I'm coming to it fresh— too fresh really, since Ariosto did assume that his audience would recognize his references, so I'll be cribbing from Reynolds's introduction and endnotes as needed.

The book's two massive volumes were kindly foisted upon me by Russell Hoban; I had the honor of helping with some research on other things for his recent excellent novel Angelica Lost and Found, which borrows a few characters from Ariosto. It took me a while to dare to start reading the poem, but of course (as he told me it would be) it's turned out to be ten tons of fun. So I thought I'd try to share some of the experience as I go, which will also help me to keep track of what's going on.

It will take a while.