an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

Sunday, June 5, 2011

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.

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