Friday 19 July 2019

Join #HistoricalFiction author, Christopher J T Lewis, as he takes a look at Orlando Furioso — a sixteenth-century Game of Thrones #History @cjtlewis

Orlando Furioso, a sixteenth-century Game of Thrones
By Christopher J T Lewis

Orlando Furioso – that is, Mad Orlando (or maybe Orlando goes Mad) – is a wonderful 33,000-line epic poem written in Italian by the poet and courtier Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1535). It is a sprawling saga of warring kings, brave knights, beautiful women, bad magicians, wicked witch queens, and the odd dwarf (who seems to share some of Tyrion’s interests). There is at least one feisty maiden warrior, Bradamante, who would give Brienne a run for her money. There are no dragons, but there is the hippogriff, a useful flying horse.

Orlando Furioso was hugely popular and influential in the sixteenth century. It was the favourite poem of astronomer and scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642); he knew large chunks of it off by heart. In my recent historical crime story Galileo’s Revenge you will find how it helped him in the pursuit of some of his not-so-scientific goals.

The song of Orlando

The main story of Orlando Furioso is set in the time of King Charlemagne the Great (742-812), when Christians and Saracens were at war for the possession of Europe. (So absolutely no modern resonance, then.) Poetic tales of knightly chivalry and courtly love set at that time were later written (or, at least, written down) in the 12th century. The most famous was the ‘Song of Roland’.
In Ariosto’s 16th-century version, the Saracens, under Agramant, king of Africa, are besieging Charlemagne in Paris. Here Angelica, daughter of Galafron, king of Cathay, is in protective custody – for her own good, sort of: it’s a long story. Orlando (that is the ‘Roland’ of the earlier stories), is the chief of Charlemagne’s Paladins (knights errant), but he is captivated by Angelica’s beauty. When she escapes and flees, he abandons his military duties and sets off after her. His search, and what he finds, drives him mad, indeed, utterly berserk – but not until canto 23 (out of a total of 46).

Angelica and Medoro

But what is it that drives Orlando mad? For the first eighteen cantos, the irresistible Angelica eludes her numerous noble suitors, both the chivalrous and the rather less so. (King Sacrapant, for example, meeting Angelica in the depths of the countryside, decides to ravage her forthwith:

‘I’ll gather now the fresh and fragrant rose,
Whose beauty may with standing still be spent;
One cannot do a thing, as I suppose,
That better can a woman’s mind content.’
But Angelica manages to escape his clutches intact.)

Eventually, by chance, she encounters a badly injured young Saracen soldier, named Medoro, someone not of noble birth, but a mere ‘page of mean deserts’. Whilst tending to his wounds, ‘She having learned of surgery the art’, she promptly falls head over heels in love and

‘She suffers poor Medoro take the flower
Which many sought but none had yet obtained;
That fragrant rose that to the present hour
Ungathered was, behold, Medoro gained.’
For a month or more (as Medoro convalesces) they linger in the pleasant countryside. All the while they carve their names ‘with bodkin, knife or pin’ on ‘every stone or sturdy tree’.
‘“Angelica” and “Medoro” in every place
With sundry knots and wreaths they interlace.’

But finally they head for Barcelona and take ship back to her home in Cathay.

Orlando goes berserk

As luck would have it, some four cantos later, in his constant searching after Angelica, Orlando arrives at a pleasant shady grove. Of all the shady groves in all of Christendom!

‘For, looking all about the grove, behold,
In sundry places fair ingrav’d he sees
Her name whose love he more esteems than gold,
By her own hand in barks of divers trees:
This was the place wherein before I told
Medoro used to pay his surgeon’s fees,
Where she, to boast of that that was her shame,
Used oft to write hers and Medoro’s name….’

To remove all possibility of mistaken identity, Orlando finds a poem written by Medoro to celebrate his good fortune, and likewise the place

‘Where sweet Angelica, daughter and heir
Of Galafron, on whom in vain were fixed
Full many hearts, with me did oft repair
Alone, and naked lay mine arms betwixt.’

Galafron, you will remember, was the King of Cathay. So, definitely not some other Angelica.

And thus, finally convinced of Angelica’s ‘betrayal’, Orlando goes mad. For ‘three days he doth not sleep nor drink nor eat,/But lay with open eyes as in a swoon;/The fourth, with rage and not with reason waked,/He rents his clothes and runs about stark naked.’ Stark, staring mad, then. He proceeds to run amok in the surrounding countryside, uprooting trees and assaulting herdsmen and, indeed, their flocks.

A flight to the Moon

But Orlando’s martial prowess is absolutely crucial to the defence of Christendom against the Saracen. The urgent question is, therefore, (Canto 34) ‘How to his wits Orlando may be brought?’ His friend, the English knight Duke Astolfo, undertakes to fly to the Moon, which is where all ‘things that on Earth were lost’ may be found. The journey is accomplished with the help of the hippogriff and Elijah’s chariot of fire.

Arrived upon the Moon, Astolfo finds a storehouse containing ‘a mighty mass of things strangely confused,/Things that on Earth were lost or were abused’. Along with the expected Biros and odd socks, he finds men’s lost wits, ‘kept in pots’ or jars, ‘amongst which one had writ/Upon the side thereof “Orlando’s wit”.’ And so, carrying this jar, and pausing only to grab his own lost wits – whose loss he hadn’t noticed – Astolfo descends to Earth again.

