In the second most messed up canto of the poem (trust me, we’ll get there), the rescued lovers from Canto 9 end really, really badly. Bireno drops it like its hot for some jail bait back Zealand. I don’t even know how to put into words how it feels when Olympia wakes up on the beach, except to say that not even a Kardashian-Lohan clone baby should be treated so badly.
The hits don’t stop there. Ariosto clearly wants the women in his audience really revved up against men at night’s end; after taking Rogero on a world tour on the back of the hippogryph, Ariosto drops him off at Ebuda to rescue Helangelica…after which he tries to rape her (?!).
These leaves me with two questions: what the hell is wrong with the men in this poem and why is Ariosto getting play out of it? Turns out the answer to both is Helangelica.
This is the first canto where Helangelica, she of the furioso-inducing, is actually sympathetic. Well, that probably starts up back in Canto 8 when the sorcerer puts the moves on her and the corsairs take her to Ebuda; here we are actively rooting for her and cheer when she gives Rogero the slip at the start of the next canto. That’s quite a transformation from the early poem. Even understanding the plight of a woman lost in a man’s world (and a battlefield, no less), she is mercilessly unsympathetic in her machinations in the opening cantos.
If you were not expecting the Helen figure, a thin, war-starting trophy in Homer, to undergo character development, you clearly don’t know your medieval romances. This is one of the common features of the Italian epic, and we’re definitely not done yet with the meditations on Helen’s character. But one of the things that sticks throughout, even as her character develops, is that her beauty kills. We’ll still be talking about this in Hawthorne!
The problem is the passion that beauty brings. Even Rogero, who is hard-wired to be noble in this poem (remember, he’s the fictional ancestor of Ariosto’s patrons), runs amok under the force of passions brought out by Helangelica’s beauty. There is an enchantment to the whole thing which is poisonous; the only knight who never succumbs to the urge to dominate her is the woman Bradamant. The best possible thing for all parties? For Helangelica to depart the world stage and live a quiet, happy life far from the men who will try to own her (hint hint).
But wait, there’s more! Ariosto is going hard after the conventions of love; we could line up Ovid and Catullus and whatnot here but stay close to home with Vergil: omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori! This canto, along with much else in the poem, lays bare the dark side of being drunk on Eros. It destroys. And that brings us back to the beginning: Olympia.
The setup to her abandonment–all of Canto 9–is precisely to showcase this problem. By any objective measure, no one has ever loved someone more than Olympia loved Bireno. She defied a king for him; she lost her family for him; she lost her kingdom, lost her fortune losing armies, and lost her innocence murdering a man all for him. She sits in hiding in Antwerp begging wandering heroes to save Bireno for her and lucks into Orlando. She saves Bireno from certain death. She has given the last full measure for him.
Now partially this is a bit insane by itself. The destructive power of Eros is not confined to men! But then Ariosto swings it around to his lesson in Canto 10. Take everything noble and beautiful about Olympia and her tragic sacrifice, and watch Bireno’s teen-lusting loins stomp all over it. Once you hitch yourself to that wagon, the girls will never be young enough, never be willing enough, never be devoted enough, to quench the desire. Guess what else falls before Eros? True love, the kind worth having.
But it’s not a love-hating poem (or beauty-, or woman-). Both Helangelica and Olympia will eventually end up with men who don’t seek to own them as sexual trophies. These men are not blind or stupid or bloodless; there’s nothing wrong with them. They are what we would call in a later age integrated men, motivated by the noble and not dominated by the passions. There’s a strong virtue component running throughout Orlando Furioso and this is one of the clearest places to see it. Olympia and Helangelica both play out the same problem in the same way.
Think I’m playing the connection between them too hard? Olympia gets captured by corsairs and chained to a rock in Ebuda to be devoured by a sea monster. Hmm… It’s almost like they are the same person! But that spoils a future canto and we can’t have that.
One of the things that has intrigued me about the poem ever since I first read it is how…progressive? pro-woman? it is, and in a dozen ways. But here’s one of them: the women are not trophies of male sexual aggression, or they are and that’s bad. Now maybe Ariosto is just playing the right notes so he can pick up chicks after each night’s recitation–his opening stanzas in each canto ooze with slick-bro come-ons. But that would, in its own wonderful way, just further advance Ariosto’s meta-narrative about Eros.
If all of this sounds more than a little familiar–especially to you LibArt OrthCath types out there–that would be because Clive Staples Lewis was the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. He was known to write a thing or two (Four, even!) about love, I hear, when he wasn’t reading, writing, and lecturing on epics and romances.