an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

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.

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