Epics, with their heroic memories, are necessarily composed in changing times. The Iliad and the Odyssey commemorate a Bronze Age culture that had collapsed half a millennium earlier; the poems themselves signal an entirely new, recognizably classical Greece. Vergil’s Aeneid, penned at the very beginning of the Roman Empire, focuses less on the founding of Rome than it does on the end of Troy. Götterdämmerung speaks for itself; tales of the gods’ twilight cannot be told until we are well into the night. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a sustained elegy for the time when wilderness was the dominant condition of the world, and the crags, plants, and creatures in wild places were magical because the whole earth was magical—a Britain before motorways.
Ludovico Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso is no exception to this elegiac list; he composed his Italian vernacular version of the medieval Chanson de Roland well into the Italian Renaissance; it may have been the best-selling work of fiction in the sixteenth century. The first edition of Orlando Furioso was printed (still a relatively new phenomenon) in 1516, but Ariosto continued to work on the project for the rest of his life, adding, editing, and rewriting. His latest version, from 1532, extends over forty-six cantos of 72 to 192 eight-line stanzas; in one recent Italian edition this means precisely 750 pages of very fine print. Yet despite its monumental length, its heroic subjects, and its atmosphere of changing times, Orlando Furioso is anything but elegiac in its tone; it is the sixteenth-century version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a send-up with biting social commentary, outrageous adventures, over-the-top violence, a sexual merry-go-round, and humor at every level from the most refined to the most sophomoric. Most Renaissance jokes are as lame after five centuries as their modern equivalents will prove to be, but Ariosto can still make anyone laugh.
He was not the first Italian writer to parody chivalric romance; the Florentine poet Luigi Pulci had already sent up the Chanson de Roland in 1478 and 1483 with successive versions of his Morgante, which takes its title from a pagan giant converted by Roland to Christianity. Matteo Maria Boiardo followed a decade later with Orlando Innamorato (“Roland in Love,” first published in 1495), which he didn’t live to finish. Ariosto took on the task of finishing Boiardo’s story, which fits Roland into his real tale: the romance of the female warrior Bradamante and the Italian knight Ruggiero, a descendant of the Trojan hero Hector, the mythic ancestors of the house of d’Este.
All these poems used ottava rima, the meter of ballads, eight-line stanzas rhymed according to a strict pattern (ABABABCC) and gathered in cantos. Ariosto, too, exults in fantastic creatures like Morgante, and uses a light touch with the heroic past, along with some …