In my prized hardback edition of The Lord of the Rings, on the inside dust jacket, there’s an encomium to the book by C.S. Lewis. When I first read The Lord of the Rings, I’d never read any of the Narnia books, nor did I have any idea who C.S. Lewis was, but for some reason, his review always stuck in my mind: “If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (in fact he does not) he would still lack its heroic seriousness.”
Who was this Ariosto bloke being compared to Tolkien? More years later than I care to remember, I decided to find out. Turned out, Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) was an Italian, the court poet of the d’Este family, the dukes of Ferrara, and he had written Orlando Furioso for them. Well, I am half Italian, my family in Italy live near Ferrara, I have visited the city many times and the castle of the d’Este family still dominates the centre of the town, so I decided to read Ariosto’s most famous work.
It is a delight. A riotous, tumbling, weaving tapestry of interlocking stories, all more marvellous and epic than the last, with the characters’ tales threading through the narrative – enlivened by Ariosto’s wry voice – in a veritable cornucopia of wonders. There are flying horses, dragons, battles, maidens so beautiful they drive men mad, contening paladins, magicians, wizards, witches, oaths unwisely taken and, of course, love. The story is set in the time of Charlemagne, but in the story it bears as much relationship to the real Charlemagne and his knights as the medieval tales of Arthur do to a possible fifth century Brythonic war captain.
What’s particularly striking is Ariosto’s sympathy for and treatment of women – these are no virginal stereotypes but run the full range of women, with the two standouts being Angelica, who weaponises her beauty and drives Orlando to madness, and Bradamante, the slightly dim warrior maiden who can outmatch any man in tourney.
It’s a wonderful series of tales and I’ve only got half way: this volume contains the first half of Barbara Reynolds’ delightful translation from the Italian. Once, every eductated person knew the tale of the madness of Orlando: would that they would again.