Ariosto's Orlando Furioso is considered the great poem of the Italian Renaissance, and for four centuries was admired and imitated. Spenser's Faerie Queene by modern standards would be considered a gross plagarism of Ariosto, and Bulfinch, in his famous compendium of myth and legend devotes a great amount of space to Ariosto's poem. Dore's 618 illustrations from late in the 19th century give some sense of the popularity of the work. (a few of those are included here, courtesy of Dover Press.) The poem fell from favor almost overnight with the arrival of the modern era with its peculiar aesthetic views. The modern age, however, is pretty much at an end, and Orlando Furioso seems, at least to me, more in tune with the tastes of the postmodern age. In teaching British literature I have noticed that students, who used to despise The Faerie Queene (that much praised and little read classic) even more than most English teachers did, now either like it, or are at least tolerant of it.
Catherine's and my novel, Mythosphere, was strongly influenced by Orlando Furioso in structure. When we had to prepare a full plot summary to submit to publisher's it turned out to be quite a task with the large number of characters and the multiplicity of story lines that were forever crossing each other, joining, or diverging. Orlando Furioso is both longer and faster paced than our story, so that the plot is incredibly intricate and complex. Therefore, I will only follow a few of the larger plot lines, and hope that those give some sense of the story. But first, a few of the hundred's of character, male, female, Christian, Saracen, and other.
Orlando (Roland): Hero, and nephew of Charlemagne--nephew on the sister's side, an especially important relationship in early northern Europe. Gawain has this same relationship to Arthur. Orlando is definitely a super-hero, but he does not dominate the action here as he does in The Song of Roland.
Oliver: Oliver's close friend and companion in The Song of Roland. His role here is much smaller, but of course that work is a "buddy" story, and this one is not.
Rinaldo: Another major hero. He was inspired to heroism by the example of Orlando.
Bradamante (Britomart): Female knight, and Rinaldo's sister.
Ruggerio (Roger): Saracen prince who falls in love with Bradamante and converts to Christianity. He and Bradamante play such major roles in the story perhaps because they are the reputed ancestors of Ariosto's patron.
Astolpho: Another of Charlemagne's knights, and son of Otto, king of England.
He has some of the most improbable adventures in all fiction.
Melissa: Female enchantress and patroness of Bradamante.
Alcina: Evil female enchantress.
Atlante: Evil male enchanter.
Rodomonte: Saracen king of Algiers, and great warrior.
The story begins with France overrun by the Saracens (Moslems) who are about to besiege Paris. Orlando returns from Cathay bringing the beautiful, but not entirely willing. Angelica. Rinaldo immediately falls for her and Charlemagne puts her in the care of Nenno, Duke of Bavaria, to be given to whichever of the two champions performs most valiantly in the impending battle. The battle turns out to be a surprising defeat, and Angelica escapes from both sides on horseback.
Two warriors are fighting over Angelica at the foot of the impossibly huge tree, while she is visible as a white blotch fleeing on horseback. Angelica seems always to be escaping from one or another infatuated, would-be lover. After several such escapes Angelica is taken under the wing of a kind hermit, who turns out to be an evil magician. He transports her to the coast of Ireland, and while she is unconscious attempts to rape her. The aged magician, however, cannot get it up, and at last goes off and leaves her. She is captured by the natives who have offended the sea god, Proteus, and have to sacrifice a beautiful maiden periodically to a sea monster called the "orc." Angelica is chained to the rock and left for the dragon, another version of the Perseus and Andromeda story, and the later St. George and the princess of Egypt story.
Meanwhile, Bradamante and Ruggerio (Roger) have met and fallen in love, been involved in several fights, been separated, then reuinited. They are hardly together again before a figure appears in the sky riding a hippogriff--sort of a lion, horse, eagle--and stuns Ruggerio and another knight with the rays from his shining shield.
This is the enchanter, Atlante, who had raised Ruggerio from childhood, and wishes to protect him from danger and conversion to Christianity. He carries Ruggerio and the other knight back to his mountaintop castle, Bradamante following as best she can on foot. He comes out to oppose her, trying to stun her with his shield. She pretends to be uncoscious, and he lands and dismounts. She captures him and forces him to free his prisoners. He escapes, taking his castle with him, but Ruggerio and all the prisoners are now free. Ruggerio, however, climbs on the hippogriff, and it flys off with him, leaving a desperate Bradamante behind. Before it touches earth again, the hipporiff flys entirely around the world, landing in England. Ruggerio ties it to a myrtle tree, and it tears at the branches and .
leaves. Damaging the tree gives it the power toforms Ruggerio that it is really one of Charlemagne's champions, Astolpho, who had been lured away on the back of a whale by Alcina a wicked enchantress who had kept him as a lover until she had tired of him, and then had turned him into a tree. Her previous lovers had also met similar fates. Though warned, Ruggerio is seduced by Alcina into a life of shameful sloth and luxury until rescued by Bradamante's patroness, the good sorceress, Melissa. The tree motif goes back to Vergil's Aeneid, Book III, and is a staple of heroic literature. We even use it in our novel, Mythosphere.
Alcina in her true form, and as she appears to others through her enchantments.
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Meanwhile, much else is happening, far too much to mention. But for two, the Moors are laying seige to Paris with bloody incursions into the city, and Angelica, after a multitude of escapes finally falls in love with a young Saracen, and they go about the forest carving their names on the trees.
Ruggerio and Bradamante again fall into the hands of the enchanter, Atlantes, but are rescued along with Orlando and many others by Astolpho who mounts the hippogriff and flies off on further adventures.
Orlando finds the names carved on the trees, and realizing that he has lost Angelica, goes on an insane rampage destroying or killing everything in his path. Astolpho ends up in the mysterious Chrstian kingdom of Ethiopia in the heart of Africa and endears himself to the emperor by freeing him from the harpies that attack at mealtime and befoul his food, a motif that begins--as far as I can determine--with the story of the Argonauts, is reused by Vergil in the Aeneid, and finally by Shakespeare in The Tempest. Astolpho takes a journey to the moon in Elija's chariot. This is the place that all things lost on earth end up, and so he finds Orlando's wits and brings them back with him. He collects a large army from Ethiopia and marches on the Saracan forces from the south, wrecking enormous havoc. Orlando's wits are restored, the Saracans are driven from Europe, and Bradamante and Ruggerio, after a long lead-up, are finally married. As the marriage approaches the woman warrior grows encreasingly demure and lady-like.
These are only a few of the many plot lines of the story, and even these have been drastically streamlined, but even the sketchiest summary, if it got everything in, would proably take fifty pages. At the time Orlando Furioso was written the concept of an action adventure story barely existed. In the centuries since it has probably suffered in reputation for being related to what is considered a sub-literary genera, in spite of the fine poetry of the work and the sophisticated use of the whole of western literary tradition. To me the greatest flaws in the work are the fact that we tend not to become very deeply involved with the characters, or to really believe the story.