Of ladies, cavaliers, of love and war,
Of courtesies and of brave deeds I sing,
In times of high endeavour when the Moor
Had crossed the sea from Africa to bring
Great harm to France, when Agramante swore
In wrath, being now the youthful Moorish king,
To avenge Troiano, who was lately slain,
Upon the Roman Emperor Charlemagne.
So begins Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, one of the longest and best epic poems ever written. Laid out in that first octave is a story that is in turns romantic, brutal, light-hearted, and filled with the depths of human conflict. I first read Orlando Furioso about 13 years ago, when I was still an undergraduate history student. I had read my Homer and my Vergil, dabbled a bit in Juvenal, Ovid, and Terence, but when I read a comment of Sir Walter Scott's that he ranked Ariosto's epic poem above any others, I searched long and hard in Knoxville-area bookstores (Amazon was barely more than a dream back then) before I found copies of Barbara Reynold's 1973 two-part translation. When I read it, I found myself daydreaming about the stricken Orlando (or Roland), the paladins of Charlemagne's court, the passion of Ruggiero and Bradamante, all set amidst a continent-spanning struggle between Christendom and the Saracens. It was a tale that sparks the imagination, only to hit the reader later with some keen observations about how people interact with each other.
But although I loved the poem, I delayed re-reading it until today. Remembering that there were a few elements in Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth that reminded me of Ariosto (and of Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered), I decided to begin reading Ariosto's magnum opus before writing the Barlow review. Good decision, as I found myself soaking up the ambiance that Reynolds' translation manages to capture. So while it'll be a couple days longer before I finish it, I just thought I'd post a bit about a poet who deserves a much wider readership than what he currently enjoys. And for those who want to see a more fearsome Orc than that of Tolkien's, be sure to read this, as these Orcs have an interesting history of their own. But most of all, just read it and see why there are some of us who know that the epic fantasy form has much more left to offer than what even most of its most ardent partisans believe.