an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

an uninformed reading of Orlando Furioso

Monday, June 13, 2011

VIII: can't stop, must stop

Canto VIII

Little life lessons as canto openers seem to be a recurring thing. In this case, the lesson we're told to take from Ruggiero's bamboozlement by Alcina is that there are a lot of fake-ass people out there— and not just the magic ones.

Now back to Ruggiero's escape, and one of the chasiest chase scenes that ever were chased. Ruggiero is riding on a black horse called Rabicano, whose former owner was none other than Astolfo the myrtle tree. He's away from the palace and heading into the woods when he runs past “a servant of the fay” (i.e. of Alcina), a nondescript man who's got a falcon, a dog, a horse, and a stick. The falcon goes shooting off after Ruggiero, followed by the horse, the dog, and the man, all running alarmingly fast. (The endnotes inform me that these four have allegorical meanings, representing “allurements of sensuality”; an odd choice of symbols if so.) Soon Ruggiero is having more trouble than he did with a whole mob of monsters:
The man, approaching, gives him a sharp blow.
The dog, in that same moment, bites his foot.
The horse, unbridled, likewise is not slow
To rear its mightily crupper and lash out,
Three times and more— a formidable foe.
The falcon swooping on him, follows suit …
Unlike the earlier fight where he thought it wouldn't be fair to use his magic shield, this time he decides to be practical and removes the curtain from the shield, putting the mini-mob to sleep with a blaze of light. (The man, the dog, and the horse just keel over, but the bird hilariously “in vain / Attempts to fly on wings that droop and fold.”)

Meanwhile Alcina is enraged, storming around and calling herself an idiot. She really isn't thinking very well, as she sends all of her troops out after Ruggiero (including some on ships, in case he's somehow managed to get across the water already); this leaves the city to Melissa, who quickly goes around restoring hundreds of people who had been turned into animals, vegetables, or minerals, or who were just in jail for whatever reason. And the last one is Astolfo! Thank goodness— he deserved a break.

Melissa carries Astolfo with her on her horse, heading for Logistilla's place, but first she stops to find a valuable item Alcina had stolen from him: a golden lance that can't miss. He won it from Argalìa. Argalìa who? It sounds like we're supposed to know him, so I presume this is another character from Orlando Innamorato. Yes: according to the index, he is actually Angelica's brother, and he is also the dead knight whose ghost criticized Ferràu in Canto I for taking his helmet. So quite a few of our protagonists are people Angelica has reason to be mad at.

Ruggiero's horse is good but not as good as Melissa's magic one, so he has to go the long way to Logistilla's domain, and it's through a terrible desert:
The near-by mountain wall in the sun's glare
Throws back a blaze of heat so furious,
It liquefies the sand and turns the air
To fiercer blast than a glass furnace-house.
All birds, in the rare shade, are silent there.
Only the cicadas' monotonous
Refrain, rising where desert plants abound,
Fills hills, dales, sky and sea with deafening sound.
I had to quote the whole verse because, damn, that is just amazing. Ariosto could've just given us a featureless landscape and gone on about how hot it is, but instead he drops in one feature, the mountain wall, just enough to give the place a physical identity; and then he tells us how hot it is, and there's the silence of the birds; and then when you're thinking about heat and silence there's incredibly loud cicada buzz everywhere. If you've ever heard a lot of this on a hot day, you know how it makes the heat even more actively miserable. I salute the translator for bringing in that sound dead last.

Slogging through “heat and thirst and pain” with no end in sight is as good a place as any to leave Ruggiero. So now we turn back to exotic but temperate Scotland, where Rinaldo is still hanging out with the king.

Now that the princess issue is resolved, Rinaldo remembers about the war he's supposed to be in, and tells the king that Charlemagne would like some troops from Scotland (there was no mention of this earlier, as he'd been sent specifically to England, but why not). The king instantly agrees, and says he'll put his son Zerbino in command as soon as he gets back from wherever. The king sees Rinaldo off at Berwick on the south shore of Scotland, and bursts into tears when that nice young man leaves. Finally Rinaldo arrives in London, asks the English for some troops as well, and gets them. And that's all that Rinaldo does in this canto.

How about some more of Angelica? She's been out of sight since the beginning of Canto II, when a helpful hermit used magic to get Rinaldo off her trail. Ariosto now picks up her story exactly where he left off, and it's much the same story: she has stalkers everywhere.

The nice old hermit is not so nice after all. Feeling a thrill in “the frigid marrow of his bones,” he starts trying to follow her on his decrepit donkey, but fails; so he resorts to magic again, conjuring a demon to possess Angelica's horse. As with his earlier use of a genie, it's not immediately clear what the plan is with this, since Angelica is still getting away. As she gets to the coast of Gascony, the demon sends the horse crazy and it swims out to sea. This horse (the one she's been on since the beginning, an unnamed palfrey) is a very good swimmer, and eventually Angelica is marooned at night on a distant rocky shore.

