Friday, May 17, 2013

Meanwhile, Back in Damascus

Ariosto begins canto XIX of Orlando Furioso by telling a story about Angelica, who finds a brave warrior lying on the battlefield and nurses him back to health. Ariosto describes the beginning of their further travels this way:
They clamber down the mountain slope straightway
And with the shore to leftwards, make their way
Towards Barcelona; not far had they gone
Before a madman lying on the shore,
His body caked with mud, they came upon.
. . . . . . . .
He leapt towards them, menacing attack.
But let us to Marfisa now turn back.
And with no further ceremony than that, Ariosto whisks Angelica and the madman from the pages for quite a while.

These sudden transitions make me smile. I’ve wondered why Ariosto doesn’t use cantos as chapters, telling one substory under one heading. Instead, one thread usually continues from the end of one canto (usually about a hundred eight-line stanzas) to the beginning of the next, only to be jarringly replaced by a new thread. But I started to develop a theory when I noticed that many cantos end with a note suggesting that some delay should occur before the next one begins. Here’s the end of canto XVII:
For it is time, my lord, to finish this,
Of which the length perhaps excessive is.
And the end of XIX:
But what the name is of the cavalier
In my next canto you must wait to hear.
Ariosto addresses his epic to Ippolito d’Este of Ferrara, and he writes sometimes as if Ippolito is listening rather than reading. I don’t know if Ariosto ever actually recited the poem to his patron, but these end-of-canto lines maintain at least an illusion that they mark the end of a long evening of entertainment.

So now Orlando’s structure appears to me as analogous to that of a television series with an ongoing story, each canto working as an episode. After a week’s wait, I tune in (wow, there’s a phrase that dates me!) to a favorite program with expectations. First, I hope that I’ll get at least a brief update on all my favorite characters and their subplots. Second, I can expect that any cliffhanger from the previous episode will be dealt with right away. Suddenly it all makes sense: both the sudden changes mid-canto and the continuity between cantos.

Much of what I’ve read so far this year has involved two main subplots: the seige of Paris by the Saracens and the adventures of five Christian knights in Damascus. The narrative path weaves back and forth then between a huge battle with large forces on the one hand, and individual challenges and duels on the other. (Of course even in the scenes in Paris, great heroes, both Christian and Muslim, get the spotlight for a while.) The technique is a good one and has survived into our time in, for instance, The Lord of the Rings (Frodo struggles with the Ring at Mount Doom while other heroes fight a giant army of orcs on the plains before Minas Tirith) and Star Wars (Luke flies down the trench while great fleets fight it out around the Death Star). Who knew that a poem from the sixteenth century about legends from the ninth century would still make such sense in the twenty-first?

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