A brave soul recently queried me: are Rinaldo and Orlando real or fictional heroes? The answer is “Yes.”
To be clear, Orlando Furioso is history as it should have happened. I prefer to live in a world where Charlemagne did in fact repel the combined armies of every Muslim kingdom ever with mounted heavy cavalry in full plate armor. Naturally the magical swords are real as well, and Hector’s sword is still mightily potent despite being 2000 years old. When I Google “Siege of Paris” I am puzzled to find no mention of this most momentous of battles for civilization.
Well, enough of my odd views of history and the real. In the boring world of “real” history, how to answer this question?
We know that Ariosto is building off of an earlier poem by Matteo Boiardo, Orlando Innamorato, both of which are members of a family of Italian romances/epics (there is some dispute over their correct classification). These poets created a new genre based on the chansons de geste of France: epic songs composed in the 11th-13th centuries which centered around mighty deeds and the era of Charlemagne.
One way to understand Ariosto is as a creative redactor of the many heroic strands of these chansons. Compare the way the Romans took the Homeric cycle–not just Homer but all the many offshoots and accretions over time–in a new direction many centuries earlier. Later Italians did the same, this time to a French cycle of songs.
Both Rinaldo and Orlando feature in these songs under the French names Renaud and Roland. Rinaldo is one of the Children of Aymon, a cycle of tales about the bonds of duty and rebellion against Charlemagne. There are a number of interesting clues to Rinaldo’s character in the Furioso that come from this, most notably evident in the way he continues to do his duty (unlike Orlando) despite being under the spell of Angelica’s beauty.
Now is there a historical kernel to the chansons about the Children of Aymon? I’m happy to guess there is, strongly suspect it even, but to the best of my knowledge we don’t know of one. The struggle of those tales–loyalty to one’s lord–is generic enough that it could be anyone at any time. The search for historical Rinaldo probably ends in that mist.
The figure of Orlando is a different story, as the great Mike Flynn has oft summarized. The Song of Roland is one of the most famous chansons, even before Stephen King graced it with his pen some nine hundred years later. It is a heroic retelling of an actual 8th century battle between Charlemagne and the Basques who wanted him off their lawn no matter how many Spaniards he was killing. We have details of this battle in the 9th century work Vita Karoli Magni, making it an exceptionally well-sourced event for that period.
But there’s more! Roland is not just mentioned by name in ancient history books. BO-RING! We have archaeological evidence that Roland really did run around with a demon-slaying brand named Durandal. How do we know this? Why, you can go see it now:
Sure, “historians” will tell you that this is an “alleged” fragment of Durandal stuck into the side of a cliff in Rocamadour, France. The good people of that town have put up a good front calling it a “replica.”
There’s no doubt where I’ll be when the Veil comes down and the demon hordes return. Get to France if you can; Durandal will be coming back to life.