The peculiarly virginal hero of Orlando innamorato and Orlando furioso.
Love stories center on a problem—two people love each other, or one person loves another, and how are they going to get together? Sex is part of the solution, or usually is. There are, in literature, those strange cases where it isn’t.
In the literature of antiquity, sex is almost a last resort for the expression of love, and it seldom ends well. It’s the classic pitfall of the Old Testament. The transformations that compose the Metamorphoses are often brought about by sexual peril: Daphne turns into a tree to avoid having sex with Apollo. Syrinx turns into marsh reeds to escape pursuit by Pan. Io is turned into a cow as a bizarre result of having been raped by Zeus. Actaeon, the hunter, is famously turned into one of the very stags he hunts as punishment for seeing Diana naked, and is torn apart by his own dogs. The beautiful youth Hermaphroditus is so repulsed by the idea of erotic contact with a female nymph; she, obsessed, tries to take him by force. She wraps herself around him as he fights her off and prays to the gods to join them as one. And so one they become: a single two-sexed being.
In the realm of myth, sex is transformation, metaphor. Later on, in Arthurian and Carolingian romances, it is the concept of virginity that transforms—and not women’s virginity, but men’s. For the knights of Arthur’s Round Table, undistracted by any real political conflict during the reign of peace, the pursuit of God in grail form is the definitive test of purity. Only the virginal knight Galahad can see the Holy Grail, because of his virginity. “I never felt the kiss of love, / Nor maiden’s hand in mine,” Tennyson has him admit.
Galahad finds his Carolingian counterpart in Orlando, the idealistic, probably virginal hero in the Matter of France. The fifteenth century’s Orlando furioso (and its less-read predecessor, Orlando innamorato) revolves around the physical manifestation of Arthurian religious idealism: the religious wars between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Both stories concern Orlando’s doomed pursuit of the seemingly nondenominational Angelica, a woman whose sexuality is so potent that to escape pursuit by nearly everyone she meets, she must turn invisible by the use of a magic ring not unlike Tolkien’s. She is much closer to the template Ovid lays out in Metamorphoses, the stalked female relying on bodily transformation to escape abuse, though she is, ostensibly, the villain of the tale.
The Orlando cycle may be, in fact, the epic text most densely populated with imperiled virgins since the Metamorphoses itself. The characters themselves seem aware of this, often quoting Ovid to one another and identifying themselves in the very changeable positions of hunter and hunted. In Orlando innamorato, written by the Italian Matteo Boiardo in the 1470s, Orlando meets Angelica when she appears out of nowhere, like the White Hart in Gawaine’s tale, to offer a challenge to Charlemagne’s knights. She is later claimed, imprisoned, and manages to escape, while Orlando drops everything to pursue her across the war-scarred Franco-Christian empire. He catches up with her a few times, only to lose her again. In Orlando furioso, the pursuit finally drives him mad. Sex may well be a transformative act for others, but abstention is the thing that changes Orlando, bodily, elementally.
Perhaps this is why the Italians of this age talk of love in the ambiguous terms of fire—specifically “burning.” Lust burns, but the word also seems to foreshadow the lover’s fate, projecting a scene of later torment. One of Michelangelo’s most famous sonnets ends on the contradiction, “When near you burn me, when far off, you kill.” To burn is his fate: with passion, while on Earth, and presumably in hell later on. Michelangelo actually blames God, putting him at fault for making his creation so brittle and weak, in spirit as well as body, and for making us too passionate. “He is to blame,” he says, “who fashioned me for fire.”
But in the Orlando cycle, God’s role—as a character absent from the many myths springing up around his own legend; in the motivations, actions, and day-to-day lives of even his most devout subjects—appears questionable. There is, primarily, the case of the warrior Orlando’s love-driven treason, on which he reflects:
Love, which burns my heart, makes this wind, beating his wings about the flames. By what miracle, Love, do you keep my heart ever burning but never consumed by fire?
This burning will lead him to forsake everything for her and remain, somehow, a good and chaste Christian by the standards of the poets who speak of him. Angelica’s effect on others is attributed to something more pagan, like witchcraft. When Charlemagne’s court catches sight of her for the first time, “All the barons, / And King Charles were in love. They blazed.”
Boiardo, Orlando innamorato’s author, died in 1494 without finishing the story. Ludovico Ariosto took up the reins a few decades later, first publishing Orlando furioso in 1516. The sequel is stranger, and better remembered as a sort of parody of the first, with the author infusing the farcical elements of the legend with his own voice and a strong underlying feminism.
Orlando furioso is a bizarre, idiosyncratic, cynical story—not one that has inspired a lot of great criticism, though it apparently influenced Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Spenser’s The Fairie Queene. (There was also a famous stage production in the seventies involving gigantic puppets.) It is, in its way, a cult epic: bloody, mean, and very clear-eyed about love. There aren’t really any ideal couples or pure knights, and there is no Holy Grail. People fall in love mostly by trickery. Orlando never “wins” Angelica, and he doesn’t seem to understand what would happen if he did. The most interesting coupling, between the Christian Bradamante and the Saracen Ruggiero, is politicized: she forces him to convert before marrying him. Perhaps its part of the secret criticism of religion underlying it—a cult that claims to love its subjects but also calls them imperfect, calls upon them to change in impossible ways.
