Friday, April 1, 2011

Full Circle

Ariosto's Orlando Furioso holds a very important place in the history of this reading project. I was reading something or other by C. S. Lewis about twenty years ago, and he mentioned OF -- tossed it off casually as an example of some point, as if he expected everyone to have read it. I felt my chest turn soft and implode. I wasn't sure I had even heard of this work that Lewis considered a must-read classic. I spent a few moments frustrated with my high-school and university education, and a couple more moments regretful that I hadn't read more real classics when I was younger.

I had had similar thoughts many times before, but this time the foolishness of my complaints struck me. I was finished with school, had a job and some time, and I told myself, "If you want to be able to say you've read these classics, just start reading." (When you have conversations with yourself, do you say "you" or do you say "I"? Or am I only embarrassing myself by revealing that I have conversations with myself?) So I started looking for books, bought the Britannica set, followed their ten-year plan, and had so much fun that I put together my own, second ten-year reading plan, the plan I'm working on now. But I got the second schedule almost finished before I realized: I hadn't included Orlando Furioso! So I found a place for it beginning in year 5, and just two days ago, after twenty years, I began the work that started me reading the classics.

From the editor's notes in The Faerie Queene, I knew that Orlando would be very similar. And, sure enough, I've been reading complex, intertwined stories of knights and ladies who spend a lot of time wandering through the woods, looking for adventure, splitting from their companions, meeting characters from other threads of the tapestry, and telling each other stories of other knights and ladies who wander through the woods looking for adventure.

Unlike Spenser, though, Ariosto gives his epic a much more realistic tone. The tale takes place in a time from our history: the reign of Charlemagne. He mentions familiar places like India and France, and he includes names of many historical figures among those of the characters of his story. And the characters he created mostly seem like humans, with human strengths and foibles, not the types and allegories that populate The Faerie Queene.

On the other hand, after only about fifty pages, I've encountered a flying horse, a castle made of steel, a pool filled with natural love potion, a book that spirits jump out of, a ring that negates other magic, and a shield emitting an intense red light that stuns everyone it strikes. It's an interesting world, and the verse of Barbara Reynolds's translation is lovely. So now I can say it: Orlando Furioso is worth the wait, and the last twenty years of reading make sense.

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