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 rape Angelica. He puts her to sleep with a potion, but then cannot get an erection, and so abandons her. She is discovered by sailors looking for women to sacrifice to the orc, a sea monster. She is captured and chained naked to a rock by the sea. Arriving on a hippogriff is Rogero, just in time to rescue her. He intends to have his reward from her, but while he is eagerly tearing off his armor, she escapes by using a ring of invisibility. The hippogriff, too, flies away.
The Saracens, meanwhile, have set fire to Paris, but a God-sent rain saves the city. Orlando dreams that Angelica is in peril, and to Charlemagne’s outrage, leaves the city to seek her. Among his many adventures along the...
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way by land and sea, he too rescues a maiden from the orc.
Rogero is again taken by the sorcerer Atlantes, who loves him and wants to keep him safe, especially from the danger of being converted to Christianity.
Angelica, still hoping to reach Cathay, and seeking Orlando or Sacripant as a protector, comes to Atlantes’s magic castle and enters using the ring of invisibility. She frees Orlando and many others, but decides to have none of them. She puts the ring in her mouth and once again vanishes, leaving the knights to search for her and quarrel among themselves.
Charlemagne prepares the defenses of Paris. Rinaldo arrives with reinforcements. The Saracens breach the first ditch and slaughter many Christians, but they are stopped by fire at the second ditch.
Two young Saracens, Cloridano and Medoro, make a night excursion into the Christian camp, killing many, but are discovered as they are escaping. Cloridano is killed and Medoro is badly wounded. Angelica finds him and nurses him back to health, then takes him to Cathay with her and makes him king. Orlando, who is still searching for Angelica, hears the story and goes mad, raging through the forest like a wild beast, killing men and uprooting trees with his bare hands.
Rogero is freed by Astolpho, who blows his magic horn, breaking the enchantment and making Atlantes flee. Astolpho then mounts the hippogriff and flies around the world, stopping to visit Prester John in Ethiopia and finally flying to the moon, where he is shown vials containing the senses of poets and lovers who have lost them on Earth. He returns to Earth with the vial containing Orlando’s senses and restores him. He and Orlando then gather an army of Nubians and take the city of Biserta.
Rogero rejoins the Saracen army. An agreement is made to settle the war by single combat. Rinaldo is chosen by the French, Rogero by the Saracens. During the combat, the Saracens break the truce and are driven back by the Christians. Rogero becomes separated from his companions and finally ends up on a desert island. There he is converted and baptized by a holy man.
The Christian forces drive the Saracens south and out of France, while Astolpho brings another force north from Ethiopia, wiping out the whole Saracen army and killing its leaders. Orlando rescues Rogero from the island. Rinaldo promises his sister, Bradamant, to Rogero, but their parents want her to wed Leo, son of the Greek emperor. They lock her up in a castle, and Rogero goes to Greece to kill Leo. While there he joins a Bulgarian army fighting against the Greeks. He kills the son of Theodora, the sister of the emperor, and is imprisoned by her. Leo, however, rescues him and gives him shelter.
Bradamant will only marry the one who can defeat her in combat, and so Leo makes Rogero his champion. Rogero defeats Bradamant, but nearly dies of sorrow when he learns who she is, and that by defeating her, he has lost her. However, when Leo learns that Rogero and Bradamant are lovers, he renounces his claim on her and goes with Rogero back to France, where Rogero and Bradamant are finally married. Rodomont comes to the court to accuse Rogero of apostasy, but Rogero kills him. Finally, for his aid in the war against the Greeks, the Bulgarians name Rogero their king.
*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 Spain’s Islamic conquerors form the core of the legend of Orlando (Roland in the original French). Thanks to the hindsight of history, the poem’s sixteenth century readers knew that parts of Spain would remain under Moorish dominion for several centuries more. They also knew that the primal text of the Roland cycle, the twelfth century Song of Roland, concludes with an ambush in the Pyrenean pass of Roncesvalles in which Roland and many of his companions die; an awareness of this fate adds a certain tacit poignancy to the odysseys of exotic discovery.
Ebuda. Island west of Scotland on which maidens are regularly sacrificed to an orc (a sea-monster) until Orlando arrives in canto 11 to destroy the monster.
*Nubia. Capital of Ethiopia (not to be equated with modern Ethiopia), at the source of Africa’s Nile River. Its emperor Senapo is tormented by the depredations of harpies until Astolpho comes to his aid, thus prompting the journey that takes Astolpho to an inconveniently smoky Hell, then to the Earthly Paradise and the Moon.
Earthly Paradise. Beautiful Arcadian plain with gemlike flowers, whose trees are perpetually laden with fruit. At the center of the plain is the residence of the saints: a radiant palace thirty miles around, formed from a single gemstone.
Moon. World whose geographical features are all unlike their earthly equivalent, although the exact differences are unspecified. The palace in which the Fates spin the destinies of humankind is there, as is a valley where everything lost on Earth is stored: reputations consumed by time, insincere prayers, lovers’ tears, wasted time, and vain desires. These lost entities take ironically appropriate physical forms: Every flattery is a garland concealing a noose; every authority surrendered to a servant an eagle’s talon. The largest heap of all is a mountain of minds, and the largest item in the heap is the lost wits of poor Orlando.
