Astolfo retrieves his wits: Orlando Part II

October 4, 2011

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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My kind of Orlando

February 22, 2011

click for summary of poem

From “Taking Liberties,” a review of David R. Slavitt’s new translation of Orlando Furioso, by David B. Hart in Commonweal. 137.13 (July 16, 2010)

During the high Middle Ages, poems written on the “Matter of France”–that is, tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and of Count Roland (or Orlando) in particular–were among Europe’s most beloved literary entertainments… once the Carolingian theme had been stated [The Song of Roland], the variations that followed…departed ever further from the original story’s stern simplicity, and came to incorporate ever more fabulous elements: impossible feats, mythical beasts, magical objects, and superhuman foes.

In the end, the whole tradition culminated in the three great Orlando “romances” of the Italian Renaissance: Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1478-83), Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (finished 1486, published 1494), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516-32). These are, without question, among the wildest fictions in European literature. They are “epics,” perhaps, but are every bit as defiant of the classical unities (not only of time and place, but of tone and texture) as the dramas of England and Spain’s Golden Age theaters. Their stories spill across the entire known world, to say nothing of faerie, hell, and the moon. They recount sieges, military engagements, and single combat, but also tell of giants, sprites, sorcerers, sea monsters, magic gardens, and hidden kingdoms. They lurch convulsively–though somehow quite nimbly–from the hilarious to the tragic to the mystical.

Once upon a time, moreover, they were widely read … Now, however, they gather dust in those shadowy galleries where the Western canon’s most rarely visited monuments are kept. This is a pity. Modern readers may not have much patience for long verse narratives, but these works are anything but forbidding; they can be enjoyed by anyone with an imagination and a sense of humor. Yet Pulci and Boiardo are scarcely remembered today outside Italy. Only Ariosto lingers on in the consciousness of educated persons, and then generally only as an important name.

. . .  Exactly what [Orlando Furioso] is about is difficult to pin down, but this hardly matters. The narrative takes up the various stories begun in the Innamorato, but left unfinished at the time of Boiardo’s death: the infatuation of Orlando with the beautiful sorceress Angelica, daughter of the King of Cathay, and Orlando’s pursuit of her across Europe and into the Far East; the siege of Paris by the Moors; the adventures of Ruggiero, mythical founder of the House of Este (of which both Boiardo and Ariosto were clients); the rampages of the evil Moorish King of Sarza, Rodomonte; and a number of other plot lines. The principal pleasure of the poem as a whole lies in the ingenuity with which Ariosto weaves the tales together in ever more outlandish and intricate complications–and then manages to resolve them all in a single moment of dramatic finality.

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Monty Python? -click for source

Fantasy Land