Heroic Characteristics in “Perseus”

In Canto X of Orlando Furioso, Ruggiero engages in an epic battle with the orc to save the beautiful Angelica. At first, I experienced a sense of déjà vu while reading this section of the canto, since there is such a close semblance to Perseus’s battle to save the lovely Andromeda from a sea creature in Greek folklore, and yet there are significant differences between the two interpretations. By the end of the canto, I recognized that while Ariosto wished to pay homage to Perseus by having Ruggiero exhibit similar characteristics, however he also presented Ruggiero as a more comically flawed human hero. With this canto, Ariosto utilizes blatantly whimsical humor at the expense of one of his protagonists in a successful attempt to extend Ruggiero’s comical misadventures. In the remaining lines of the Tenth Canto, Ruggiero departed from Logistilla’s palace and soared towards the coast of Breton when he found the beautiful Angelica chained naked to a rock on the Isle of Tears.

It is revealed that the corsairs had kidnapped her and brought her to the island’s inhabitants who placed her upon the rock as a sacrificial offering to the voracious orc. The saddened Angelica was unable to provide her kidnappers’ identities before the sea monster approached. Ruggiero made unsuccessful attempts to slay the orc with his lance and sword while mounted on the winged hippogryph. Realizing that his attempts were futile, Ruggiero flew to the enchained Angelica, placed the magical ring onto her finger, thus making her invisible, and temporarily blinded the beast with the immense light from the enchanted shield. After Angelica pleaded with her champion to not allow her to be consumed by the beast, he cleverly rescued Angelica. Unfortunately for Ruggiero, after landing on a neighboring shore, he failed to violate Angelica when he was unable to remove his armor before the astute young maiden outsmarted him with his own magical ring and vanished.

When analyzing this event, there is the distinct similarity to Perseus’s epic battle with a sea creature, especially in relation with Ovid’s interpretation from Metamorphoses. After reading Ovid’s Book IV of Metamorphoses and examining Perseus and Ruggiero’s confrontations, there are the obvious similarities with both heroes engaging the beast with their weapons while using winged accessories (Perseus’s winged sandals and Ruggiero’s hippogryph). However, the similarities between the two ends when Perseus killed his monster, but Ruggiero could not dispatch his beast. Both narratives have their heroes making several stabbing strikes with their weapons and being forced to fight on the ground, yet it was Perseus “landing on a crag, he clings to it with his left hand as four times drives his curved sword through the monster’s loins,” (Fantham 91) a feat that his heroic counterpart, Ruggiero is unable to do. Unlike Ovid’s hero, Ruggiero retreats with Andromeda upon the hippogryph, and it would be Orlando who channeled his inner Perseus and butchered the orc that Ruggiero had abandoned while rescuing Olympia in an identical rescue attempt.

Modern readers will probably question Ariosto’s decision to have the heroic paladin, Orlando, engage the same monster, savagely dispatch it, and rescue Olympia in a manner that Perseus would certainly favor. In addition to the skirmish with the sea creatures, there is another similarity that Ovid and Ariosto place upon their respective heroes. According to Marianne Shapiro, in her article “Perseus and Bellerophon in ‘Orlando Furioso,’” Ariosto created a symbolic resemblance to Ovid’s Perseus in that Ruggiero was also “a young man of promise and marked destiny allows his vagrant passions to carry him away into a life devoted to the enjoyment of sensual pleasures” (Shapiro 119). However, unlike Perseus and his heroic exploits against the Titan Atlas and the Gorgon Medusa, Ruggiero’s pursuit of his sensual pleasures casts him as a slightly flawed version of Perseus and brings about the comic aspect of Orlando Furioso during his long quest to reunite with Bradamant.

However apart from the “young man of promise” there is a meaningful difference in the two heroes’ sense of honor. It is this sense of honor (or in the case of Ruggiero, dishonor), where Daniel Javitch, in his article “Rescuing Ovid from the Allegorizers,” views Ruggiero’s attempted rape, a consequence of his interminable pursuit of sensual pleasure, as a marked departure from Ovid’s account, as well as a radical shift in his behavior once he has Angelica in his hands (Javitch 103). Ovid’s Perseus would certainly disapprove of Ruggiero’s attempt to commit such a depraved act and would likely regard him as heroic in action, yet morally villainous. Finally, the two heroes also share the ability to become lovestruck when encountering the fairer sex.

In Ariosto’s account, Ruggiero instantly falls in love with Angelica, even while thinking of his beloved Bradamant “he was pricked with compassion and love, and could scarcely refrain from weeping” (Ariosto 103). As Ariosto warned his beautiful young maidens in the beginning of the Tenth Canto, Ruggiero’s pursuit of love follows along the lines of Ovid’s Perseus when he first saw the beautiful Andromeda. In Ovid’s version of the rescue, Perseus also falls in love with the beautiful damsel in distress, yet Ovid overstresses the degree of Andromeda’s attraction. With a stroke of Ovidian humor, Ovid has Perseus so staggered by the half-naked and enchained maiden that he “almost forgot to fly” (Fantham 91). The reader can simply imagine the infatuated Perseus gazing upon Andromeda, instantly falling in love, and becoming so captivated by her that he forgets how to fly.

In addition to Perseus’s momentary lapse, he also acts in an un-heroic, but comical manner before rescuing the maiden. In Ovid’s narrative, while the orc is rapidly approaching the rock where Andromeda is enchained, “Perseus takes time out to introduce himself to Andromeda’s parents and then to bargain with them for her hand in marriage” (Liveley 61 – 62). For modern readers, it is unthinkable for the hero to introduce himself to the damsel’s parents and talk about marriage before attempting the rescue, but it also exhibits the confidence (or overconfidence) the hero has in his ability to accomplish the feat. In Ariosto’s own humorous spirit, Angelica’s rescue does not end with the hero and the maiden in a loving embrace.

In the closing moments of the Tenth Canto, after rescuing Angelica, Ruggiero attempted to rape the maiden. Unfortunately for Ruggiero, he strained “with hasty fingers…fumbled confusedly at his armor, now this side, now the other. Never before had it seemed such a long business – for every throng unlaced, two seemed to become entangled” (Ariosto 106). Modern readers would feel comforted that Ruggiero’s immoral attempt ended in a comical and karmic manner and overjoyed when Angelica outwitted the rogue by using the magical ring and disappeared, thus thwarting his advance. With the closing of Canto X, Ruggiero is left emptyhanded and must continue his comical journey in searching for his true love, Bradamant.

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