After having been in mostly constant headlong motion since the beginning, now she has nowhere to go. She's not doing anything at all:
She stood stock still; none any sign might trace,
Nor in her immobility remark
If she a woman were of flesh and bone,
Or else a painted image made of stone.
Bemused and motionless, on shifting sands …
She starts to speak, the first dialogue we've heard from her. She accuses Fortune of treating her badly, and she has a point: she's far away from home, her father the Great Khan and her brother Argalìa are dead, and so far nearly every man she's seen has pursued her with unchivalrous intent. She asks to be put out of her misery, say, by a wild animal. But instead, here's the hermit.

He's caught up to her, “By demons through untrodden paths conveyed,” six days ago— how long has she been stranded? Not recognizing him, she cries on his shoulder and tells him her story; he responds by groping her, and when she tries to push him away, he spritzes a sleeping potion in her eyes. She's unconscious and things are looking very bad. Fortunately, the hermit forgot he was impotent:
Years having undermined his aptitude,
The more he strives, the less he can make good.
Whatever methods he experiments,
His lazy courser simply will not jump ….
To sleep beside her, then, is less expense.
If only all rapists were as inept as this one and Sacripante. The hermit is about to get an even worse surprise. Here Ariosto makes an abrupt detour, to bring in some more mythology that will be part of the book's most famous scene.

It seems there is an island “Beyond Ireland, among the Hebrides” called Ebuda, where the king's daughter caught the lustful eye of Proteus, a sea god. Proteus raped her and gave her a child; that made her a pariah to the Ebudans, who killed her and the baby too. Proteus went wild and attacked the islanders with swarms of unspecified monsters, until they found a way to appease him: leave a young naked woman tied up on the shore once a day. They're basically the Skull Island tribe in King Kong. Proteus isn't interested in women as such any more, he just wants endless revenge, so he feeds them to one of his monsters (it's referred to as an orc, which seems to just mean “monster” in general and may be related to “orca”— not the gobliny creatures Tolkien used that name for). The islanders keep doing this every day, and when they're short of young women, they grab them from other towns. Ariosto sums it up by saying that life for women is even worse in Ebuda than it is in other parts of the world.

Angelica is now picked up by these miserable bad people; they take the hermit too, although they're not sure what to do with him. After some delays in which they keep putting other women in line ahead of her because she's just too beautiful, she's finally led off to the sacrificial post. And Ariosto is so overcome by horror (he says this story would disturb even snakes, tigers, and poisonous desert reptiles) that he has no choice but to leave off her story there— and switch to another character you may have wondered if you would ever hear of again:

Orlando! Yes, after seven and a half cantos, the title character of Orlando Furioso has appeared for the first time. This unstoppable warrior isn't involved in furious action, he isn't doing anything at all. He's just very nervous:
Orlando that same night lies wide awake,
His thoughts, distracted, rambling here, now there.
He tries to concentrate but cannot make
His troubled conscience settle anywhere,
As on the crystal surface of a lake
The trembling shafts of sunlight mirrored are …
He's thinking of course about Angelica. Orlando's obsession with Angelica drove the action of Orlando Innamorato and, even though she never returned his affection at all, he's convinced that everything would've been great if only he hadn't let her out of his sight. This is all conveyed directly in monologue, and the only other character whose thoughts we've heard like that was Angelica just a while back. Orlando's thoughts are just as flowery and self-pitying as hers, except that she was focused on her own real problems; Orlando is just driving himself nuts with what he claims is concern for her, but clearly it's something a bit creepier— his greatest fear is basically what if someone else took her virginity, so now I can't? If that happens, he'll kill himself.

He's not enjoying these thoughts. He can't sleep (there's a nice half-verse about how every other creature in the world manages to get to sleep somehow, except him) and then finally he sort of does, but he's dreaming a rather cinematic dream: he sees Angelica's shining face, there's a huge storm and everything's ripped apart and he can't find her anywhere. As he's searching he hears a voice: “Confirmed are all your fears!”

The nightmare flings him out of his anxiety trance and, as Angelica did in the beginning, he starts off in no particular direction on his horse (Brigliadoro). He goes incognito, and he's all in black, lest anyone mistake him for a happy knight.

Charlemagne is indescribably pissed to hear that his star warrior has snuck off at midnight— and to pursue the same woman that the emperor had been trying to keep out of his range! He's now a wanted man. The first knight on his trail is Brandimarte, Orlando's friend. All we know about this person so far is that he's got a sweet girlfriend named Fiordiligi who doesn't know that he's going to look for Orlando, because
he hoped within a day's
Duration to complete the task in hand.
Events detained him longer than he planned.
Fiordiligi waits a month; there's no news of Brandimarte; so she goes off looking.

Counting the characters we might reasonably expect to see again, we now have three on rescue missions, one lost in the desert, two on the verge of unknown action, one waiting patiently, one doing his job, and one about to be eaten alive. This was the longest canto since V, and about ten times more eventful than that one— things have shifted into higher gear lately, and with a great variety, like a bouquet of different kinds of suspense.

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