Want to turn a 46 canto, 38,000+ line giganto-epic into a short soundbite? Easy! Just tell the story the way we would today.
Ariosto paints his masterpiece Orlando Furioso against the background of an epic war between Charlemagne and Agramant, Christian Europe and the Muslim East. This can’t be stated clearly enough: Ariosto is not interested in that war. He doesn’t go into what started it. He only rarely returns to the action of the war itself. The conflict serves only as the medium in which the many heroes of the poem do their thing. Look, read the opening lines of the opening stanza, all Vergilian and everything:
OF LOVES and LADIES, KNIGHTS and ARMS, I sing,
Of COURTESIES, and many a DARING FEAT;
And from those ancient days my story bring,
When Moors from Afric passed in hostile fleet,
And ravaged France, with Agramant their king,
Or to put a finer point on it, the war is the setting, not the plot. The story-line of the war is lost for many cantos at a time as Ariosto displays his heroes and villains with their virtues and their vices. The characters and their deeds are the thing! But let’s strip the meat and soul of the poem and just look at the skeleton, because it’s actually pretty interesting all by itself…if you can remember what happened ten cantos previously!
Furioso opens with Agramant and his Pan-Muslim League on the verge of total victory over Europe. Charlemagne, with a great number of his heroic knights missing, has retreated with his remaining forces to Paris. For the first stage of the war, the two sides prepare for the inevitable siege-assault: Agramant gathers his forces and supplies while Charlemagne sends one of his few remaining knights, Rinaldo, to the British Isles to muster reinforcements (Canto 2).
The second stage of the war begins with the epic siege of Paris (Canto 14-19). Agramant’s army is thwarted by the courage of the Parisian defenders and the dramatic arrival of Rinaldo with reinforcements both natural and supernatural. Despite inflicting massive damage on the city, Agramant’s army is forced to fall back and defend itself from Charlemagne’s counter-attack (Canto 19).
Agramant’s champions drive Charlemagne back into Paris for a second siege (Canto 27) but the final attack never comes. The large Muslim army maintains its holding pattern around Paris until Rinaldo, this time with a squad of heroes from the Christian Levant, launches a lightning raid against the besieging army (Canto 31). Agramant withdraws south to Arles where his fleet awaits.
For the third stage of the war, the two sides agree to settle things in a trial by combat between Agramant’s champion Rogero and Charlemagne’s champion Rinaldo (Canto 38). Agramant breaks the truce of the trial and attacks Charlemagne’s forces. The Christian army easily triumphs and drives Agramant’s army onto their ships and off the continent (Canto 39).
Meanwhile, Astolpho leads African forces allied with Charlemagne against his capital city of Biserta (Canto 40) and, with the heroes of Europe finally (mostly) reunited, sack and devastate the city (Canto 41). Agramant challenges Charlemagne to a second trial by combat: this time 3 vs. 3 on the remote island of Lampedusa where none can interfere. Charlemagne’s heroes triumph and Europe is saved. The end.
I think Ariosto’s version is better. At least this has the merits of a dummy’s reading guide!
(Further emphasizing Ariosto’s lack of interest in the war itself, the finale of the poem has nothing to do with the war whatsoever and instead focuses exclusively on the marriage of Bradamante and Rogero)