Ludovico Ariosto was pressured by a practical-minded father into studying law before he was able to pursue his true interests, literature and classical learning. The need to support his family, however, forced him to take service under Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, and later under Alphonso, duke of Ferrara. Meanwhile, Ariosto found time to write a number of works of varying literary merit, none of them well known outside Italy except for Orlando Furioso. The 1521 version adds numerous revisions, and much polishing, but no major additions. The 1532 version polishes and revises further, as well as extends the poem from forty cantos to forty-six.
Orlando Furioso is not an entirely new conception; it continues and partially retells the story of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato (1483-1495; English translation, 1823). This highly innovative romance combines Carolingian and Arthurian tradition with the classical tastes of the Italian Renaissance. The work has the feel of a classical epic, but the numerous, complexly interwoven plot lines are a feature of many medieval knightly romances. The values and worldview that lay behind the medieval romance were becoming anachronistic by the time the poem was written, and the knightly values the poem expresses are often undercut by literary distance and flashes of irony.
Ariosto follows Boiardo closely in many respects. His huge poem (38,736 lines) has an even greater variety of incidents, and an even more complex interweaving of storylines. Drama, wonder, and high adventure are seasoned everywhere with humor and irony. Ariosto even retains Boiardo’s stanza form, ottava rima, a form familiar to many English readers from Lord Byron’s book-length poem, Don Juan (1819-1824, 1826). The form is useful to both poets in that the couplet that ends each eight-line stanza is ideally suited for a witty, ironic, or humorous commentary or counterpoint.
The plot of Orlando Furioso cannot be called loose in that the huge number of incidents, both original and drawn from medieval or classical sources, are all elaborately connected. The story does, however, have a number of centers of interest, and Orlando’s temporary madness is not an adequate frame to hold them all. The Saracen invasion of France, culminating in the siege of Paris, would seem to provide a larger frame for the action, and to a degree it does, but much of the time the story is so caught up in the loves, hates, and rivalries of individuals that this war, which could determine the whole future of human history, fades to the background. Much of the story is taken up with the rivalry between Rinaldo and Orlando, and their pursuit of the temptress, Angelica. However, the exploits, love, and final marriage of the Saracen warrior Rogero and the knight Bradamant is equally large, and perhaps is of even greater interest. This latter storyline is one the poet has good motive to stress, since his patron claims descent from Rogero and Bradamant, but he portrays the female knight with so much vividness, energy, and psychological insight that the author obviously has a greater interest in the character than a mere desire to please his patron. Bradamant is the model of Britomart, the most popular and appealing character in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596).
The question of unity in Orlando Furioso is not new. Renaissance critics complained that Ariosto violates Aristotle’s rule for unity in the epic. Ariosto’s defenders argued that the poem is a romance and, therefore, operates under different rules than the epic. Rules aside, the poem both gains and loses by its structure. Ariosto has chosen to impress with richness of texture and with variety, inventiveness, surprise,...
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and wonder. He succeeds, but at a price. Readers are always wondering, what next? Furthermore, the countless individual scenes lose much of their sense of urgency and seriousness.
Orlando Furioso has a long history of influence and popularity, attested by Spenser’s close imitation of it with The Faerie Queene. Orlando Furioso’s continued popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are indicated by paintings, by Gustave Doré’s elaborate illustrations of the story, and by retellings in children’s books. More recently, however, the poem has been comparatively neglected. The reason may be the modern era’s sharp distinction between popular and serious literature; Orlando Furioso, with its emphasis on action and adventure, has too much in common with popular literature, in spite of its polished verse and wide learning. Readers who base their literary taste on the dramatic realism of Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevski, for example, may be less satisfied with a story in which one hero rides a hippogriff to the moon and another rescues a chained and naked heroine from a sea monster, only to have his amorous advances thwarted when she escapes him by means of a ring of invisibility, and in which people have been turned into bushes and can speak only when their twigs and branches are broken off and then bleed. There are modern works that have similar situations, but none of them are taken with high seriousness.
Another weakness of the poem is that the strange and magical elements have a rootless quality; they are neither Christian nor pagan. The medieval Charlemagne cycle was a hard and masculine tradition with strong historical roots. When the much more exotic Breton lays of King Arthur became known in French, the Charlemagne tradition had to adapt to keep up. In the Arthur stories, half-remembered fragments of Celtic myth and legend create an air of mystery and magic that still resonates. Boiardo and Ariosto have no such roots, and their incidents, consciously echoing the King Arthur stories and stories from Homer, Vergil, Ovid, and other ancient authors, have more the sense of clever invention than of inherent strangeness.
Whatever its limitations, Orlando Furioso belongs to the great narrative tradition. It borrows freely from Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Statius, and Dante, and in turn passes on themes, situations, and motifs to such later narrative poets as Spenser, Torquato Tasso, and John Milton. A work that has remained popular and influential for so many centuries is likely to outlive the comparative neglect of the twentieth century.