Orlando Furioso

Ludovico Ariosto

Cover of Orlando Furioso

Rank: A+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Summer, 2010

Author Name: Ludovico Ariosto

Review: Wow! What a book! If there is a difference between a tale and a story, this is the best tale that you or anyone else will ever read. Period.

Now let me qualify that. Orlando Furioso is a long, epic-style romance written in verse at the beginning of the 16th century. This was at the tail-end of the heyday of the chivalric romance, so this tale of knights and wizardry is not told without irony. In fact, for a story so old, there are quite a number of elements of realism that would later be expanded upon and perfected by Cervantes in Don Quixote. For all that, though, Orlando Furioso is a grand adventure story which follows the exploits of Charlemagne’s paladins during France’s war with the Saracens.

At this point, I would tell you about the plot of the book, but there really is none. There are hundreds of events (the book is absolutely non-stop action), but there is no single plot that runs through the whole story. Instead, there are characters that one follows from adventure to adventure.

The book starts out with a dispute between Orlando and Rinaldo, two of Charlemagne’s knights, over a woman named Angelica. Both are madly in love with her, and wish to claim her for their own (even though, as we find out much later on [almost as an afterthought], Rinaldo is married with children), and are willing to fight it out to win her. Charlemagne, who needs them both for the war, says he will keep Angelica safe if they agree to postpone their fight until after the war. They agree to this, and go back to fighting the Saracens.

As fate would have it, though, Angelica is lost, and though Orlando and Rinaldo pursue her, she ends up tending to a wounded Saracen who sought to bury his commander’s remains (so that they wouldn’t be exposed to the elements), and the two fall in love. Before Orlando or Rinaldo can find her, she ends up marrying the guy, and moving to China. Orlando learns about this after the fact, and goes completely mad (hence, the title). He strips off his armor and clothes and starts rooting up trees and using horses as clubs to beat people to death.

Now here’s the best part: For all intents and purposes, Orlando is a relatively minor character in this book. It’s named after him, and yet we barely hear about him! Instead, we end up following the exploits of Rinaldo, his sister Bradamant, the paladin Astolfo, and the Saracens Ruggiero, Marfisa and Rodomont. In the end, the love story of Ruggiero and Bradamant ends up being the central or most important plot (if you had to choose one amongst this story of innumerable intertwining tales).

It would be impossible to describe all the action packed into Orlando Furioso. Instead, I’ll tell you about the structure and give you some examples. The book is broken into forty-six cantos, but that division is misleading. In actuality, the book is divided into a series of 2-3 page action sequences which, for lack of a better word, I’ll call ariosta (the plural of ariostum, based on, of course, the author’s name). Ariosto will take one character and one plot line and write about it for no more than four pages, usually just two, and right when something is about to happen, he’ll usually say (in the text) that he wishes to switch to another subject, and he does. In this way, the reader follows something like three to four plot tracks that overlap, not unlike a modern movie (so plot A may finish while B is still going and C takes over after A, while D and E are ongoing). The ariosta are so short, though, that the book really cooks! The reader is basically led from one action sequence to another with no breaks in between.

As for the content, here are a taste of some of the ariosta contained in Orlando Furioso:

  • Atlas, a magician, continually tries to rescue his nephew Astolfo, the paladin, from danger by creating fake castles of incredible beauty where everyone is happy all the time. The idea is to lure him in and trap him so that he’ll never be exposed to danger in the outside world.
  • Rodomont, King Agramant of the Saracens’ mightiest warrior, lays siege to Paris by himself. He topples houses with a wave of his hand, and slices knights and peasants and even allies—whoever gets in his way—fully in half (usually longways).
  • Bradamant falls into a cave which turns out to be Merlin’s tomb where she meets Melissa, a sorceress, who goes on to describe to her in detail all the children she will have, and her children’s children, and her children’s children’s children, etc.
  • In order to restore Orlando to sanity, Astolfo takes his winged hippogryph and flies to the moon (the actual moon) to find his wits. Apparently there’s a river on the moon where everything forgotten is dumped.
  • Ruggiero, in order to avenge himself on the man to whom Bradamant has been promised in marriage, takes over as commander for the Bulgarian army which was about to be routed and, by himself, routs the Greeks. For doing so, the Bulgars seek to make him their king.
  • In the most hilarious scene in the book, every major character in the Saracen party challenges each other to some sort of duel, each of them insisting that their score must be settled without delay. I’m not sure if I can track all the challenges, but Ruggiero challenges Rodomont for stealing his horse Frontino; then Mandricard challenges Ruggiero for wearing arms he claims himself. When it looks like Ruggiero and Mandricard are going to fight, Rodomont intercedes, saying that they should wait until the battle is done—and that, after all, his and Ruggiero’s fight must come first. That ticks off Mandricard, who now challenges Rodomont. Then Marfisa, who’s trying to break them up, gets ticked off at Mandricard, and goes after him. In the end, even the king is involved in the quarrel. The scene is priceless.

