an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

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.

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