By Matteo Maria Boiardo (trans. Charles Ross).
Boiardo’s rambling epic poem published in the 1480s is principally the tale of the adventures of Orlando, one of Charles the Great’s paladins, after he falls in love with the beautiful Angelica, daughter of King Galafron of Cathay, who has been sent to the French court with her brother, Argalia, to ensnare as many knights as they can.
The plan does not quite work as intended, although Angelica succeeds in drawing away Orlando, Ranaldo, and various others, thus triggering a series of adventures across Europe and Asia. Two conflicts become the backdrop to these stories: Angelica has made a lot of enemies, who besiege her in the city of Albraca; King Agramante, the ruler of Biserta, raises an army to invade France and carry off Ranaldo’s horse, Bayard, and Orlando’s sword, Durindana.
The main characters in the story are Orlando and his impoverished cousin, Ranaldo, who absolutely hates Angelica who absolutely loves him, but there are a large number of other characters such as the boastful English knight, Astolfo, and the brothers, Aquilante and Grifone, the Saracens, Marfisa, Feraguto, Rodamonte, and Brandimarte, the villains, Morgana, Alcina, and Falerina, who all cross paths with Orlando and Ranaldo.
The action is typically hyperbolic. When faced with a hero of comparable stature, Orlando and Ranaldo can fight for hours or even days. When they fight against armies, they mow down enemy soldiers like a scythe mows down wheat. Even in Boiardo’s day this level of exaggeration was nothing new. Chaucer (who would not have been the first) did the same in the Knight’s Tale when the two protagonists ended up wading ankle-deep in blood during a duel.
The stories employed in the poem are often taken straight from classical myth with “Heracles” crossed out and replaced with “Orlando” or “Ranaldo”. A lot of the stories tend to begin in the same way with, for example, a meeting with some lone woman warning the hero of perils ahead, who also happens to have an instruction manual on her.
Boiardo does skip from one plot to another at opportune moments so as to carry the reader along with him.
The Oxford World’s Classics version of Orlando Innamorato is the translator’s abridgement of his complete translation of the poem, which includes prose summaries of the parts which have been omitted, thus sparing readers the likely tedium of yet another battle in which some champion has his armour gradually hacked from him.
With the apparent boom in fantasy literature in the early 21st century, Orlando Innamorato may not be as daunting to readers today as Ross thought it might be in 1995 when this version was published, or in 1989 when he published the full translation. The problem with the poem is that after Spenser, Malory, Chrétien de Troyes, and even Ariosto (although Orlando Furioso is properly the sequel to this work) the material and style are quite familiar. The allegorical aspect of the text may pass modern readers by, although, for example, there is obviously a message when the indigent Ranaldo is unable to carry off a golden chair from Morgana’s treasury. Overall, the poem is not so alien today, at least on one level, as Ross thought it was twenty years ago.