Ariosto’s magical villa, already introduced obliquely in Canto XI, finally plays its role in Canto XII. This is the one time that the poem really feels Welsh or Celtic or some other weird Insular Tribe. I’m thinking Torrynt of Portingale or maybe Gawain or something (nevermind that it happens in Libya!).
I am not overly fond of the villa scenes–too much goofy frustration drawn out over too many cantos, I think–but it’s got a hugely important structural role. The villa is another trap of the Sorcerer Atlantes, he of Stygian Steel Fortress fame, designed to entice Rogero and then hold him there indefinitely. How is this structurally important?
It allows Ariosto to keep his insanely large cast of characters synchronized. While bouncing from hero to hero he has shown action both simultaneous and sequential. He has made months-long jumps with some characters and not others. He has not bothered to track his turns-elapsed and he probably hasn’t even purchased any rations, much less noted their consumption! (That’s a D&D joke.
So the villa is his hero drain, his reset button, his plot railroader. The magical trap does not discriminate among knights-errant; to make sure he catches Rogero, Atlantes has thrown a wide net indeed. When Orlando arrives at the villa at the beginning of Canto XII, everyone is there. The comedic interlude–which reminds me of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for some reason–re-synchronizes all his characters. If the name has been dropped thus far in the poem, they are in the villa. And once the spell on the place is broken, they are released on the poem once more. Why, Ariosto won’t have another synchrony problem for, oh, five cantos! Actually it’s worse than that–as soon as this section ends, he’ll have to put Helangelica in stasis for seven cantos. Oh well!
The magical villa also allows Ariosto to redeem Rogero from his earlier sin against Helangelica. Each victim of that fey place is held by what most he loves. When Orlando tries to leave the grounds he hears Helangelica crying for help from a high tower; when Rogero attempts the same he hears the voice of Bradamant. So Ariosto excuses Rogero’s attempted rape of Helangelica–not guilty by reason of temporary, beauty-induced insanity. Here we see what he really loves (it cannot be said enough times: he’s the mythical founder of the family picking up Ariosto’s tab).
The villa also returns us to an earlier theme, for here Ariosto marries madcap comedy to revenge for sex discrimination. That would be when he has Helangelica herself show up, invisible, to watch the men who fought to own her all stumbling about like idiots. Ariosto does not simply resynchronize the characters; he resets the entire poem. Angelica is on the run again; hiding again; desperate for a protector and guide to get her back to Catay.
But the shoe is very much on the other foot. She has the ring, gifted by Melissa, which puts her in a position of superiority over the men. She goes hero-shopping with the same cold calculation we saw in the opening cantos, but her interim trials have made her far more sympathetic. What once came across as cruel and spiteful now has the relish of just revenge.
The same men are fighting each other and they still think to own Helangelica; Ferrau still needs a helmet and it ends up dropping off a branch beside (not into, this time!) a river. Helangelica flees in the chaos of the battles. But this time she’s not picked up by a pervy necromancer-monk. Instead she’s the one who drives the action. She deprives Orlando of his helmet and inadvertently puts it on Ferrau’s brow. She discovers the wounded soldier who, seven cantos hence, will help drive the central action of the poem. By forging her own path she writes the poem.
The reader is placed in a moment of painful decision here: do we want Orlando to rescue her or not? After everything she has endured over the previous cantos, the answer should be an obvious “no.” But it’s not so simple! Helangelica herself bestows upon him her approval–she steals his helmet to compel his aid. And with good reason! Orlando escorted her all the way across the continent without abusing her. He’s the one man who, despite his possessive attitude toward her, seems to be immune to the more violent aspects of her charm. Considering her near-misses with rape and worse since then, he’s practically the most enlightened man in all Europe. And he is the protagonist, after all. We are rooting for him in every other respect. There is a delightful tension to what we want to happen here.
With all these parallels to the opening cantos, reset may not be a strong enough term. Are we really just starting over? Recall that Ariosto has picked up the story from an earlier, unfinished poem. The villa in Canto XII signals his completion of that work; now it is time to roll up the sleeves and create his own masterpiece. It’s a bit late in the game to bring a prologue to a close, but I think that’s exactly what is happening here. Now we are up to speed; now we know the characters; now let’s see what epic we can make of them.
They’ll all be out of synch again soon!
(immediately, in fact)