The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Saracens (Muslims) have invaded France, led by Agramant and Rodomont, the king of Algiers, and many other kings and warriors from all over the Muslim world. French king Charlemagne and the Christian forces have retreated to Paris. Meanwhile, Angelica, a princess from Cathay, has arrived in France and has turned Charlemagne’s peers into rivals for her favor.

Angelica then flees on horseback into a forest, hoping to reach a seaport and take a ship back to Cathay. She meets Rinaldo, a suitor she hates, and flees from him. He pursues her, and they come upon Ferro, a Saracen knight. While the knights fight over her, she escapes from both. The knights follow on Ferro’s horse, but part at a fork in the road. Rinaldo comes upon his horse, Braid, but it runs away from him.

Sacripant, king of Circassia, another Saracen, stops by a forest stream and sits lamenting his unrequited love for Angelica. Angelica, who has been sleeping nearby, approaches him and, wanting his protection, pretends to be in love with him. Sacripant, however, is quickly unhorsed by a knight in white armor, the female knight Bradamant, Rinaldo’s sister. While Angelica is consoling her champion, Rinaldo arrives, and while he and Sacripant fight, Angelica flees again. She meets a hermit who is actually an evil magician. He spirits Angelica off to a remote seacoast, where he intends to rape her. He then sends a sprite to tell the combatants that Angelica has gone off to Paris with Orlando. Rinaldo finds his horse, who had actually been leading him to Angelica, and sets off in pursuit.

Meanwhile, Bradamant learns that her love, the Saracen knight Rogero, has been captured by the evil magician Atlantes by means of a hippogriff and a shield that stuns its victims with its sunlike rays. She goes in search of him accompanied by Pinabel, a treacherous knight. Pinabel pushes her into a chasm, but she is saved by an overhanging branch. Recovering, she discovers herself in Merlin’s cave. Melissa, a seer, gives her a prophecy of her many glorious descendants and tells her where she can obtain a magic ring with which she can free Rogero from his enchantment.

Leaving there and finding the castle of Atlantes, Bradamant defeats the wizard, taking the hippogriff and shield and freeing all Atlantes’s prisoners, including Rogero. Rogero mounts the hippogriff, and it unexpectedly carries him off.

Rogero arrives at the island of the enchantress Alcina and remains there under her spell, forgetting Bradamant and living in sensual idleness. Melissa borrows Bradamant’s magic ring, disguises herself as Atlantes, and comes to Alcina’s island. She shames Rogero into action, and by use of the ring breaks the enchantment and frees Alcina’s prisoners, including the peer Astolpho, who had been transformed into a laurel bush.

Meanwhile, the aged hermit/magician is about to...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Paris. Charlemagne’s capital in France. The visit of Angelica, daughter of the emperor of Cathay, signifies the city’s importance on the world stage, which is further emphasized when it is besieged and assailed by Islamic invaders—variously described as Moors and Saracens—under the command of Agramant. The attackers are eventually driven back, but they continue to mount an inconvenient blockade on Paris until Astolpho’s borrowed Nubian army mounts an assault on Agramant’s homeland. (The sequence of these events has no real historical basis.)


*Italy. Although few Italian settings are directly featured in the main story (Mantua is the principal exception), Italy is frequently at the forefront of prophecies uttered in the course of the poem. These include the prophecies vouchsafed in the magician Merlin’s tomb, a subterranean chamber reached from the bottom of the chasm near Bordeaux, into which Bradamante descends in canto 3. The prophecies delivered by Andronica in canto 15 and those depicted in paintings viewed in canto 33 also include extensive references to Italian future history. These prophecies proudly celebrate the regeneration of Italy’s long-lost glory, flattering Ludovico Ariosto’s contemporary Italian readers.


*Spain. Although several specific locations in Spain are featured in the story, most notably Atlas’s enchanted palace, there is a more general sense in which that country is one of its main anchorages. Charlemagne’s campaigns against...

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Orlando Furioso

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

ph_0111204878-Ariosto.jpg Ludovico Ariosto.

Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is a comic extravaganza in which Matter of France and Matter of Britainthe historical rubrics for the stories clustered around Charlemagne and King Arthurare interwoven and subtly ridiculed. While siege, jousting, and warfare in the poem seem to cancel one another out in the breathless turmoil of mock-epic action, high romance lends a charm and grace to the endless confusion and misunderstandings between lovers. Orlando’s “fury” recalls the wrath of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), but the evocation of the famous Greek hero and his ungovernable anger is comically erased by the fact that Orlando’s anger is nothing but jealous rage. The pagan princess Angelica not only rejects his love but also elopes with a wounded Saracen knight, Medoro. This kind of farcical situation is a world away from the classical events portrayed in the Iliad, when Agamemnon offends Achilles’ dignity by depriving him of his love slave won in battle.

Ariosto’s poem appeared in an early version in 1516, but it was not published in its fully completed form until 1532. During the previous century, Matteo Maria Boiardo had written the romance Orlando innamorato (1483-1495; English translation, 1823), which was published posthumously as an unfinished work. Ariosto took up Boiardo’s story by continuing to chronicle the war between Charlemagne’s Christian knights and the Saracen Muslims attempting to dominate Europe. This struggle provides the background to the poem, but the main plotlines involve the frustrated romance between Orlando and Angelica, as well as the love between the female Christian warrior Bradamante and the pagan Ruggiero. The second plot establishes a symmetry with the first: The first couple comprises a Christian man and a pagan woman, while the second comprises a Christian woman and a pagan man. The great conflict of the hour pits Christians against Muslims, but the romantic protagonists, despite their many difficulties, cross the lines of combat.

The mock epic’s rambling plot starts off in ironic counterpoint to that of the Iliad. The Saracen king of Africa, Agramante, invades Europe to avenge the death of his father Traiano. This invasion parallels Menelaus’s gathering of the Greeks to attack Troy to avenge the abduction of his wife Helen by the Trojan prince Paris. Agramante and his alliesincluding Marsilio, the king of Spain, and the boastful warrior Rodomontebesiege Charlemagne in Paris just as Menelaus in Homer’s poem solicits the aid of his brother, King Agamemnon, to lay siege to Troy. Orlando, Charlemagne’s most famous paladin, has been tempted to forget his duty to protect the emperor through his love for the pagan princess Angelica. In the Iliad, Achilles refuses to fight against the Trojans because of Agamemnon’s insulting refusal to grant him his prize. After Angelica elopes with the wounded Medoro to Cathay, Orlando goes “mad with despair” and rampages across the entire globe, destroying everything in his path in the fury of his pursuit. Again, this rampage mirrors the bloodlust of Achilles toward the end of the Iliad, when he goes back into battle to avenge his friend Patroculus, who has been killed by the Trojan prince Hector.

All through Ariosto’s poem, however, epic constantly yields to romance. The English knight Astolfo goes to Ethiopia on the back of the mythical hippogriff to find a cure for Orlando’s madness. Unsuccessful there, he flies up to the Moon, where everything lost on Earth is to be found, in search of Orlando’s lost wits. The geographical exuberance of this poem is one of its most beguiling features. Astolfo returns to Earth with the lost wits in a bottle that he passes...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Brand, C. P. Ludovico Ariosto: A Preface to the “Orlando Furioso.” Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1974. A general introduction to Ariosto and his work. Includes a biography; a survey of literary forms that influenced Orlando furioso; a discussion of the poem’s major themes, a review of important criticism, and a bibliography.

Craig, D. H. Sir John Harington. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Harington wrote the first important English translation of Orlando furioso in the 1580’s. This critical study of Harington’s work, focusing especially on canto 10, sheds light on the themes and images of Ariosto’s poem. Also examines Harington’s illustrations, critical comments, and notes.

Giamatti, A. Bartlett. The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. A scholarly but lively examination of images of a blessed landscape in European literature. Illuminating chapter on Orlando furioso as an early Renaissance epic. Annotated bibliography.

Griffin, Robert. Ludovico Ariosto. New York: Twayne, 1974. Offers accessible criticism and analysis of Ariosto’s major and minor work, as well as biographical and historical material to place the work in context. Includes a chronology and suggestions for further reading. A good source for the student.

Pavlock, Barbara. “Ariosto and Roman Epic Values.” In Eros, Imitation, and the Epic Tradition. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. Traces the forces of love and piety as they act on the work’s two protagonists. Also takes up the centuries-old question of whether Orlando furioso is an epic or a romance, and finds the influence of both.