Orlando Furioso: Escaping another orc, and a cowardly imposter

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647), Norandino and Lucina Discovered by the Ogre (1624), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Agramante’s massed Saracen forces have launched their attack on the besieged city of Paris. Although reinforcements led by Rinaldo have so far been successful in defending the city from outside, the African King Rodomonte has penetrated the citadel and is wreaking havoc within. Charlemagne himself has taken a team of his best knights to tackle Rodomonte, who is now battering the door of the palace, threatening to massacre its occupants. Eight knights try to stop this assault.

At this point, Ariosto turns to consider Grifone’s adventures in the city of Damascus. He has gone there in an attempt to win his treacherous love Orrigille back from the clutches of her latest paramour Martano. Damascus is a city of great opulence one week’s travel from Jerusalem. As part of its current festivities, a jousting contest is to be held this day. Grifone bathes and hears of this unexpected contest, which is repeated each month at the behest of King Norandino, whose story is then told.

The king had long been fond of the daughter of the King of Cyprus, and was at last able to marry her on that island. As the couple and their courtiers travelled back by sea, their ship hit a storm which drove them ashore, where they erected as much shelter as they could. The king went off in search of game for them to eat, but failed to return. Instead they saw a gigantic monster, a land orc which seemed to be hunting its quarry by their scent as it was almost blind. When it discovered the ship’s company, they scattered, some swimming back to the ship, others caught by the orc and put aside ready for its next meal.

The orc had two caves, one close to the sea where an old woman kept a group of women of all ages; the other, high on a rock above, it used to keep a mixed flock of sheep and goats. The orc much preferred to eat humans, though, and quickly started devouring members of the ship’s company alive.

Norandino returned from his hunting to find their camp deserted. A boat was sent from their ship to rescue him, but when he heard of the orc he decided to stay and hunt it, as it had captured his bride Lucina. He tracked the monster down to its sea cave, where the old woman warned him to escape while he could. The king confirmed that his wife was still alive, and being a woman would never be devoured by the orc, who only ate men, at a rate of four to six each day.

Norandino enlisted the help of the old woman, and smeared himself with the grease from the carcass of a goat, to confuse the orc’s sense of smell. The woman then draped his stinking body with a rotting goatskin, and waited for the orc to return late in the evening, after it had been tending to the flock. When it reappeared, the orc let the king into its cave along with the rest of the flock, then devoured two of the men there for tea. Once the orc had left, Norandino was reunited with his bride, which she found very distressing, knowing that he too would soon be eaten.

The king had another plan, and got all those present to cover themselves first with foul-smelling grease from slaughtering some of the flock, then to don their skins and wait for release in the morning, with the rest of the animals.

At first light, the orc returned and released its flock and the disguised people, except for Lucina, who for some reason it stopped and pushed back inside the cave before securing its entrance.

Daniel Berger (1744-1824), Plate 6 for Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’ (1772), etching, 9.1 x 5.1 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.
Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647), Norandino and Lucina Discovered by the Ogre (1624), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

When the orc went back to the cave that evening, it realised the other humans had escaped, and in revenge chained Lucina to a rock. Day after day the king kept her company, unable to free her.

One day, two knights, Mandricardo and Gradasso, passed by and through good fortune freed Lucina. Norandino didn’t hear of this until later, by which time everyone else had gone. He made his own escape, and after arriving in Syria, started to look for his bride. He eventually heard that she was safe on Cyprus, and they were soon reunited. He therefore instituted a monthly celebration, and the following day will be four months since the king’s reunion with his queen.

That night, Grifone joins in the feast, and the following day dresses up in his finest armour ready to joust. The prize for the winner is a complete outfit of weapons and a surcoat adorned with precious stones; the weapons had been found by a merchant, whose tale will be told later.

When Grifone arrives in the town square, where the joust is being held, it has just started. One of his opponents is Martano, who had eloped with Orrigille and is brimming with confidence until they see one of the knights die after being pierced through the head. Grifone pushes Martano out to fight, though. As soon as Martano is in combat, his cowardice is obvious, and he runs off through the spectators, who burst into laughter.

