The most outlandish and wonderful tale in Orlando Furioso, in my opinion, is Gryphon At The Gates. It also has an important lesson on the virtues of the king.
First, a recap of dark hilarity:
The naive Gryphon travels to Damascus in the company of his “true love” Origilla and her “brother” Martano. The reality of course is that Origilla is a promiscuous harpy and Martano is her feckless lover; when Gryphon crosses paths with them quite by accident and wonders why his “sick” love is not resting in Constantinople, the deplorable duo concoct an outlandish fabrication that the naive super-knight happily accepts.
At Damascus Martano foolishly decides to participate in King Norandino’s tournament of thanksgiving. After he humiliates himself and, by extension, his companions, Gryphon takes the field to make amends. He obliterates Norandino’s champions one and all, nearly killing some in the process in his zeal to restore the honor lost by Martano. All are in awe of this mighty white knight, but Gryphon returns to his lodging and promptly falls asleep.
While he slumbers, Martano steals his armor and presents himself, Origilla at his side, at the victory banquet as the champion of the event. When Gryphon arrives to set the record straight, the nobles of Damascus, thinking him the cowardly Martano, jeer at him. Norandino orders him arrested, beaten, and thrown in prison for daring to steal the honors of a great knight.
In the morning Gryphon, humiliated and perplexed beyond belief, is paraded through the city in a prison cart and mocked by the populace of Damascus. To get a sense for what happens next, it’s probably best to imagine that Gryphon, so naive and earnest, cannot fathom what wickedness or insanity would possess a people to treat a champion. He’s simply too honest and noble to suspect what has happened, and so he does the only thing that makes sense to him.
Cue your favorite badass music, because this is where it gets bananas. Gryphon breaks out of the prison cart, grabs a sword, and proceeds to unleash destruction on the city of Damascus. He kills the “wicked” citizens much like Rodomonte rampaging through Paris. Norandino sends in his guards and army to stop him, but Gryphon is uncaged–he makes his stand on a narrow bridge and massacres the army, heaping up bodies all around him. The bloodbath continues until, like a comedy routine, King Norandino realizes what is happening.
[Soldier enters to find his comrades and the king both furious and laughing at the carnage]
Soldier: “What’s going on over there?”
Guard: “Haha, you’re just in time. It’s that pitiful coward from yesterday. He broke out and went on a killing spree. The soldiers are trying to put him down now…” [trails off, suddenly perplexed]
[Uncomfortable, thoughtful silence]
Norandino, surging to his feet: “STOP! STOP! EVERYONE PUT UP YOUR WEAPONS! WE’VE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE! STOP!!”
I always enjoyed the absurdity of the story and took Gryphon’s merciless actions to be a commentary on “what you get when you dishonor a knight.” Like many of the chivalric themes in the poem, it’s unclear if such a commentary is satire, criticism, or deadly earnest. It’s obviously more than a bit dark, laughing at the death of the citizens of Damascus, the moreso since it is juxtaposed with the villainous Rodomonte doing the same thing in Paris. But the key to the story is actually in what happens next.
When Norandino finally gets the truce called, he admits his fault and summons healers to restore Gryphon. But then comes the point of the whole thing. Surrounded by his dead and dying subjects, saith the king to the knight, “What can I do to make this up to you?”
Considering Gryphon just massacred his citizens and took his army down a peg, costing Norandino countless resources, this is more than a bit of a shock. How can the King of Damascus consider himself in this man’s debt? He even offers him moiety of the kingdom–co-rulership! Sir, I have scarcely begun to repay my debt!
When Ariosto resumes the Damascus tale at the start of Canto 18, he gives a three-stanza lesson on the matter, directed at Alphonse d’Este himself:
High minded lord! your actions evermore
I have with reason lauded, and still laud;
Though I with style inapt, and rustic lore,
You of large portion of your praise defraud:
But, of your many virtues, one before
All others I with heart and tongue applaud,
—That, if each man a gracious audience finds,
No easy faith your equal judgment blinds.
Often, to shield the absent one from blame,
I hear you this, or other, thing adduce;
Or him you let, at least, an audience claim,
Where still one ear is open to excuse:
And before dooming men to scaith and shame,
To see and hear them ever is your use;
And ere you judge another, many a day,
And month, and year, your sentence to delay.
Had Norandine been with your care endued,
What he by Gryphon did, he had not done.
Profit and fame have from your rule accrued:
A stain more black than pitch he cast upon
His name: through him, his people were pursued
And put to death by Olivero’s son;
In other words, Gryphon’s tale is not primarily about an aggrieved knight, but rather an imprudent king. When a ruler has “easy faith” that blinds “equal justice”–when he lacks the classical regnative prudence–disaster! Citizens die. Kingdoms are lost. A ruler who lacks this virtue deserves these calamities (as does a populace that approves such behavior enthusiastically!).
When Norandino refused to hear Gryphon’s suit and believed Martano too readily, trusting in mere appearances only, hastily “dooming [Gryphon] to scaith and shame,” he failed as a king. When he passed judgment directly “ere [he] judge another, many a day, and month, and year, [his] sentence to delay,” he failed as a king. He who is without prudence is unfit to rule. That the king himself recognizes this is implicit in his offer of moiety to Gryphon.
In Ariosto’s morality tale, the bloodbath in the streets of Damascus is only the beginning of suitable punishment for such a failure. When prudence is lacking, “equal judgment”–justice–is blinded. And a kingdom wherein justice does not prevail is the sorriest and most pitiable of places. There is no greater calamity than for a king, and therefore his kingdom, to be found lacking in justice.
The entire Levant saga, of which the Damascus tale is but a part, is a broader commentary on the many forms of prudence. Gryphon, too, has an easy faith that blinds him to the wickedness of Origilla and Martano; it is his cynical brother Aquilant (the black knight!) who sees through the lies and apprehends the two; Astolpho triumphs over his enemies where others fail not by strength of arms but by the wisdom of study from Melissa’s tome of magic; in the final scene of the Damascus tale more violence breaks out when knights “shoot first and ask questions later,” and Marphisa leaves many a knight lying on his back.
It seems Ariosto thinks people never learn.