Tobias Gregory writes:
Although Orlando Furioso has comic elements, it is not a comic poem. It is a chivalric romance which incorporates traditional matter – duels, jousts, quests, amorous adventures, damsels in distress, Christians v. Saracens, monsters, magic – as well as Virgilian episodes, bawdy tales, metafictional gestures, a running debate about female virtue, wry commentary on the follies of love, outrage at foreign invasions of Italy, a dynastic marriage and praise of Ariosto’s patrons, the Este of Ferrara. No part can fairly represent the whole, but one remarkable episode conveys something of the poem’s atmosphere.
Orlando, Charlemagne’s right-hand man and the hero of countless adventures, has run mad for love. To recover his lost wits, his comrade-in-arms Astolfo travels to the Moon, guided by St John the Evangelist. On the Moon all that is lost on Earth can be found. The favours of princes show up as inflated bellows, ladies’ charms as limed snares; lost wits are stored in individually labelled bottles. There, in a palace by the River Lethe, the Fates spin a thread for every human life; once spun and cut, the thread is tied to a nameplate, and a tireless old man gathers up the nameplates and drops them in the river, where they sink. A flock of crows and vultures picks up some plates, then lets them fall back into the water; but two white swans convey their chosen plates safely downstream to the temple of fame. The old man, St John explains to Astolfo, is Father Time, who would bury all in oblivion; the carrion birds are flatterers who surround princes but cannot preserve their memory; the swans are poets who alone have the power to convey undying fame.