Grifone is deeply embarrassed at this display of cowardice, and steps into the fight. He quickly makes amends for Martano, dismounting his first opponent with his lance, and the second with blows from his sword. Those two down, Grifone continues his success against five more champions, each biting the dust after the other.

It is only when Grifone faces the Baron of Seleuca that his success is slowed. Grifone gets the better of the first pass, and blows from their lances. When they duel with swords, Grifone retains the advantage, but doesn’t lay his opponent down as quickly. Seeing his victory drawing near, Norandino gives the sign for them to stop, leaving Grifone the supreme champion.

Grifone then makes his way back to his lodging, still ashamed at Martano’s cowardice. He decides to take the couple away from the city that day, using a secret path to avoid any further embarrassment. They stop at the first inn which they come to, Grifone’s horse is unsaddled, and he undresses and falls asleep naked on his bed.

While Grifone sleeps, Martano takes the knight’s horse, clothes and armour, pretending that it is he who was the champion of the joust, so that he can claim the prize. He reaches the town square by dusk, just as the king calls out for the winner to be found and awarded his due. Martano then passes himself off to King Norandino, who affords him honour and respect. He and Orrigille are accommodated in luxury.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Royal Banquet in the Palace at Damascus (Canto 17:119) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Grifone doesn’t wake until evening, when he discovers Martano’s deceit, and blames himself for letting it happen. An hour before sunset, Grifone rides back into town dressed as Martano. As he enters, he sees where all the nobility are feasting with the imposter. They spot Grifone dressed as the coward who fled from the joust, and jeer at him. Martano tells the king a pack of lies about coming across the knight on his journey, which are only confirmed by Orrigille.

Norandino decides to punish the cowardly knight by sending his men to wait for him in ambush as he rides out of town. Grifone is then held prisoner until the next day. Martano, fearing that Grifone might tell the king the truth, then leaves the city hurriedly, as further honours are bestowed on him by the king.

The following day, Grifone is dragged without his armour to the town square, where he is put on a cart for all to mock. He is then toured around the streets to ensure that everyone recognises the coward that he is. As soon as they release his hands and feet, he seizes his sword, which had been trailing round behind the cart in the dust. With that, Ariosto closes Canto seventeen.

You will, I am sure, have recognised the long story of Norandino, Lucina and the land orc as a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Odysseus and Polyphemus, from Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey.

Polyphemus, the cyclops, has only one eye, and is a cannibal. When he makes Odysseus and his crew captive and starts eating them, Odysseus gets the giant drunk, drives a wooden stake into his one eye to blind him, and he and his crew tie themselves to the undersides of Polyphemus’ flock of sheep in order to escape.

This was also retold by Euripides in his play Cyclops, again in Virgil’s Aeneid, and by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. It appears to have been drawn from a far older story which has been found across many of the folk tales in Europe, the Middle East and Russia.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus (date not known), oil on canvas, 76 × 96 cm, Pushkin Museum Музей изобразительных искусств им. А.С. Пушкина, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Principal Characters

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

Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Christian King of France and Emperor.

Gradasso, King of Sericana, an ‘oriental’ and non-Christian.

Grifone, son of Oliver, a Christian knight.

Lucina, daughter of the King of Cyprus, who marries Norandino.

Mandricardo, King of Tartary and son of Agricane, an ‘oriental’ pagan knight.

Martano, the lover of Orrigille, and elopes with her to Antioch.

Norandino, the King of Damascus, who marries Lucina.

Orrigille, loved by Grifone, the treacherous lover of Martano, with whom she elopes to Antioch.

Rinaldo, cousin of Orlando, one of Charlemagne’s paladins and bravest knights, and commander-in-chief of the Scottish and English forces who come to Charlemagne’s aid.

Rodomonte, the African King of Sarza and Algiers, the son of Ulieno.

The artists

Daniel Berger (1744-1825) was a German engraver who was sufficiently eminent to be appointed professor of the Prussian Academy of Arts.

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.

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647) was an Italian painter who was a contemporary of Rubens. He was apprenticed to the Carraccis, whose workshop in Rome he continued to work in after their deaths. He became the leading painter for Pope Paul V, then working mainly in fresco, although he also made many easel paintings. His masterpiece is the fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin in the dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome.


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.