Orlando Furioso – that is, Mad Orlando1, or Orlando goes Mad – is a wonderful 33,000-line epic poem written in Italian by the poet and courtier Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1535). It is a chivalric, romantic, fantastical saga of noble (and a few ignoble) knights, of beautiful women, and the occasional dwarf.
Although it is not so well-known in the English-speaking world, it was the scientist Galileo‘s favourite poem. He knew large sections of it off by heart. How it might have helped him in the pursuit of some of his not-so-scientific goals is recorded in my recent historical novel Galileo’s Revenge, or A Cure for the Itch.
I. The song of Orlando
The story of Orlando Furioso is set in the time of King Charlemagne the Great (742-812), when Christians and Saracens were at war for the possession of Europe. (So absolutely no modern resonance, then.) Poems of knightly chivalry and courtly love set in this time originated (or were first written down) in the 11th or 12th centuries. The most famous was the ‘Song of Roland’.
In Ariosto’s much later version, the Saracens, under Agramant, king of Africa, are besieging Charlemagne in Paris. Here Angelica, daughter of Galafron, king of Cathay, is in protective custody – for her own good, sort of: it’s a long story.2 Orlando (the ‘Roland’ of the original stories), is the chief of Charlemagne’s Paladins (knights errant), but he is distracted by Angelica’s beauty. And so, when she escapes, he abandons his military duties and sets off after her. His search, and what he finds, drives him mad. But not until canto 23 (out of a total of 46).
Meanwhile, in parallel stories, another noble knight, Rogero, is in love with Bradamante, a maiden warrior, the sister of Ronaldo (no, another noble knight). And Isabella – keep up – widow of the Scottish prince Zerbino . . . Adventures, fights to the death, true love, vicissitudes of, etc . . . And, because the early courtly tales have absorbed magical themes from the slightly later Arthurian legends, there are witches and wizards and magic rings and potions and so on. Not much in the way of dragons, I’m afraid, only the occasional monster (the Orco), and a flying horse, the ‘hippogriff’, which comes in particularly useful as the first stage of a trip to the Moon. As we shall see anon.
II. Angelica and Medoro
But what is it that drives Orlando mad? For the first eighteen cantos, the irresistible Angelica eludes her numerous noble suitors, both the chivalrous and the rather less so. (King Sacrapant, for example, meeting Angelica in the depths of the countryside, decides to ravage her forthwith:
I’ll gather now the fresh and fragrant rose,
Whose beauty may with standing still be spent;
One cannot do a thing, as I suppose,
That better can a woman’s mind content.
But Angelica manages to escape his clutches intact.)
But eventually, by chance, she encounters a badly injured young Saracen soldier, named Medoro, someone not of noble birth, but a mere ‘page of mean deserts’. Whilst tending to his wounds, ‘She having learned of surgery the art’, she promptly falls head over heels in love and
She suffers poor Medoro take the flower
Which many sought but none had yet obtained;
That fragrant rose that to the present hour
Ungathered was, behold, Medoro gained.
For a month or more (as Medoro convalesces) they linger in the pleasant countryside. All the while they carve their names ‘with bodkin, knife or pin’ on ‘every stone or sturdy tree’.
“Angelica” and “Medoro” in every place
With sundry knots and wreaths they interlace.
But finally they head for Barcelona and take ship back to her home in distant Cathay.
III. Orlando goes berserk
As luck would have it, some four cantos later, in his constant searching after Angelica, Orlando arrives at a pleasant shady grove. Of all the shady groves in all of Christendom!
For looking all about the grove, behold,
In sundry places fair ingrav’d he sees
Her name whose love he more esteems than gold,
By her own hand in barks of divers trees:
This was the place wherein before I told
Medoro used to pay his surgeon’s fees,
Where she, to boast of that that was her shame,
Used oft to write hers and Medoro’s name…
To remove all possibility of mistaken identity, Orlando finds a poem written by Medoro to celebrate his good fortune and likewise the place
Where sweet Angelica, daughter and heir
Of Galafron, on whom in vain were fixed
Full many hearts, with me did oft repair
Alone and naked lay mine arms betwixt.
Galafron, you will remember, was the King of Cathay. So, definitely not some other Angelica.
And thus, finally convinced of Angelica’s ‘betrayal’, Orlando goes mad. For ‘three days he doth not sleep nor drink nor eat,/But lay with open eyes as in a swoon;/The fourth, with rage and not with reason waked,/He rents his clothes and runs about stark naked.’ Literally stark, staring mad, then. He proceeds to run amok in the surrounding countryside, uprooting trees and assaulting herdsmen and, indeed, their flocks.
IV. A journey to the Moon
But Orlando’s martial prowess is absolutely crucial to the defence of Christendom against the Saracen. The urgent question is, therefore, ‘How to his wits Orlando may be brought?’ (canto 34). The answer lies in a fantastical trip to the Moon – which is where all ‘things that on Earth were lost’ may be found. The journey is accomplished with the help of the hippogriff and Elijah’s chariot of fire. But for now, echoing one of Ariosto’s cliff-hangers, I must say that
… more of this hereafter I will treat,
For now this book begins to be too great.
I have used the rather free translation of Orlando Furioso ‘into English heroical verse’ by Sir John Harington (1560-1612). There is a quite handy book of Selections from this edited by Rudolf Gottfried (Indiana University Press, ca.1963).
- Absolutely nothing to do with a rabid marmalade cat, pace Kathleen Hale.
- As told in the earlier Orlando Innamorato of Matteo Boiardo.