Hector and Achilles in Orlando Furioso

Italians have been deconstructing and reconstructing Homer and Vergil for a Long Time.  If you come upon a heroic epic that doesn’t feature those two, you aren’t reading something Italian.  And one of the all-time great contrasts in the Homeric cycle is between Hector and Achilles.

Achilles is mad, bru.  It’s the first word of the poem!  He’s mad fast, and mad strong, and in the post-Homeric tradition he’s mad invincible.  What’s he mad about?  Well, his king took his girl from him and his best friend gets murdered in a scene involving his gear.

Achilles Pitt
Yeah, he’s mad, bro

If I told you that Ariosto was Italian, would it surprise you to learn that his titular hero is also raging mad?  He’s invincible (by God’s grace, not the river Styx).  His king took his girl from him and his best friend gets murdered in a scene involving his gear…

One of the cooler aspects of Orlando Furioso is how Ariosto handles the Hector and Achilles types.  I’ve already spoiled part of it, but there’s actually quite a bit of structure to it in the poem.

First off, Orlando vs. Rinaldo.  Each of them embodies a different hero in their defense of Christian Europe.  Orlando is always described as monstrously strong, fearless, invincible.  As mentioned above, he’s obviously an Achilles figure.  Rinaldo, by contrast, is always praised for his skill.  He does his duty even when he’d rather be chasing Helangelica.  He’s a Hector figure.

But they can’t fight each other!  They are cousins.  They fight on the same side.  They serve the same king.  How do we get the Hector-Achilles fight going then?

Easy: put another Hector and Achilles on the other side.  The Saracen knight who constantly rages, throws down an epic aristeia, is consumed by hate, and overpowers his enemies with sheer might?  Why helloooo there, Rodomonte.  The fact that he wears dragon scale armor and bears the sword of Nimrod is just icing on the cake.  This dude is raging!  Expect future fanboy posts on him for sure.  His foil on the Muslim side is Rogero, who is praised for his skill and sense of duty much like Rinaldo.  He’s even got an aging father figure who, knowing his grisly fate, does everything in his power to keep him safe–what Priam would have done had he foreknown his son’s desecration.

But Ariosto has done even more than that: he’s carved up the Hector and Achilles figures and farmed out key parts to each of his characters.  Rodomonte embodies the rage, Orlando the invincibility.  Rodomonte has a “borrowed invincibility” from his dragon scale armor and Orlando has a “borrowed rage” from his lovesick reaction to Helangelica.  We also get weird crossovers of the portfolios: Orlando’s sword Durandal is the reforged sword of Hector, and Rogero has two fates corresponding to the two fates of Achilles.

But Orlando never fights Rogero, since he’s the conceit of the poem (he and Bradamante give rise to the d’Este line which patroned Ariosto) and he can’t fight his Achilles counterpart in Rodomonte.  There’s only one matching left: Rogero v. Rodomonte.  Would it surprise you to find out that the poem ends with those two fighting?  And further that, like any true-blooded Italian, Ariosto re-writes the story so that Hector wins?

To say any more on this would require close textual work–my memory is not so prodigious as all that!  As we are just ramping up the Orlando tales now in ERC, I’ll keep an eye out and try to feature a few close readings along the way.

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