Roland Furieux, Trad. Michel Orcel. Paris: Le Seuil. 2v. ISBN 9782020221375.
I have to admit it, I prefer Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato.
Although poets, painters, musicians, and other artists have infinitely mined Ariosto’s poem for centuries, leaving Boiardo in near-complete obscurity against the shining success that is Orlando Furioso, there is something about the sparkling, petulant action of Orlando Innamorato, which Ariosto’s well-educated, erudite, and ironic poem cannot match. Where Boiardo proves a matchless master of suspense and plot, Ariosto remains an intellectual, and somewhat of a courtier.
That said, one should not pass the opportunity to read Orlando Furioso. Born as a continuation of Boiardo’s poem, the Furioso operates on the same expansive principle: multiple plot lines interlaced at judicious moments which spin into multiple sub-threads. It is a monument to inspire passion and devotion to the infinite possibilities of fiction, and the dream of a never-ending story.
If the Innamorato brought together the magical element of Arthurian literature with the warfare stories of the Carolingian cycle, the Furioso also incorporates a vast Classical culture, which turns it into one of the greatest literary nexus of Western Europe (it is matched only by Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, which incorporates in addition to all these the Biblical tradition). It also employs a variety of registers, and can reach heights of lyrical beauty as well as sweeping epic vistas. You may want to use this chart I made to make sense of characters and genealogy.
What is it about? Well, roughly put, Charlemagne is under siege by the Sarrasins, and since they all have their own amorous or horse-related troubles to deal with, their final confrontation is indefinitely delayed.
The Furioso is a novel without a beginning or an end (even if we count the Cinque Canti). It’s a middle, a giant ball of plot, and sub-plot, which allows the author to operate on a perpendicular plane: irony, and commentary. A sub-story about the mad king who possessed an arquebuse is an opportunity to condemn warfare in its mechanized incarnation; an episode taking its inspirations from the legend of Lemnos women (see the Argonautika) is an opportunity to affirm the equality between men and women; and so forth.
Structurally, one can think of the Decameron or the Canterbury Tales because of the many inset tales, told in their entirety by characters encountered au hasard. The overarching story is eventually only a pretext, and there is no pressing need to further it since it allows instead to create all of those vignettes. The stories are thus nested, instead of being interlaced as in Boiardo.
This has for effect of focusing the Furioso on a resultant sense of harmony and balance, not of constant movement. This harmony can be beautifully disrupted by extravagant episodes (such as Astolfo’s visit to the moon), and there are many, but the voice of the author is ever-present at the beginning and end of cantos, which bookends with a urbane, suave voice the rollicking adventures of knights and damsels.
In fact, I think one of the major interests of the Furioso for the modern reader is not necessarily as a good yarn, or action tale, but rather as a a laboratory for both the modern novel and the modern short story. Although Don Quixote is explicitly engaged in liquidating the medieval epic of chivalry by deconstructing it, the Furioso does so in a more subtle manner. The Quixote employs ribald comedy, slapstick, and wears on its sleeves its intent; the Furioso adheres more closely to the conventions of the genre, and accepts the marvellous rather than casting it as a delusion. The Quixote has a definite realist vein, which works at its best to bring down all the aristocratic pretence of the chivalry novel, but I think it misses its target by casting in the shape of delusion the relationship between fiction and reality. As my favourite literary theorists would put it, something fictional needs not be something false; fiction is just a way of telling, and in which both truth and falsehood can exist. By maintaining the fictional contract, the Furioso is less dissonant than the Quixote; less hilarious, of course, but more beautiful.