Then at the end of the book, when you think everything’s resolved (Ruggiero and Bradamant get together, and everything’s settled), out of nowhere, Rodomont, whom we haven’t heard from in over two hundred pages, rides up and challenges Ruggiero, just…because. There’s a fierce battle at the end, and the book ends with Ruggiero stabbing Rodomont in the forehead repeatedly.

But wouldn’t you know it, for how incredibly awesome this book is, the action isn’t the most fascinating part of the book. No indeed, the real fireworks occur right on the page as the author struggles between what seems to me to be his natural misogyny and utterly unprecedented radical feminism.

Let me back up a bit. Ludovico Ariosto was in service of the d’Este family when he was commissioned to write Orlando Furioso (this was during the old days of patronage). My good friend and enemy Will has suggested that there were a number of powerful female figures in the d’Este family, and so, to appease them, he included a number of unbelievable female characters. I think a scene towards the very beginning serves as a fine illustration.

Sacripant, a Saracen knight comes across a Christian knight in the woods and seeks to do battle with him. Sacripant is, of course, masculine and burly, and has never lost a tilt. He charges at full speed towards the Christian knight, all ablaze with rage, and, to his shock, he is clouted. He’s tossed aside like a ragdoll. Angelica watches the whole thing, and he asks her who it was who unseated him. It’s then that Angelica replies, “You must know that the rare valour which swept you from the saddle was that of a gentle damsel.” And, indeed, the Christian knight is Bradamant.

And that’s just the beginning. Bradamant, and the Saracen Marfisa, spend the rest of the book tearing dudes up—Marfisa especially. She is an absolute terror. She has a wonderful speech in the twenty-sixth canto. After her male comrades are defeated, Mandricard, who is the victor, lays claim to Marfisa as a trophy. She replies with the following:

“You are badly mistaken. I allow that you would be correct about my being yours by custom of war if one of these men you have overthrown were my lord or my champion. But I am none of theirs; I belong to nobody, only to myself: who wants me must first reckon with me. I too know how to wield a lance and shield, and more than one knight have I overthrown.”

Bam! Take that, sucka!

The story is full of utterly astounding feats by Bradamant and Mafisa, but, at the same time, they’re not wooden characters (or at least as lifelike as their male counterparts), given to fits of doubt and desperation, as well as jealousy and rage. They are full characters, and probably some of the best in all of literature.

Theses characters, of course, wouldn’t be that surprising if they were created by a female author for a 1970s fantasy novel, but this is a 16th century romance written by a man. What gives?

Well, unfortunately, this isn’t the whole story. The rest of the book is plagued by a low-level but ever-present misogyny. The narrator himself takes time away from the story periodically to rail against women for being manipulative, greedy and false. At one point, an inn keeper relates a story to Rodomont in which a man leaves his wife for the first time in his life, despite her protestations, to travel for a month, or so, but then forgets something when he’s only a few hours away, returns, and finds his wife in bed with a stableboy. It’s a typical story told around this time in Italy (cf. The Decameron), but the narrator, at the beginning of the canto in which it occurs, writes, “Ladies…by all means disregard this tale which the innkeeper is preparing to relate to the disparagement, to the ignominy and censure of your sex”. Yeah, buddy, sure. This story of the innkeeper’s is utterly unimportant to the plot; it has no reason to be there. You included it because you wanted to, and no written apology is going to undo that.

Orlando Furioso is filled with little bits like this. There’s a ridiculous misogynist story that has nothing to do with the current plot, or the author uses some negative epithet to refer to women, and then he apologizes (or does so before [or both]). This isn’t speech, though; there’s plenty of time for revision. He wanted these things to be in the book; he just felt he should apologize for them to try to smooth things over with his female patrons.

So it goes. Before leaving the book, though, I’d also like to point out how human the Saracens are. They are the enemy, certainly, but the only error they’re guilty of is not being Christian. Otherwise, they’re praised for their honor and strength, and many Saracens, once they convert to Christianity, are esteemed as highly as the paladins. It’s quite a change from what one sees nowadays, where enemies are portrayed as stupid, barbaric or downright evil. And these are invaders, mind you. Their express purpose is to destroy Christian civilization and supplant it with Saracen civilization. Even so, they’re still portrayed as human. We could learn a thing or two from Ariosto…

Without a doubt, Orlando Furioso is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read. From start to finish, it’s all action, and all awesome. This is pretty much exactly the book that I wanted to read while I was a child. And, if it weren’t for all the sex and graphic violence (sooooo many people are sliced in half from the top of their head to their crotch…), I think it would be a great children’s book: Lots of action, short scenes, magical, and expansive. If you like reading, you’ll like this book. Definitely give it a try.

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