Orlando Furioso Canto XI: Perseus and the Orc

I like to hammer on the Orlando-Achilles connection a lot, but it’s important to remember that the poem is a grand mash-up of myth and legend.  One heroic aspect that I haven’t mentioned yet (since I started blogging in Canto IX) is Perseus.  Canto XI brings that back into focus for us.

clash-of-the-titans kraken
Close, Hollywood.  Close.

I posit a difficult-to-make connection between Orlando’s showdown with the orc and Achilles going beyond all bounds against the river Scamander in Iliad XX.  The far easier connection is to the Perseus legend.  Everyone who grew up watching Clash of the Titans (the real one, not the crappy remake) knows this scene!  We’ve got a beautiful maiden chained to a rock, we’ve got a miffed god, we’ve got a sea monster that no one can kill.

But like with everything else in Orlando, the Perseus material has been carved up and redistributed.  Instead of a gorgon head petrifying all who gaze upon it, we have a magic shield torn from the hands of a necromancer.  That’s the original fate of the gorgon head after Perseus is done with it–Athena affixes it to the Aegis–but Ariosto does not describe his shield that way.  It’s a sparkling gem in the middle of the boss, not a Medusa.

Rogero hies off with it, but no true knight wants to win battles so basely.  He holds off using it until he’s really in trouble; eventually he ends up using it against the orc…but he doesn’t kill it.  He saves Helangelica and, with a Renaissance twist on Ovid’s version of the Perseus tale, attempts to rape her (as discussed in my earlier post on Canto X).  In that sense Rogero makes a better Perseus than Orlando, especially since Perseus is a founder hero and Rogero is the founder hero of the d’Este line paying Ariosto’s dime.

Speaking of the poet, he has done something a bit cool here: the Greek tragedians, whom Ariosto knew through Ovid, altered the super-early Perseus-Andromeda tale into a tragedy.  I’m not going to try to shoehorn Andromeda into Helangelica’s name (ok, twist my arm: Helangelidromeda), but we do know that Orlando’s love story in this poem is going to end badly.  So maybe Orlando is the better Perseus after all…?  But Ariosto spares him the fate of seizing a woman like a trophy and the ignominy of defeating the kraken orc with a supernatural crutch.

Orlando, instead, swims out there and kills that fish with his bare hands.  Well, ok, not quite.  He rows out there, hooks it with an anchor, jumps into its mouth to hack it to pieces with his sword, and then hauls the carcass ashore like he’s bringing in the evening catch.  It’s his most muscle-bound scene in the poem, and carries a whiff of insane aristeia that evokes Achilles hurling himself against the Scamander.  He chokes the orc with an anchor just as Achilles chokes Scamander with dead bodies.  The sailors that brought him there play the part of the gods watching Achilles, aghast and amused and appalled.  Except this time, there’s no interference and Achilles Orlando finishes the job.

After that it’s an easy cleanup.  Proteus takes flight never to bother Ebuda again.  The Perseus Banquet Melee breaks out in the form of the corsairs, but again Orlando has no need of the Perseus crutch.  He just crushes them with main force and delivers Ariadne Andromeda Olympia to safety.  Instead of taking her from the man to whom she had been betrothed (smooth move, Perseus), he puts her in the care of a man who actually loves her and vows immediate vengeance against Bireno–Oberto, the king of Ireland.  It was an ugly road but we are getting a happy ending out of this arc, dammit.

Olympia has been an interesting character over the last few cantos.  As “abandoned on the beach” she is Ariadne, making Bireno Theseus and Oberto Dionysus.  As “rescued from the orc” she is Andromeda and Orlando is Perseus.  But the elemental muscle of Orlando is pure Theseus, giving us a cool triangle of character aspects.  And Olympia’s multiple roles fuse the Theseus and Perseus material in a very new and weird way (yay, Renaissance).  In the mythology Ariosto is drawing from, Perseus kills Ariadne when he makes war on Dionysus.  Orlando has saved the woman that he also kills, because she is both of them?  Hang on, this is getting weirder than a Claudian family tree.  I need a chart.

The tangled mess of the myths is a feature, not a bug.  The Greeks simple did not believe in happy endings at all.  Each generation of story-tellers purged any whiff of such a thing by showing what happened next for the characters and/or by altering the timelines worse than Star Trek: Voyager.  The material gets recycled and recreated, always with a view toward maximizing suffering.  The Renaissance wants all of that, because hey, they were an emo bunch, but they also streamline characters (Hollywood didn’t invent the Perseus-Bellerophon mashup) and they angle for happy endings somehow.  A Catholic twist on a pagan art form–quelle surprise!

Maybe that’s the best definition of the Renaissance?  Like the Greeks, but happier.

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