David B. Hart's "Roland Redivivus"
Orlando (or Roland, as he was originally called), the greatest paladin of the (mythic) court of Charlemagne, once loomed in the consciousness of Western culture at least as large as any of King Arthur’s knights. He began his (extant) literary adventures in perhaps the late tenth century, in the Chanson de Roland, as a gallant, formidable, intrepid, rash, and somewhat foolish chevalier who is betrayed by his stepfather Ganelon and—along with the whole company of the rearguard of Charlemagne’s retreat from Spain—dies in an ambush by Muslim “paynims” in a pass of the Eastern Pyrenees, at Roncevaux (Roncesvalles). Behind that story, it seems, stands a real historical personage: we know that a certain Count Rotholandus was among the courtiers of Charlemagne in the year 772, and in Einhard’s Vita Karoli the story of the death of “Hruolandus” is recounted for the first time. If nothing else, the ambuscade at Roncesvalles—traditionally dated August 15, 778—did take place, though it was perpetrated by Basques, not Moors.
In later chansons de geste, however—such as Les Quatre Filz Aymon, Enfances Roland, and Entrée en Espagne—the details of Roland’s earlier life were filled in, with a variety of fanciful elements becoming ever more prominent features of the narrative, and it was not long before the real Roland (such as he was) had all but disappeared behind the more resplendent figure of the hero of legend. And as the adventures of this hero grew in number and improbability, he was joined along the way by other Carolingian peers who would, in time, acquire legends of their own (Renaus, for instance—or Renaud, Ranaldo, Rinaldo, etc.—ultimately went on to rival Roland not only in martial proficiency but in literary popularity). And Roland and his fellow paladins soon migrated into other tongues: into the German of the Ruolandes Liet, into Spanish tales of the exploits of “Roldan,” into the English of such romances as Sir Ferumbras and Roland and Ferragus, and, most crucially, into Italian.
This last language proved especially hospitable to Orlando (as he was now known); in no other would his fortunes fare quite so magnificently well. Dante, for instance, not only placed Ganelon (or Ganellone) in the lowest circle of hell, but in the Paradiso counted Orlando among eight great warrior martyrs who shine with a ruby incandescence in the firmament of the sphere of Mars. And it was in Italian that Orlando ultimately achieved his apotheosis as the supreme hero of chivalric fiction, in the three greatest Italian romances of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: the Morgante of Luigi Pulci, the Orlando Innamorato of Matteo Boiardo, and the Orlando Furioso of Ludovico Ariosto. In these immense, fantastic, intricate, and bizarre epics, the figure of Orlando came at last to assume literary dimensions such as no other warrior of Christendom could ever hope to equal.
Today, however, Orlando’s fame seems to have sunk to its lowest ebb. Certainly the legends of the Carolingian peers do not continue to generate popular literature and film in the way that the stories of Camelot do. Perhaps this is simply because the court of Charlemagne, even in fable, occupies too specific a place in history. Orlando is, unambiguously, a champion of an imperiled Christendom; his stories certainly cannot be resituated (in the manner of contemporary Arthuriana) in a realm of fatuous New Age pantheism. But, whatever the cause, Orlando—especially in the English-speaking world—is all but forgotten. Of the three great epics, only Ariosto’s tends to enjoy a distinct presence in literate minds, and then usually only as a book lurking unread upon some rarely visited shelf.
It was not ever thus. Once these works were part of the common heritage of European culture and exercised an immense literary influence. Without the great Italian romances, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, for instance, would not have been written. When Milton in Paradise Lost mentions the siege of Albraca—described in the Innamorato—he is not doing so as a display of abstruse erudition. Indeed, it would be difficult to exaggerate how deeply these epics entered into the imaginative world of English literature (especially in the Romantic period). In Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne, published in 1867, the author blandly and uncontentiously numbers these works “among the most cherished creations of human genius,” some knowledge of which “is expected of every well-educated young person.” And yet by 1936 C. S. Lewis could only lament that these “masterpieces” were now so neglected and that all of us had been robbed of the enjoyment of “one of the great trophies of the European genius.”
This, though, may be a propitious moment for a revival of interest in these works, at least among Anglophone readers. For the first time ever, complete translations of all three of the Orlando epics are available, and at reasonable prices. The Furioso has been rendered into English on a number of occasions, but by far the most delightful modern version is that of Barbara Reynolds. The first complete translation of the Morgante, by Joseph Tusiani, appeared in 1998. And now, with this release of Charles Stanley Ross’ translation of the Innamorato (revising an earlier version that appeared in a limited and hideously expensive critical edition), the entire Orlando cycle lies at our fingertips. And, given that the Furioso is the completion of the Innamorato (left unfinished at Boiardo’s death), readers who have not mastered the dialects of Renaissance Italy can now enjoy the whole narrative arc of these two linked epics without resorting to abridgments.
There is something slightly subversive in the title of Boiardo’s epic. The early chansons de geste were works notorious for their martial austerity, and were largely devoid of whimsy, extravagant invention, or any trace of romantic love (as Boiardo at one point coyly notes). Pulci had introduced certain vaguely “Arthurian” elements into the Carolingian mythos; but it was Boiardo who first explicitly united the two streams of lore, importing into his poem not only one of the relics of Merlin and various dimensions of the magical and the “fay,” but an emphasis upon human love.
