an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

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.

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