Astolfo retrieves his wits: Orlando Part II

Some months ago I put aside Orlando Furioso after completing the first of two volumes in the Barbara Reynolds translation.  Now I have returned to the fray!

As usual, it’s a crazy, exhilarating, bizarre cascade of satire, wit, romance, adventure, and, yes, poetry.  Orlando is furioso because he’s mad.  Since he’s the main man in Charlemagne’s effort to drive the Moslems-Saracens-Africans from France (in the region where I just happened to have been vacationing in August) his mental incapacitation is most inconvenient.  Not to mention the fact that he kills anyone in sight, friend or foe, and all for being jilted by a woman.

His comrade at arms, Astolfo, makes a trip to the moon on a chariot, and finds that it is not made of green cheese, but is an enormous garbage dump of sorts where everything that is lost on earth ends up.  While there, he is given some tips on how to find stuff by Saint John, author of the Book of Revelation.  Sure enough, Orlando lost his wits, and there they are on the moon!  Astolfo gathers up the vial to bring them home and restore Orlando to his fighting best, but not before he notices some of his own  wits – he didn’t know he had lost them, but then, who does? – and snorts them up his nose to restore himself to full mental capacity.

While searching for illustrations of the poem, I came across this wonderful drawing of Astolfo on the lunar dump by Davide Bignotti.  Unfortunately, this is the only picture from Orlando that he has posted.  I think it conveys the wackiness of much of the poem – it reminds me of Italo Calvino too.

Gustave Dore did a set of illustrations for the poem (is there any classic he didn’t illustrate?)  They seem a little stuffy after reading the text.

Here is the poem – Canto XXXIV, 83-84

A liquid, thin and clear, Astolfo sees,
Distilled in many vases, large and small,
Which must (so volatile the fluid is)
Be tightly corked: the largest of them all
Contains the greatest of those essences:
The mind of mad Anglante, of whose fall
You are aware and of his frenzied fits.
And on it the duke read: ‘Orland’s wits’.

On other bottles too the names are shown
To whom the wits belong.  To his surprise,
Astolfo finds a great part of his own;
And more astonished still, before his eyes
He sees the wits of those he thought had none.
But this his first impression verifies:
That little wit they must retain down here
If such a quantity is found up there. 

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