an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

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.

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