Orlando Furioso: Out of the storm into captivity

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), In the Battle with the Fierce Women, Astolfo's Horn Terrifies Friend as Well as Foe (Canto 20:93) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Angelica had come across the moribund body of Medoro, stopped the bleeding from his wound, nursed him back to health, and fallen deeply in love with him. They married whilst they were still living together in a shepherd’s cottage, and when they left she gave their hosts her favourite bejewelled bracelet in gratitude.

Angelica and Medoro then head for the Pyrenees Mountains, and on to Spain, where she intends that they take a ship for the east. As they are heading towards Barcelona they find a madman caked with mud, lying on the beach. He roars at them and threatens to attack.

Meanwhile, Marfisa, Aquilante and Grifone are suffering a third day of hurricane-force winds at sea. The crew have no idea where they are, and have been doing everything they can to save the ship in the storm, ditching all their cargo in a bid to survive. On the fourth day, they see Saint Elmo’s fire on what is left of the rigging. Then the storm at last starts to ease, and they head towards the Gulf of Laiazzo, near Syria.

As they draw near the coast, the captain realises their predicament: the vessel is no longer safe to remain at sea, but slavery and death await them here on the land. He explains to the passengers that this section of the coast is ruled by women who make men slaves, or kill them. Astolfo laughs at this, but the captain warns that he’d rather drown at sea than fall victim to those women.

The knights rise to this challenge, and make the captain head into the port, where a galley powered by slaves greets them and tows them in. They arrive in a bay, with a fort at each end and a city in the middle. As the ship nears the quayside, six thousand women archers are there to prevent the men from escaping. An old woman warrior informs the captain of the fate which he had foreseen: they are to be sold into slavery, or put to death.

The only exception is for a man who can defeat ten of their best warriors in combat, and then satisfy ten of their women in bed in the same night. The man capable of that will be made the women’s prince, and his companions will be spared slavery. The old woman expects the men on the ship to be scared of this, but instead they decide to accept her challenge. She lets the knights ride into town to prove themselves.

Daniel Berger (1744-1824), Plate 7 for Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’ (1772), etching, 9.1 x 5.1 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

After drawing lots, the knights consider whether the brave woman knight Marfisa should be their champion. Although she clearly would have the prowess in combat, she wouldn’t be able to take on the second part of the challenge, which they agree to accept. With that, Marfisa dons her armour and proceeds to the field used for tournaments and jousting in the town.

Marfisa rides into the arena, where she is surrounded by women. Her ten opponents then enter, led by a knight clad in black riding a charger of the darkest black. When the signal to start is given, the other nine knights prepare to fight the lone Marfisa together. She impales the first with her lance, then breaks the back of the second and third. She rides off, and turns her charger to tackle the next six, who she quickly despatches with her hefty sword.

Her sole surviving opponent, the black knight, offers her overnight rest before they engage in combat, which Marfisa refuses. When they charge at one another, both their lances are shattered by the impact, throwing them both to the ground. They quickly rise and attack one another with their swords, but are too evenly matched for either to gain the advantage. They fight on until it grows dark, when they stop until the morning. The black knight offers Marfisa and her colleagues his hospitality, which excuses her from being attacked during the night by women.

That night, Marfisa is amazed to discover how young her opponent is, and he is equally surprised to see that she is a woman. When she tells him her name, he identifies himself as Guidone, who knows well of her fierce reputation, and has been a captive of the women for nearly a year. He explains to the knights from the ship the origin of these vicious women.

They were descended from the wives of Greek warriors who went to Troy. Those wives took lovers during the twenty years their husbands were away, and their bastard children were ejected when the warriors returned. A son of Clytemnestra named Phalanthus led a group of a hundred of those young men. They were hired by the people of Crete to protect them, but instead seduced their women, who they then abducted and abandoned. One of those women, Orontea, a descendant of Minos, urged them to stay where they were and wreak vengeance on men. When ships were shipwrecked nearby, the women killed all the survivors.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Under the Leadership of Their Queen Orontea, the Women of Laiazzo Prey Upon Voyagers (Canto 20:28) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

After living independently like this for four years, the women captured ten knights who could cope with satisfying ten women apiece. Most of their male children were killed, so propagating a population almost entirely of women, keeping the ratio of ten women for every man who was allowed to survive.

One time, a descendant of Hercules named Elbanio landed on their stretch of the coast. He was a valiant knight, fair of face, and charming in manner. Alessandra, daughter of Queen Orontea, was told about him, fell in love, and pleaded with her mother for him to be spared for her. The queen brought this before their council, proposing that Elbanio should be put to the test of combat with ten of their own warriors. It was agreed that he would have to defeat ten opponents in combat, then satisfy ten women in a single night.

He succeeded so well in these tasks that Orontea adopted him as her son, married him to her daughter, and left the couple as heirs to her throne. So this test had become their standard practice over the last two thousand years. Guidone reveals that he had been through the same process when he took over from his predecessor, and that he is now trapped in their gilded cage, with nothing better than death to look forward to.

Realising how they are related, Astolfo introduces himself to Guidone as his cousin, which only serves to make the latter more unhappy, as he knows that one of them must die: either Guidone in combat with Marfisa, or Astolfo and the other knights should Guidone get the better of Marfisa.

Marfisa proposes to Guidone that they should together break free from the women, and escape, but he fears that is impossible. She says that they must try, or die in the process. He then reveals that he knows of one woman who also wants to escape, and will help them leave the citadel, outside which men are not allowed. That night, arms and armour are brought up to the men from the ship in readiness for the morning.

At first light, Guidone escorts the knights, dressed in full armour, down to the tournament field, on their way to the harbour. The knights push on and try to force the gate to let them out of the citadel, doing so under a hail of arrows from women archers. As these start killing their horses, Astolfo decides to blow his magic horn. Its note is so terrifying that it strikes panic into the entire population, who run away as fast as they can. The town is filled with a mob in abject panic, and bodies are crushed in the mass of women try to escape.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), In the Battle with the Fierce Women, Astolfo’s Horn Terrifies Friend as Well as Foe (Canto 20:93) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Astolfo rides up and down the town blowing his horn, driving the population out until the whole area is empty. The other knights and the crew of their ship hurry down to the harbour and set sail at once, leaving Astolfo behind wondering where they have gone.

The ship carrying Marfisa and the knights, except for Astolfo, makes good speed across the Mediterranean until it reaches the French port of Marseilles, where that other valiant woman knight Bradamante is governor.

Principal Characters

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

Aquilante, son of Oliver, a Christian knight, and brother of Grifone.

Bradamante, Rinaldo’s sister, “the celebrated Maid”, a brave Christian knight who is the equal of her brother. She is loved by Ruggiero.

Grifone, son of Oliver, a Christian knight, and brother of Aquilante.

Guidone Selvaggio, illegitimate son of Count Aymon, a Christian knight.

Marfisa, Ruggiero’s sister, a valiant and fearsome ‘pagan’ warrior.

Medoro, one of Prince Dardinello’s Moorish soldiers, a ‘pagan’.

Orontea, Queen of Alessandretta, a land controlled by women, who put men into slavery, but allow a small minority to serve them.

Sansonetto, envoy to Jerusalem, son of the King of Persia, who was baptised by Orlando.

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.


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.