Taking Liberties

Orlando Furioso
A New Verse Translation
Ludovico Ariosto, translated by David R. Slavin
Belknap Harvard, $39.95, 672 pp.

During the high Middle Ages, poems written on the “Matter of France”—that is, tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and of Count Roland (or Orlando) in particular—were among Europe’s most beloved literary entertainments; only stories of the Arthurian court (the “Matter of Britain”) rivaled them in popularity, variety, or extravagance of invention. One would scarcely guess this if one knew only of the Chanson de Roland, the late-eleventh-century poem from which the whole Carolingian cycle sprang. Unlike the earliest Arthurian fables, it was a fairly plain affair, with only a few touches of the incredible; but, once the Carolingian theme had been stated, the variations that followed—in successive chansons de geste and cantares de gesta and Heldengedichte and “epick histories”—departed ever further from the original story’s stern simplicity, and came to incorporate ever more fabulous elements: impossible feats, mythical beasts, magical objects, and superhuman foes.

In the end, the whole tradition culminated in the three great Orlando “romances” of the Italian Renaissance: Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1478–83), Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (finished 1486, published 1494), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516–32). These are, without question, among the wildest fictions in European literature. They are “epics,” perhaps, but are every bit as defiant of the classical unities (not only of time and place...

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About the Author

David B. Hart is at present a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies. His most recent book is A Splendid Wickeness and Other Essays