Orlando Furioso: The orc’s vile appetite, and skewered Frisians

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Angelica in Chains (1818-19), oil on canvas, 97 x 75 cm, Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), São Paulo, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons.

Overcome by his lust for the beautiful Angelica, an old hermit has driven her to be dumped on a remote and hostile beach. He then gave her a sleeping potion, with the intention of raping her while whe was unconscious. When he proves to be impotent, he’s forced to sleep beside her instead.

Ariosto then breaks his account of Angelica’s plight to consider what happened on an island beyond the north-west of Ireland and the Hebrides, named Ebuda, where Proteus keeps the orc and other sea monsters. In the past, the King of Ebuda had a beautiful daughter, with whom Proteus fell in love. When she was on the beach there one day, she escaped from her attendant maids, and Proteus raped her.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Proteus Ravishes the King’s Daughter (Canto 8:52) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

She fell pregnant as a result, and her father put her and her unborn child to death. Proteus was so angry that he loosed his sea monsters on the livestock of the island. Its inhabitants were advised to offer their most beautiful damsel to Proteus in compensation. If he was not content with the first, they should continue to offer him more until his anger was assuaged.

This they did, only for Proteus to pass each damsel to his orc, who ate them immediately. So the people of Ebuda are cursed to continue feeding their fairest maidens to Proteus’ orc, and their menfolk travel the world kidnapping women to take back to satisfy its vile appetite.

So it is that a ship from Ebuda calls at the beach on which Angelica is asleep in the old hermit’s arms. Before she can wake up, she is bound in chains and adbucted to the castle on the island of Ebuda where she will be fed to the orc. When her turn comes, she is taken down to the water’s edge and chained there, sobbing in tears for her imminent fate.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Angelica in Chains (1818-19), oil on canvas, 97 x 75 cm, Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), São Paulo, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, Agramante is laying siege to the city of Paris, and its occupants seem ready to fall to their enemy, when it rains heavily and extinguishes the flames which are about to engulf them. Orlando is pining for Angelica, and regretting that he had handed her over to Namo for safe-keeping, knowing that she’d escape from him. His fears for her fate trouble his sleep, and he dreams of her calling for his help.

So convinced is Orlando by this dream that he immediately dresses in his armour covered in a black coat, mounts his horse Brigliadoro, and rides out of Paris alone, in quest of Angelica.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), Orlando Leaves Paris in Disguise (1780-89), black conté crayon and brown wash on white laid paper, 39.1 x 25.1 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The following morning King Charlemagne is dismayed and displeasured at the absence of his paladin. Orlando’s close ally Brandimarte follows his friend, without saying a word to his wife Fiordiligi. She will wait a month for his return, then set off herself in pursuit of Brandimarte.

Canto Nine opens with Orlando riding through the enemy forces outside Paris, searching for Angelica among them. He then travels on to scour much of France as autumn gradually turns to winter. He reaches a river on the north coast of France which is in full spate, and has washed its bridge away. He looks for a boat to cross its swollen waters, and sees a damsel who is waving to him from a small ship.

The woman offers to help Orlando cross on the condition that he goes to assist the King of Ireland in preparing for war against Ebuda, to end its kidnapping of women to feed to the orc. When she explains this to Orlando, he is immediately enthused with this mission, in the prospect that Angelica might be captive on Ebuda. He boards a ship near St Malo, and heads for England.

As they are making good progress for the English coast, a storm hits them with severe north-westerly gales, and drives them to shelter in Antwerp. As soon as they dock, a distinguished and elderly figure comes on board to enlist Orlando’s help on another mission, on behalf of a fair maid. The knight goes ashore to meet the woman, Olimpia, daughter of the Count of Holland.

She tells Orlando how she had fallen in love with the Duke of Zealand, Bireno, who was on his way to fight the Moors in Spain. They had vowed to marry on his return from his campaign, and with that betrothal she had refused another offer of marriage from the son of the King of Friesland. That had in turn sparked the invasion of Holland by the Frisians, and all Olimpia’s relatives had been killed as a result.

She also tells Orlando of a new weapon – a primitive form of muzzle-loading gun – which the King of Friesland possesses, and which had killed her father. The King of Friesland threatened Olimpia that, unless she broke her vows with Bireno and married his son, he would invade her island. She therefore played along with the proposed wedding to the king’s son.

