[(essay date 1983) In the following essay, Lee analyzes how a 1591 English translation of Ariosto's Orlando furioso both deliberately misinterprets critical elements of the work and demonstrates how the Elizabethans' concept of "the marvelous" both borrowed from and modified the elements of magic and myth found in the Furioso.]
Sir John Harington's Orlando furioso in English Heroical Verse (1591) was an anomaly--as a translation, as a poem, and as a work of literary criticism. Harington took unusual freedom with his text, even in an age which considered translation an act of "revision," imitation rather than duplication of the original.1 He compressed large sections of the Italian and added several of his own stanzas. In addition, because the Orlando furioso itself raised the central critical questions of the age--questions about the role of the poet, the use of the marvelous, and the nature of epic--Harington's translation took on unique importance and complexity. Critics have long assumed that Harington's free rendering of Ariosto's narrative represented a misinterpretation, his idiomatic language merely the diction of a second-rate poet.2 However, Harington's misreading was deliberate: His changes were for the most part carefully placed, not only to omit specific Italian allusions, but also to provide a self-consciously rational and moral perspective on the marvelous world of the Furioso. Indeed, it was not just the demands of English rhyme but also the requirements of contemporary critical assumptions that shaped his work.
The English Furioso helps us to understand the Elizabethan concept of the marvelous because it grew out of both Ariosto's poem and the critical controversy generated by it. In the Orlando furioso, Ariosto integrated what later critics assumed were opposing visions and forms--the romance and the epic. Ariosto used the conventions of romance--the discursive narrator, the heroines, the tales of adventure and love, the marvelous--to dramatize the inadequacy of the idealized romance vision. In particular, he used the marvelous to dramatize not the spiritual and moral potential of human power but its limits. First of all, he created the persona of the Poet, whose tone and presiding presence cast the sorcerers and sorceresses into a dramatic framework that reduces their power: they differ from their romance prototypes in that they are not mysterious personages. In addition, although his characters, like the heroes and heroines of romance, have magic talismans and enchanted weapons, Ariosto departed from tradition by using these to diminish rather than to enhance the stature of his characters: their magical devices--the ring, the lance, the shield, the horn and book, the armor--bring out not their "phantasticall" natures, but the qualities that make them more life-like. And states of enchantment in Ariosto's poem manifest not, as in earlier romances, the incomprehensible power that must be overcome if the hero is to accomplish his quest, but the characters' moral dilemmas--the "mysterious power" is in fact their own folly. In sum, Ariosto modified the mythic dimensions of his poem as romance in order to highlight its historical dimensions as epic.3
Even though Ariosto...