Epic Recitation at St. Anselm’s

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The nerds about to recite for the last time this semester (2015).

L to R: Ryan Fennelly, Will Lawrence, Dan Fitzpatrick, Hank Hermens, Fred Buchanan (emerging from the empyrean), Nat Monahan, Luke Craver, Philip Flannery, Hammatt Babin.

Sorry about the eyes, Ryan.  The other photos were blurry.

Today was our last ERC gathering for the Fall Semester.  We wasted time, itself a not unusual occurrence, getting the crew posed for their glam shot.  Then we marched through the beginning of Canto 9 and managed to set up Orlando’s assault on the evil king of Friesland.

One of the reasons for our inefficiency is my office mate, Mr. Fries, though he was not present.  His familiar name does indeed designate him a Frisian, and the boys delighted in the wonderful parallels to his fictional ancestor.  One is a cruel, heartless, murderous tyrant.  The other is…well, the joke writes itself, and Dan did us the favor of finishing it to the laughter of all.  For each phase of his story, I had them imagine how Mr. Fries would deal with an uprising of students against his express will.  A good time was had by all, excepted the absent Mr. Fries.  We’ll be sure to bring him in the next time we pick up the canto in January.

And now for some bonus material on the canto.  The Evil Frisian’s signal weapon is one of the most striking anachronisms of the poem (9.28-29):

Strange arms he bears, unknown to any wight,
Save him, of the ancient nations or the new:
A hollow iron, two yards long, whose small
Channel he loads with powder and a ball

He, where ’tis closed behind, in the iron round,
Touches with fire a vent, discerned with pain;
In guise that skilful surgeon tries his ground,
Where need requires that he should breathe a vein.
Whence flies the bullet with such deafening sound,
That bolt and lightening from the hollow cane
Appear to dart, and like the passing thunder,
Burn what they smite, beat-down or rend asunder.

Ariosto is not a fan of the firearm; small wonder why, given the transformation it was working on the world even in his 16th century.  It is the end of all that Orlando Furioso celebrates and eventually creates a world where, instead of killing each other in battle, we exterminate each other like insects (James Chastek has some nice posts on this topic).

Luckily this is a fantastical romance, so when the Evil Frisian unleashes his devilry on Orlando, it merely kills his borrowed  horse and enrages the Count.  I won’t spoil the rest of the action, but the canto ends with him trying to keep the world safe for right, proper killing (9.99-101):

But with design to cast the weapon where
It never more should living wight molest;
And, what was appertaining to it, all
Bore off as well, the powder and the ball.

And thus, when of the tidesway he was clear,
And in the deepest sea his bark descried,
So that no longer distant signs appear
Of either shore on this or the other side,
He seized the tube, and said: “That cavalier
May never vail through thee his knightly pride,
Nor base be rated with a better foe,
Down with thee to the darkest deep below!

“O loathed, O cursed piece of enginery,
Cast in Tartarean bottom, by the hand
Of Beelzebub, whose foul malignity
The ruin of this world through thee has planned!
To hell, from whence thou came, I render thee.”
So said, he cast away the weapon; fanned
Meanwhile, with flowing sheet, his frigate goes,
By wind, which for the cruel island blows.

Once I would have considered this to be purely romantic rubbish.  Death by sword is still death, and it’s painful and gory.  We did a great job massacring each other with hand-held weapons for millennia.  But given what we can (and do) accomplish against each other with technological wizardry, I’m not sure Ariosto is wrong.

To stop and think about war and its ramifications is one of the hallmarks of the epic poem.  No one has ever outdone Homer on this score, but Ariosto follows faithfully in his steps.  Dream big, even when reading fun adventures in a school club: maybe we can raise people of peace.

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