One’s first encounter with any of these epics can be somewhat jarring; they are far and away the most wildly farraginous and gloriously irresponsible masterpieces in Western literature. They are at once heroic, comic, allegorical, lyrical, satirical, fabulous, and (occasionally) dark; they move with alarming ease between the metaphysical and the ribald, the allegorical and the brutal, the spiritual and the grotesque. The Innamorato might almost seem formless but for the ingenuity with which Boiardo continually weaves the innumerable strands of his story together into ever more diverting designs. At any moment in the story, a paladin might find himself confronted by a giant Saracen astride a galloping giraffe, or trapped in an enchanted castle oblivious of his own name, or beset by an army of demons, or challenged by an ogre, or lost in a fairy otherworld full of the most exquisite enchantments, or at the mercy of a sorcerer. And Boiardo—even more than Ariosto—is so irrepressibly inventive a fabulist that one often has the feeling that, but for the author’s mortality, the story need never come to an end.
There is, however, a larger plot to the poem, wherein all of its disparate elements and wild divarications find their home. It begins at a Pentecost tournament called by Charlemagne, for Christian and Muslim knights alike, which is interrupted by the arrival of Angelica, a woman of astonishing beauty who offers herself as the prize to any knight who can defeat her brother upon the field of battle. (She is, we later learn, the daughter of the King of Cathay and mistress of certain magic arts, sent with the express purpose of bringing ruin upon the emperor’s court.) The assembled warriors are smitten with her at once, none more hopelessly than Orlando, and are willing to venture anything to win her. When she is forced to flee back to Asia, she is followed by Orlando, who is himself followed in turn by other paladins.
An additional comic twist is given to the tale when, wandering in the forest of Arden, Ranaldo—also pursuing Angelica—drinks from Merlin’s well (prepared long ago to chill Tristan’s ardor for Isolde), which turns his love for Angelica to hatred; but then Angelica drinks from the Stream of Love and falls slavishly in love with Ranaldo. Thus, when she has returned home, she contrives to have Ranaldo spirited away to the Far East upon a magic ship. Finally—by way of innumerable detours—a host of players, Christian and “pagan,” are brought together at the city of Albraca, where Angelica is besieged by her jealous suitor Agricane of Tartary, and where Orlando and Ranaldo find themselves fighting on opposite sides.
In the second book of the epic, however, the action shifts back towards the West. Albraca falls and Angelica escapes with Orlando. Meanwhile, the Muslim kings of North Africa launch an assault on Charlemagne’s empire. The earlier comic twist is twisted again when Angelica and Ranaldo drink from (respectively) Merlin’s well and the Stream of Love, and so exchange the spells under which they labor. And the involutions of plot become if anything more elaborate than in the first half of the poem. The Muslim invasion of France and siege of Paris occupy the rest of the epic, and are still in progress when it abruptly terminates. Among the new characters are Rodamonte (“Rodomonte” in Ariosto, whence the word “rodo-montade”), the fierce, godless, and all but invincible Saracen king of Sarza, and Rugiero, the mythical progenitor of the House of Este. The latter is especially important because Boiardo—gentleman of Ferrara—was a beneficiary of the Estensi; and because Ariosto—also dependent on that House’s patronage—would explicitly transform Ruggiero (Ariosto’s spelling) into the Ferraran Aeneas, and Rodomonte into a new Turnus (which gives Rodomonte the privilege of bringing the epic to its sudden conclusion by dying under Ruggiero’s blade).
Boiardo has often been dismissed as Ariosto’s inferior, and in many respects he is (though not in fertility of imagination). One charge too often laid against him, though, is that his characters are not consistently developed. It is true that he does not provide much in the way of “psychological” portraiture; but one of the astonishing things about the Innamorato is how clearly his men and women stand forth in one’s imagination. Despite the mythic scale of their prowess, the human dimensions of their personalities are almost always poignantly visible. It is difficult to convey how touching, for instance, the character of Orlando is in some respects: especially his utter naïveté regarding—and childlike faith in—women (the very characteristic that will lead, in Ariosto’s epic, to the madness that gives the poem its title). And certain characters—like Astolfo, the impossibly brave if somewhat inept English paladin, or the “pagan” (later Christian) paramours Brandimarte and Fiordelisa—are rendered as vividly as any figures in epic fiction.
All the Orlando epics are marvelous works, and the whole cycle is like nothing else in the Western canon. Though Ariosto’s poem introduces undeniably tragic themes into the story, and though Pulci retells the story of Roncesvalles, none of these poems is tragic in the classical sense; and they certainly display little of the grave grandeur of classical epic. They are the imaginative product of late Christendom at the threshold of modernity, an exorbitant flourishing of the riches of a fully formed and complex civilization. Like Elizabethan drama, they are so heterogeneous in form as practically to constitute a rebellion against classical restraints; they simply cannot resist mixing intense pathos with high comedy, stateliness with farce, heroic magnificence with nursery fantasy. These are joyous books, festive, pervaded by a spirit of carnival and of rude happiness; they contain no hint of morbid fatalism; they cannot conceal their mirth. (Even the bloodshed is somehow lighthearted.) If Dante’s Commedia is the consummation of the high culture of developed Christ-endom, these works represent the final triumph of the sort of worldly imagination incubated by the Christ-ian order (which is so much more fanciful than the pagan).
Ross’ translation of the Innamorato is not always exemplary. Boiardo was a “rougher” poet than Ariosto, true, but Ross is sometimes far too colloquial; and often the delicate glitter of Boiardo’s genuinely lyric passages is rendered by Ross in a pale gray wash. He confines himself, for some reason, to a tetrametric line that is needlessly curt. But his is a scrupulous and readable translation, and (most importantly) it is complete. For this we must be grateful. Only a sensibility in some part stillborn, it seems to me, could fail to delight in these books. One does not so much read them as feast upon them; and it is our very great good fortune that now, for the first time in the history of our language, the feast has been laid for us in full.