Eventually (canto 39), he catches up with the still raving Orlando. Unstoppering the jar, Astolfo holds it close ‘to [Orlando’s] nostrils; and eftsoon/He drawing breath, this miracle was wrought:/The jar was void and emptied every whit,/And he restored unto his perfect wit.’ Interestingly, ‘Thus being to his former wits restored,/He was likewise delivered clean from love.’ Orlando was so over Angelica, and could return to the business of saving Christendom.

I have used the rather free translation of Orlando Furioso ‘into English heroical verse’ by the delightful Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harington (1560-1612). There is a handy book of Selections (Indiana University Press, ca.1963) from this translation edited by Rudolf Gottfried.

Galileo’s Revenge
By Christopher J T Lewis

Florence, October 1587.

 Francesco de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, collapses whilst out hunting with his ambitious younger brother, the Cardinal Ferdinand. Soon the Grand Duke is dead. Officially the Cardinal insists that his brother has died of a malarial fever. But secretly an investigation begins to find the killer – or a suitable scapegoat?

Galileo, a brilliant, impecunious, and unscrupulous young scientist, is struggling to make a name for himself at the corrupt court of the Medici. He is horrified to be arrested as the Duke’s murderer: nothing burns so well as a wicked magician! His only hope is to find the real killer – or, at least, a better scapegoat. His search takes him through the piazzas and palaces of Florence, through the barber-shops and brothels, the cloisters and the taverns. Especially the taverns.


Suddenly the Duke pushed his chair back from the table and lurched to his feet. His face had drained of colour. The sun was not hot this late in the year, but here, outside in the woods, the cool, bright light caught beads of sweat upon His Highness’ forehead. As the Duke straightened up unsteadily, Cardinal Ferdinand put out a solicitous hand to offer support. Irritably the Duke brushed the proffered arm aside, and the loose sleeve of the Cardinal’s jacket knocked over the Duke’s beaker of wine. A red stain spread rapidly over the white linen table-cloth.

Galileo watched the Duke walk away towards the nearest clump of trees… A minute or so later the Duke re-emerged from the bushes adjusting his dress and strode more briskly back to the Family table. He grabbed his beaker, which had been promptly righted and refilled, and poured the contents down his throat in one long gurgling draught. He turned abruptly and embraced his surprised brother the Cardinal, who had again risen from his seat upon the Duke’s return. For a moment they swayed together like tired wrestlers, before the Duke released his hold and, turning to the other side, stooped to gently kiss his Duchess Bianca upon the mouth. Straightening up again, he seemed to be struck by some sudden thought or remembered duty. His hand reached out towards the table but faltered in mid-air, and he crumpled in a heap upon the ground.

The scene put Galileo much in mind of one of those old-fashioned frescoes of ‘The Last Supper’ – especially if you allowed yourself to imagine that Our Lord, after one-too-many toasts of blood-heavy red wine, had slid off his chair and disappeared under the table. All the guests at the Duke’s high table were frozen in strange poses of surprise and dismay, the Cardinal still half out of his seat, staring open-mouthed at Francesco’s empty place. The similarity to ‘The Last Supper’ was more than merely pictorial: the Duke might well have just announced that ‘One of you that eateth with me has betrayed me.’

Pick up you copy of
Galileo’s Revenge

Christopher J T Lewis

I am a historian and writer, living in Cambridge, UK. Galileo’s Revenge is my first work of fiction.

I have studied at Cambridge, London and Padua universities. Although theoretical physics was my first love, I subsequently became fascinated by the history of science. I am especially fond of the medieval and early modern periods: everything, that is, from the Venerable Bede (c.673-735) to the Honourable Boyle (1627-91), and a bit beyond.

A few years ago, I started work on a new, up-to-date biography of Galileo. Unfortunately (for me) a couple of other excellent scholars had already had the same idea, and I shelved my own project. But all was not lost. I have always loved crime fiction and historical fiction and above all historical crime fiction. (Yes, yes, I admit it: I adore Cadfael, even if he is the veritable white line down the middle of the road.) And so I had already started working on an early draft of my novel Galileo’s Revenge.

My story, fills in some of the large gaps in our knowledge about his early life, and entangles the young, ambitious Galileo with the real (and highly suspicious) deaths of the Medici Duke and Duchess of Tuscany in 1587. How hard can writing fiction be? I asked myself. You just make it up as you go along. And I won’t have to check my references. A much older and slightly wiser man, I finally stopped writing and published Galileo’s Revenge, or: A Cure for the Itch in November 2018.

I taught for the Open University for some fifteen years; for another twenty years I was a supervisor and Affiliated Research Scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in Cambridge. My previous work includes Heat and Thermodynamics. A historical perspective (Greenwood, 2007), a largely biographical and social treatment aimed at non-specialist students and the general reader. This received an award from the US journal Choice as one of their ‘Best Academic Books of the Year 2008’.

But I have put all that behind me now, and I am trying to go straight. I live quietly just off the Mill Road in Cambridge, in newly fashionable Romsey Town. This is most convenient for splendid café/vinyl store ‘Relevant Records’, for wonderful cocktails at ‘196’, and for tasty Italian delicatessen at ‘Limoncello’. It was at each of these excellent emporia, of course, that I had the original inspiration for Galileo’s Revenge. Oh alright, that’s not true, it was whilst walking along the promenade at Southwold, but they have all helped to keep me going along the way.

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1 comment:

  1. Galileo's Revenge sounds like just the sort of story I enjoy, Chris - murder and intrigue in a historical setting. It will definitely be going on my TBR list.


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