Bireno was returning to marry Olimpia, so she sent one of her brothers to his fleet in the Bay of Biscay to warn them of her predicament. The King of Friesland raised his own fleet, which took on Bireno’s in battle, defeated them, and (unknown to Olimpia at the time) took Bireno prisoner.

Olimpia was then married to the son of the King of Friesland, and as the groom was about to consummate the marriage that evening, Olimpia and a helper killed him. Knowing her fate at the hands of the king, Olimpia fled. When the king discovered this, he took revenge on some of the locals, and threatened Olimpia that, unless she was delivered to him within a year, he would execute Bireno.

As Olimpia has sold all her lands and possessions, all her relatives were dead, and she has been unable to find a knight to act as her champion, she has no way of securing Bireno’s release. Orlando agrees to travel to Holland and tackle the king. They sail there immediately, and the knight goes ashore, leaving Olimpia to wait for news just off the nearby coast.

Orlando gallops straight to Dordrecht, where he issues his challenge to the king, but the latter lays a trap in response. The king’s troops surround Orlando, who promptly impales six of them on his lance, leaving a seventh dying on the ground. The knight then takes his sword to the Frisians, driving them away in panic.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Orlando Skewers Several Frisians on his Lance (Canto 9:68) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The king also tries to run away, with Orlando in hot pursuit. The king then prepares to shoot the knight with his gun. When he fires his weapon, his shaking hands cause him to miss Orlando and kill his horse under him. The knight gets up and rushes so fast at the king that Orlando catches him up as the king turns and gallops away on his horse. With a mighty blow of his sword, Orlando cleaves the king’s head in two.

Back in the city of Dordrecht, Bireno’s cousin has arrived with his troops, and Bireno is at last freed. Olimpia is duly restored to her throne, and gives herself and all her possessions to Bireno. His business with the Frisians isn’t over, though. Some days before, the daughter of the King of Friesland was captured, so Bireno sends word to Friesland that he wants to marry the daughter to his own brother.

Orlando takes possession of the Frisian gun, and throws it into the sea, as a cowardly weapon which breaks the code of chivalry, and heads off in quest of Angelica again, leaving Olimpia and Bireno to marry at last.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Wedding of Olimpia and Bireno (Canto 9:94) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

But Olimpia’s marital bliss isn’t to last long, as I’ll tell in the next episode.

Principal Characters

Agramante, King of Africa, who is leading the war against Charlemagne in revenge for the killing of his father, Troiano. Non-Christian.

Angelica, beautiful daughter of the ruler of Cathay, who is loved and pursued by innumerable knights both Christian and not.

Bireno, Duke of Zealand, who marries Olimpia.

Brandimarte, knight and close friend of Orlando, husband of Fiordiligi.

Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Christian King of France.

Fiordiligi, daughter of the King of Lizza and wife of Brandimarte.

Olimpia, daughter of the Count of Holland, who marries Bireno.

Rinaldo, cousin of Orlando, one of Charlemagne’s paladins and bravest knights.

Ruggiero, son of the King of Reggio, a non-Christian knight who is in love with Bradamante.

The artists

Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the leading French illustrator of the nineteenth century, whose paintings are still relatively unknown. Having produced large sets of illustrations for classics such as Dante’s Divine Comedy earlier in his career, he started work on a set for Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in the late 1870s, for publication in 1879. These are the last major illustrations which he made. This article looks at his paintings.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) was probably the greatest French painter of the Rococo period, who was a pupil first of François Boucher, then of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, the celebrated still-life painter. He won the Prix de Rome at the age of only 20. Although prolific, his works have since become ignored or reviled. This drawing is one of a series which he made to illustrate Orlando Furioso.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) was a major French painter in Neoclassical style, best known for his history and other narrative paintings. He was a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, and continued much in his tradition, and in opposition to the more Romantic painting of Eugène Delacroix. His work extended from portraits to Orientalism. He painted a group of works centred on this section of Orlando Furioso, at least two showing Angelica chained naked to a rock, and another two or more showing her rescue. The painting shown above was exhibited at the Salon of 1819.


Wikipedia on Ariosto
Wikipedia on Orlando Furioso

Barbara Reynolds (translator) (1975, 1977) Orlando Furioso, parts 1 and 2, Penguin. ISBNs 978 0 140 44311 0, 978 0 140 44310 3. Verse translation with extensive introduction and notes.
Guido Waldman (translator) (1974) Orlando Furioso, Oxford World’s Classics. ISBN 978 0 19 954038 9. Prose translation.