This is one of those cantos that gives you a good feel for Ariosto’s sense of humor. We finally get Orlando moving, he sets out to find Helangelica after his prophetic dream at the end of Canto 8, and the first person he meets tells him about a quest to destroy a damsel-eating sea monster on an island near Hibernia.
If you don’t read the poem all at once, or skim it a bit, the significance might not register. What is presented to Orlando as a kind of side-quest is where Helangelica is. She’s been taken by the corsairs of Ebuda and is held there as Ork-bait; because she is so beautiful and charming they are saving her for later and rounding up other beautiful women in the mean-time.
[Aside: this makes no sense. The curse, so the people think, will only be broken when Proteus is given a suitably beautiful woman. Why not do in the most beautiful woman in the world, for whom launched a thousand
ships knights errant? This might actually be the poet’s point: it is of a piece with Ariosto’s generally negative attitude toward the culture on the other side of the Channel. Not such an aside after all…]
So as soon as the story starts, Orlando has his goal in within arm’s reach. He even strongly suspects Helangelica is there, and can scarcely contain himself in setting out. And that’s as close as he’s ever going to get. When he tries to cross the channel, the heavens strike against him and, after several fighting days, force him to land at Antwerp.
It’s a melodramatic start to his tale, since the audience is surely clued in to what’s going on here. There’s no way Ariosto can let the action resolve so quickly, so what’s he going to do–oh, right.
Poseidon Juno Aeolus God stops him with a storm. It also tells us up front that Orlando’s quest is doomed and that his love of Helangelica is a Bad Thing. We’ve seen the dream, we’ve seen this divine intervention, all that remains is to see how it’s going to end badly. I forebear quoting Cocktail here.
But there’s also Orlando’s redemption built into this canto. In Antwerp he runs into a real side quest: the plight of Olympia. This is a Shakespearean love-tragedy (well, it will be once the Bard steals it from Ariosto) about the king of Holland’s daughter, a noble Duke-knight who loves her, a cruel Frisian king who crushes her kingdom to marry her to his son.
It’s got some crazy twists to it though. It would be too basic for Orlando to ride in and set things right. Instead, Olympia tries to solve the problem herself and makes matters quite a bit worse. Hard to say if Ariosto is mocking her or praising her and making the story more…more. But eventually her family is dead, her resources are spent, Bireno is in jail, and she goes into hiding after slitting the throat of the king’s son Arbantes. The evil Frisian Cymosco will slay captive Bireno unless Olympia hands herself over; the only reason she hasn’t done so is that she knows how super-villains operate when it comes to releasing hostages.
How is this redemption? Orlando rides in to save the day–and even leaves behind his horse (!) to do it!–instead of heading to Ebuda to save Helangelica. So we know that he’s not completely gone in his madness, even if he is technically a traitor to Charlemagne at this point. Damsels require saving, even if Europe must burn! Like with Olympia’s convoluted tale, it’s hard to get a read on. Is he mocking Orlando and the chivalric romance, or is he showing us something deeper? Either way, it’s at least a little sly and I like it.
Best stanza? Man, there’s some crazy action in this canto. Orlando sticking six knights on his lance like a giant kebab? Killing a seventh man with the blunt force of the lance-kebab? Throwing it down in disgust and pulling out his sword to drive off King Cymosco’s entire army? Racing through the streets and cutting Cymosco in half with his sword? Nah, how about this triplet, after Cymosco shoots him with a gun and only succeeds in killing his lazy-ass borrowed horse and pissing off Orlando (9.77-79):
To earth fall horse and rider: this the knight
Scarce touched; the other thundering pressed the plain:
For the first rose so ready and so light,
He from the fall seemed breath and force to gain.
As African Antëus, in the fight,
Rose from the sand with prouder might and main;
So when Orlando touched the ground, to view
He rose with doubled force and vigour new.
He who has seen the thunder, from on high,
Discharged by Jove with such a horrid sound,
Descend where nitre, coal, and sulphur lie,
Stored up for use in magazine profound,
Which scarce has reached—but touched it, ere the sky
Is in a flame, as well as burning ground,
Firm walls are split, and solid marbles riven,
And flying stones cast up as high as heaven;
Let him imagine, when from earth he sprung,
Such was the semblance of the cavalier;
Who moved in mode to frighten Mars among
The Gods, so fierce and horrid was his cheer.
At this dismay’d, the King of Friesland stung
His horse, and turned his rein, to fly the peer:
But fierce Orlando was upon his foe
Faster than arrow flies from bended bow:
“At this dismayed…” Hahaha! Damn right.
There’s even some bonus humor after this. It’s just in Canto X, not IX. Because after Orlando fixes this gigantic…er, problem…and reunites the lovers, Bireno abandons Olympia on a deserted island and runs off with a fourteen year old.