At the very least, the Orlando cycle draws these kinds of parallels between the twin cults of love and religion. While the already vague concepts of religious fidelity and personal honor fade into the background, so, too, do the even vaguer motives of love and sex. Though the effect of Angelica’s sexuality on others is the impetus for the entire story, it is also, in the case of Orlando, nearly irrelevant. The story seems to hinge less on his treasonous pursuit of a woman than on his chastity, disputed though it is.
Orlando’s sexuality is distinct from the outset. Married and yet apparently chaste—whatever that word actually means in the context of these tales—he forsakes his loyalty to his country, his wife, and his religious beliefs for a woman he can’t even get it up for. At one point in Orlando innamorato, Angelica greets him by drawing him a bath, before which she massages him, presumably naked, causing him to feel “tremendous joy, although / no part of him was seen to grow.”
He later fears that his rival for her love will get the best of him, for said rival “knows the tricks of flattery,” whereas
If I disturbed a single hair
on any woman’s head, I’d swoon.
I’d not know how to end or start,
unless she taught me, lent me heart.
Boiardo’s narrator comments upon Orlando’s haplessness in love, describing him as someone who “speaks of love like one who dreams,” and later lamenting, “O how much better fit to fight / than love a girl was that great knight!”
When it comes to his sexual intactness, he goes back and forth. Boiardo’s narrator questions the reliability of his source for the story, Turpin, an archbishop of Rheims. When explaining that Orlando has “no taste” for sex, he notes:
Turpino says the Count of Blaye
was chaste, a virgin, his life long.
You may believe what pleases you.
Turpin says lots of thing, some wrong.
And later, when Orlando is briefly reunited with Angelica:
He rode along and talked with her
but never dared to touch the girl.
He loves that lady so much that
he worried he might anger her.
Turpino never lies! He calls
the baron a baboon for this.
Of course, Boiardo clumps consensual and nonconsensual sex together as one act, assuming that a lack of interest in one is as good as a lack of interest in the other. It would be possible to think of Orlando as a person who is simply not turned on by a lack of consent were it not for the incident of the sexual massage, the bath, and the limp dick.
The question of his chastity gives a more complex shade to his eventual madness, which results from his discovery, in Orlando furioso, that Angelica has fallen in love and run away with someone else, and is, importantly, no longer a virgin—that she has, in a sense, left him behind. The course his madness takes is bloody and extreme, and more closely resembles the obsessive, physical response of sexual denial. This is what Balzac talks about when he refers to the eponymous Cousin Bette as having a sort of virgin energy, an untapped and seemingly inexhaustible resource that makes her able to single-mindedly exact her revenge. “Life,” he writes,
when its forces are economized, takes on a quality of resistance and of incalculable endurance in the virgin nature. The brain is enriched in its entirety by the reserve forces of its faculties. When chaste persons need to use their bodies or their souls, whether they are called upon for thought or action, they are conscious of a spring in their muscles, a knowledge infused into their intellects, a demoniacal power—the black magic of Will.
Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean, while not overtly referred to as a virgin, is discussed in similar terms. He never had time for a lover, and so his outpouring of love for his charge, Cosette, becomes all the more extreme, confused, and violent. Obsession sets in, taking over logic as well as the body. Likewise, when Orlando loses his wits, he is at first immobilized:
Weary and heart-stricken, he dropped onto the grass and gazed mutely up at the sky. Thus he remained, without food or sleep while the sun three times rose and set. His bitter agony grew and grew until it drove him out of his mind. On the fourth day, worked into a great frenzy, he stripped off his armour and chain mail …
Then he tore off all his clothes and exposed his hairy belly and all his chest and back.
Now began the great madness, so horrifying that none will ever know a worse instance.
From here he goes on a killing spree, destroying all the sheep, trees, and humans who are unlucky enough to cross his path. His compatriots go to the moon, literally, to recover his sanity, there finding a glass case with Orlando’s “wits” cooling inside. He must be pinned down and made to inhale the contents of the vial in order to be restored to himself. When he recovers, he is not only sane, but cured of love.
One wonders what happens to the less fortunate in Ariosto’s world, those who suffer from the same insanity but who lack friends to hold them down and force them to snort their own brains. Presumably they go on forever suffering, at least until they find an enchanted stream or magic spell that is the antidote.
In the end, Orlando’s story falls down on the side of love as bewitchment. Love is a kingdom, its authors say, absolutely unaffected by God’s otherwise despotic rule. It’s one of the most interesting assertions that two separate and deeply Catholic writers can make in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—though it’s also, in its way, one of the most ordinary.
Henry Giardina is a writer living in London.