And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 18. november 2014

Orlando the Beaver

Self-castrating beaver
Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

In a recent blogpost I wrote about a description of beavers found in Historia Norwegie, an anonymous Norwegian historiography from the twelfth century. This account repeated the ancient myth that beavers castrate themselves to escape hunters, a myth perpetuated throughout the medieval period and still alive in the sixteenth century when Ludovico Ariosto wrote his Orlando Furioso. In Ariosto's epic poem we find another reference to this zoological factoid, which I will present in this blogpost. 

Seemingly a less successful beaver
Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

To understand the employment of the beaver-myth, some background is necessary. The context is a series of challenges that disrupt the pagan camp during the siege of Paris, which is the dramaturgical nave around which the episodes in the poem revolve. Four pagan warriors are challenging each other to duels on account of various offences that go against the chivalric code, and the pagan king Agramante has arranged for the order of their duelling. As one of the first combattants, the Tartar king Mandricardo is armed and prepared, aided by Gradasso, king of Sercania (a region meant to be in modern-day China). As Gradasso is about to conclude his office as Mandricardo's page, he finds that the Tartar's sword is Durindana, which belonged to Orlando. Unbeknownst to Gradasso, Orlando left his sword in the wilderness along with his armour and his horse when he went mad after learning that the princess Angelica whom he loves has wed the Moorish footsoldier Medoro. The sword was found by the Scottish prince Zerbino whom Mandricardo killed in order to get hold of it.

In Orlando Innamorato by Matteo Boiardo, the precursor of Ariosto's work, we are told how Gradasso has set in many resources to acquire this sword, and Ariosto gives a quick summary of events, as quoted below. When Gradasso sees the sword he gets infuriated and demands to know how Mandricardo came by it. 

Somewhat more successful beaver
Sloane 3544, English bestiary, 13th century
Courtesy of British Library

Seeing the sword, Gradasso had no doubt
This was the weapon which Orlando won.
To claim it back Gradasso had set out
With a great fleet; and no more splendid one
Had ever left the East; he put to rout
The kingdom of Castile; he had then gone
To France and was victorious; and now
The Tartar has it and he knows not how.

He asked if by accord or by onslaught
He took it from the Count, and where and when;
And Mandricard replied that he had fought
A mighty battle for the sword and then
Orlando had feigned madness. 'Thus he sought
To hide his apprehension, for, to gain
His weapon Durindana, he well knew
The combat I would ceaselessly pursue.'

Just as the beaver, he went on to say,
Which sees the hunter drawing near, and knows
The reason, rips its genitals away,
A similar resource Orlando chose,
And left his swords. Gradasso did not stay
To hear the story out. 'I don't propose',
He said, ' to yield to you or anyone
What I by such expense have rightly won
- Orlando Furioso, Canto 27, verses 55-57 (translated by Barbara Reynolds)

Orlando's fury as depicted by Gustave Doré
Courtesy of WikiArt

As readers, or listeners, will know, this story is not true and Mandricardo fabricates events. The fictitious account is of course very insulting to Orlando or anyone, since he is likened to such an unchivalrous beast who is not only a prey for hunters, but who also commits such an unmanly deed as self-castration in order to preserve his life. This latter point is perhaps of greatest importance, since by leaving his sword behind Orlando has abandoned his primary chivalric attribute. Furthermore, since I hold Ariosto to be no less a shrewd metaphorician than Shakespeare, I feel safe to say that by comparing Orlando to the beaver, Mandricardo draws attention to the phallic symbolism of Durindana.

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