Orlando Furioso Canto XII: Ares vs. Death

The end of this canto has my favorite Orlando scene, hands down.  He’s wrapped up the Ariadne/Olympia quest line and escaped the magical villa (I’ll come back to that another day).  The following spring, after some anonymous winter feats, he gets intercepted by two squadrons of Saracen knights.  What happens next is not terribly surprising, considering a cannon only pissed him off a few cantos back.  But once you’ve compared a guy to the god of war and then ramped it up to Jupiter, where do you go for the next superlative?  How do you top that?


Grim Reaper
Ares.  Move or I close your eyes too.

No, we’re not going to compare Orlando to Death.  Don’t be silly.  We’re going to make Death jealous of him (XII.80):

Death roams the field in strange variety
Of horrid forms, and all inspiring dread;
And says, “For hundreds of my scythes may stand
His Durindana in Orlando’s hand.”

Hold on.  I got ahead of myself.

First there’s Orlando’s cold-as-ice indifference as Alzirdo steps up to the plate against the dude who looks like Mars puts Mars in a corner.  Why he thought this was a good idea only makes sense in a medieval romance/epic (XII.74):

Alzirdo, as the approaching count he eyes,
Who in this world for valour has no peer,
With such a haughty front, and in such guise,
The God of war would less in arms appear,
The features known before astounded spies,
The fierce, disdainful glance and furious cheer;
And him esteems a knight of prowess high,
Which, fondly, he too sore desires to try.

 Orlando doesn’t really seem to notice him at first but the challenge is down and lances are leveled (XII.75):

Arrogant, young, and of redoubted force,
Alzirdo was, and prized for dauntless mind;
Who bent to joust pricked forth his foaming horse,
Happier had he remained in line behind!
Met by Anglante’s prince in middle course,
Who pierced his heart as they encountering joined.
Frighted, the lightened courser scoured the plain,
Without a rider to direct the rein.

Oops.  My lance broke his shield.  And his armor.  And his thorax.  Sorry.  We good?  Let’s skip over the stanza about the screams and the river of blood that bursts from his chest, so we can get to the good part.

Remember when the Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, his cohorts gleaming in purple and gold?  Well this time the fold tries to come down on the angel of death and some more cold stuff gets said (XII.78):

At once spears, shafts, and swords, his corslet bore
By thousands, and as many pierce his shield.
This threatens on one side, and that before,
And those the ponderous mace behind him wield.
But he esteems the craven rout no more.
He, who did never yet to terror yield,
Than hungry Wolf in twilight makes account
To what the number of the flock may mount.

Now it’s on and Death is sulking in the corner.  Honestly these stanzas just defy commentary (XII.79-82):

He held unsheathed that thundering sword in hand,
Which with so many foes has heaped the plain,
That he who thinks to count the slaughtered band,
Has undertaken, hard emprize and vain.
The road ran red, ensanguined by his brand,
And scarce capacious of the many slain.
For neither targe nor head-piece good defends,
Where fatal Durindana’s blade descends.

Are we flooding the field with Saracen plasma?  Yep.

Nor safety cotton vest, nor cloths supply,
In thousand folds about the temples spread:
Nor only groan and lamentation fly
Through air, but shoulder, arm, and severed head,
Death roams the field in strange variety
Of horrid forms, and all inspiring dread;
And says, “For hundreds of my scythes may stand
His Durindana in Orlando’s hand.”

His ceaseless strokes scarce one the other wait:
Speedily all his foemen are in flight.
And when before they came at furious rate,
They hoped to swallow quick the single knight.
None is there who, in that unhappy straight,
Stops for his comrade, flying from the fight.
Here one man speeds afoot, one gallops there;
None stays to question if the road be fair.

He’s like John Henry, except with a sword, and he beats the steam engine.  And makes it run away.

His mirror Valour bore about, and here
Each blemish of the soul was seen confest:
None looked therein, except an aged peer,
Whose blood was chilled, but courage unreprest.
That death were better deems this cavalier
Than life in flight, and in disgrace possest:
I mean Noritia’s king, who lays his lance
In rest against the paladin of France;

That’s right, he’s not just Death’s idol anymore.  He’s the mirror of truth withering souls that behold their own feeble selves in his refulgence.  Only thing left is for the old, whilom fierce king of Noritia to prove that not all Saracens are cowards.  Except, uh, his was not to question why, his was but to do and… (XII.83)

He broke it on the border of the shield
Of the intrepid count, with steadfast hand,
Who, by the stroke unshaken, nothing reeled:
And smote the king, in passing, with his brand.
Him Fortune saved; for as Orlando wheeled
The blade, it turned, descending, in his hand.
Although an-edge he guides not still the sword,
Stunned from his saddle reels the paynim lord.

Ok, Fortuna steps in to keep the old man alive for his virtue.  GG, pops.  Not that Orlando has really seemed to notice him (XII.84):

Astounded from his saddle reels the king,
Nor him Orlando turns about to see.
He cuts, and cleaves, and slays his following;
Who all believe him at their backs to be.
As through the spacious air, with troubled wing,
The starlings from the daring merlin flee;
So, of that broken squadron, scattered round,
Some fly, some dip, and some fall flat to ground.

So what boss badassery will Orlando finish with?  What’s the flourish (XII.85)?

He ceased not his ensanguined blade to sway
Till living wight remained not in his view.
Orlando doubted to resume his way,
Although the country all about he knew.
Does he the right or left-hand road assay,
His thoughts still rove from what his steps pursue,
And he to seek the damsel is in dread
Through other path than that by which she fled.

That’s right.  Cool guys don’t look at explosions.  He never even really saw anyone in front of him.  Was I going left, or right?  Where is Helangelica?

Orlando, still not furioso.  Best poem ever.


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