an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

Saturday, June 11, 2011

VII: be a man

Canto VII

An introductory message from Ariosto: Are you an unimaginative homebody who thinks crazy adventures in far-away places are implausible? Then this story is not for you. It's for people like my man Ippolito, who can really understand it.

So, Ruggiero has arrived, ready for a fight, at the bridge occupied by Erifilla. Except for being a “monstrous giantess,” she's not described physically, but all of her accessories are impressive: she's got multicolored jeweled armor, a shield with the image of a poisonous toad, and a “sandy-coloured surcoat, like the frocks / Which prelates wear at court”; and she rides on a wolf the size of an ox. None of it helps much: Ruggiero immediately hits her so hard that she flies off the wolf and lands six yards away. He's ready to kill her, but the unicorn-riding damsels from the golden city show up and tell him to let her be. It doesn't occur to Ruggiero that this was a suspiciously easy quest.

They ride together through the woods until they get to the most beautiful palace in the world, and here's Alcina, the most beautiful woman in the world. Just as the palace is described as being not only fancy but full of very classy people, Alcina isn't some sleazy seductress, she's an ideal beauty with subtle charms:
Beneath two finely pencilled eyebrows, dark
As are the brilliant eyes they frame, her glance,
Compassionate, will lingeringly mark
The target where Love's arrows, not by chance,
Will accurately strike, until the spark
Becomes a flame …
Still, Ariosto doesn't beat around the bush here: she is also hotness incarnate.
Two ivory breasts, firm as young fruit, below
Her bodice move, as when soft breezes pull
The waters at the margin to and fro.
Her other parts would be invisible
Even to Argos with his hundred eyes,
But from the rest their beauty we surmise.
Ruggerio likes what he sees and doesn't put up a struggle at all. He remembers Astolfo telling him about her evil ways, but he decides that that story was obviously bogus and that if she did turn Astolfo into a tree, it was probably for some good reason. Lest we think Ruggiero was too easy, Ariosto tells us that we shouldn't blame him, because it's magic and there's really no way to fight it. That's what they all say.

The next 14 verses describe the very nice place where Ruggiero now lives— the golden city from the last canto, apparently not the same place as this, was just a warmup— and what a good time he has there. Whereas the other magic leisure castle he was trapped in before (Canto IV) sounded like a pleasant but limited and repetitive place in a sort of Hotel California way, this one sounds a lot more like somewhere you'd want to spend a lot of time on purpose. It's teeming with cool people enjoying food, drink, music, poetry, stories, party games, gardens, hunting, fishing, and sex— especially sex between Ruggiero and Alcina. Although these scenes are less physically explicit than the earlier descriptions of Alcina's eyes/breasts/etc., they are still very, very steamy, thanks to the lengthy buildup in which Ariosto describes how Ruggiero waits up every night listening as she walks toward his room in a transparent silk slip, which she then removes, and... we must imagine the rest, but we do know that “No lack of pleasure causes them distress” and that they're changing their clothes two or three times a day.

Of course, this is not what he's supposed to be doing. For one thing, the war is going on without him— although Ariosto's brief reference to this is slightly confusing, since Ruggiero is fighting on the “wrong” side and would only cause more problems for our other heroes if he were back in France. But we don't have to think about that at the moment, we can just root for Bradamante to get him back.

Bradamante has been looking everywhere, including in the Saracen camps, where she sneaks in with her invisibility ring and then convinces the soldiers that she's one of them; but no luck. Finally it occurs to her to go back to Merlin's cave and ask the sorceress Melissa, who seems to know everything. Sure enough, Melissa is fully aware of Ruggiero's enjoyable detour— which is now described a little more judgmentally:
So now he wastes the flower of his youth,
And in unending idleness this knight
Would have consumed his soul and body, both;
And that which lingers when the rest is quite
Defunct ….
Would have dispersed upon the wind like fume.
Melissa decides to rescue him, although she knows he won't like it— she compares her role to a doctor who uses “poison, knives and cautery” for the patient's own good. By contrast, we're reminded that the other magician, Atlante, also thought he was doing what was best for Ruggiero, but was “blind with love” and didn't want to allow him to suffer at all. In fact, we now learn, Atlante is actually responsible (presumably by controlling the hippogriff) for Ruggiero ending up on Alcina's island.

Unlike Canto III in which she sent Bradamante off with instructions, Melissa will take care of this mission herself; not only is she able to leave the cave, she can also conjure up a nifty high-speed horse (all black except for one red foot). She borrows the magic ring from Bradamante and leaves her to wait in Provence while she zooms off to the island. There, she changes from her usual form (a plainly dressed woman with bare feet and messy hair) into an illusion of Atlante, with some great visual touches:
Over a palm in stature first she grew ….
Guessing Atlante's size, she chose the norm
Of all the necromancers whom she knew.
That done, she draped a beard about her chin,
Furrowed her brow and wrinkled all her skin.
Why Atlante? Apparently, although the old magician did kidnap Ruggiero earlier, he'd known him since childhood and the knight still respects him— at least that's how this passage reads to me, as Melissa-as-Atlante berates Ruggiero for having abandoned his past badassery:
Was it for this on marrow-bones I fed you
Of lions and of bears? And, as a child,
Was it for this along ravines I led you,
Hunting for snakes to strangle in the wild?
Ruggiero certainly isn't eating any lions now; he's wearing gilded silk, scented hair oil, and jewelry. Although this is described as being the result of Alcina's magic spells, it seems more like a parody of a manly man's worst nightmare: getting so far gone over a girl that you let her dress you! This fits with the locker-room tone that pseudo-Atlante adopts when describing Alcina: “she leads you by the nose …. She whom you make a queen, what has she got / More than a thousand whores, that you're enraptured?” However, Melissa also throws in a reference to the prophecy about Ruggiero's noble descendants (although this is the first he's heard of it): he's got to get back together with Bradamante so that, among others, the awesome Ippolito and his brother can be born (“For in their valour they will be sublime”).

This rant is persuasive enough that Ruggiero is willing to try on the protective ring that Melissa/Atlante offers him, which breaks the spell. Melissa resumes her real form, and so does Alcina— it turns out that all those descriptions of her eyes etc. were false, and she's really an old hag. How grossed out and embarrassed is Ruggiero now? This much:
… as a boy who hides a fruit away
And then goes off, forgetting all about it,
On finding it long afterwards one day
Within a drawer or cupboard where he'd put it,
Astonished at the sight of such decay,
Is more than willing now to do without it ….
In preparing to escape, Ruggiero shows a little more subtlety and patience than he has previously: he doesn't let on that he's seen through the spell, he just finds excuses to get his armor out of storage and to obtain a horse— he leaves the hippogriff behind for now— and sneaks off to a side gate, where he finally releases all the violence he's been saving up as he annihilates a bunch of guards within three lines. He gallops off toward freedom and responsibility, probably still wearing his scented hair oil.

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