Bizerta. Capital city of Agramant’s kingdom, which encompasses all of North Africa’s Mediterranean coast except Egypt; located in the Atlas Mountains. Following the assault on the surrounding territory mounted by Astolpho’s Nubian army in canto 38, Bizerta’s walls are stormed by Orlando’s Christian army in canto 40. Its residents are slaughtered, and the city is looted while Agramant is stranded at sea; this prepares the way for the crucial battle on the shore in canto 41, in which three champions of Christendom defeat three champions of Islam.
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 under Orlando’s nose. His sanity restored, Orlando falls out of love with Angelica. Ariosto explains that love is itself a form of insanity, and, Orlando’s wits and sense of purpose once again in place, the hero kills King Agramante and the siege of Paris is lifted. Europe is saved from the Saracens. The subplot involving Bradamante and Ruggiero is similar. The Saracen hero is imprisoned and enchanted but finally freed. He converts to Christianity, marries Bradamante, and slays the Saracen challenger, Rodomonte, in single combat.
Boiardo’s poem had taken the legends of Arthur and Roland seriously, but Ariosto in his work took full advantage of the possibilities of ironynot only because he was essentially a humorist but also because irony called up style and wit. He consulted with the great humanist Pietro Bembo to improve and enhance the polish of his verse. In Ariosto’s hands, felicitous diction, prosody, and ironic uses of classical myths and allusions were coupled with an increasingly fantastic plotline. Imaginary beasts and arbitrary deployments from Europe to Japan and from Ethiopia to the Moon were only part of Ariosto’s exuberant playfulness. Indeed, his poem seems to suggest that a truly gifted and skillful poet can ask readers to forsake verisimilitude and common sense in pursuit of brilliance and wit.
Ariosto’s treatment of Boiardo and Homer was repeated with gusto by generations of writers who followed. Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600), and, most significant, Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824, 1826) all leaned on Ariosto’s poem for plots and more. Ariosto’s most telling influence on his successors is to be found in his ability to enhance what he borrowed, to take wit and imagination to new heights. The literary ideal of leaning on a model and then vindicating one’s dependence on the original by taking one’s own work beyond itthat is Ariosto’s principal legacy.
David Slavitt’s translation of Orlando Furioso has acted on that legacy with a strange variation. Instead of being influenced by Ariosto to write a poem of his ownwhich, as an accomplished poethe could have done easily, Slavitt translates Ariosto’s work, relying heavily on the last great poet to adopt Ariosto’s love of fantastic journeys, romantic complications, and mock-heroic action: Lord Byron. Slavitt brings to his translation the strategies of ironic wit and clever rhymes that Byron brought to perfection in Don Juan. Just as Ariosto went beyond Boiardo by introducing stylistic and tonal qualities that took Boiardo’s content to new comedic heights, Slavitt brings Ariosto’s poem closer to English-language readers by using the multisyllabic rhymes and the intrusive voice of a digressive narrator to evoke Romantic irony. This is a technique that Byron introduced in Don Juan.
Ironically, Slavitt is merely returning the favor that Byron owed Italian literature in the first place. Byron discovered the ottava rima stanza, the same stanza used by Ariosto, in the work of another Italian comic poet, the Florentine Luigi Pulci (1432-1484), whose chivalric epics preceded Orlando Furioso. Slavitt thus translates Ariosto’s ottava rima stanza in a Byronic accent of another Italian poet’s ottava rima stanza.
Slavitt is a poet and satirist who has worked in various genres. He is known for his many translations from Latin and Greek, including the Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) of Ovid. He usually translates freely and creatively, often veering from the original text. In the current ambitious project, nearly fifty cantos stretching to more than 650 pages, his reliance on Byron’s tone and techniques constitutes the essence of his deviation from the original. The ottava rima stanza (which follows the pattern A-B-A-B-A-B-C-C) flows smoothly in the original Italian, and its closing couplet permits the narrator to catch his breath or wrap up a thought. Byron could not resist the opportunity for comic rhymes afforded both by the internally rhyming lines and by the staccato effect of the abrupt closing couplet. The latter also invited ironic observation or intrusion by the narrator.
In stanza 75 of Canto XII, for example, Orlando is in a difficult spot after having killed Alzirdo, a vain Spaniard who challenged him in a fit of envy. Stanza 74 closes with Alzirdo’s soldiers “impressed/but not in a good way.” They charge at Orlando,
. . . intending to right the wrongThey believe he has done, cutting, thrusting, and shootingA storm of arrows at him. It’s very busyAs when a wolf comes down to the valley, lootingBleating sheep or squealing pigs. Or is heMore like a bear that arouses the shepherds’ bruiting?They swarm around him. They’re in a perfect tizzy,And shouting, “Kill him! Kill him! Tear him limbFrom limb.” They are not friendly at all toward him.
The participles pile up until they settle into the gerund (“bruiting”) and at the same time supply the rhymes for all three B lines. Note the contrasting assonance: “cutting, thrusting”; “shootinglootingbruiting”; and “bleatingsquealing.” This kind of verbal wit is characteristic of Byron, as is the colloquial “tizzy.” Perhaps the most Byronic touch of all is the closing couplet. The understatement of “They are not friendly at all toward him” is quintessential romantic irony: The narrator intrudes to make readers aware of his wry detachment, his awareness of the ultimate childishness of all that he surveys. The soldiers are violent and out of control; the narrator remains unruffled and bemused. This ironic contrast is captured in a multisyllabic weak rhyme: “him limbtoward him.” In passages such as this one, Slavitt achieves a ventriloquist’s tour de force in his translation. He reproduces both Ariosto and Byron together and thereby recreates Orlando Furioso.
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.