Love as a Forest: Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso

This is an essay by Amarie Fox.

Looking back, much of what I have written for this site seems to follow a similar theme – what one could possibly consider rather grim or serious discussions about death, the grieving process, war time, revenge. As much as I hope to persuade everyone to explore the classics, in order to find some kind of comfort and consolation, I can’t help but feel that sometimes I am accomplishing the opposite of what I intend to do, that I am in fact pushing everyone away. After all, life is hard enough. I understand not wanting to read a book that is dark or depressing. Everyone needs balance and even in art we require a balance.

So, to break from convention, I have decided to write about a classical poem that is actually humorous or aims to sort of poke fun at love, or how one behaves when they are in love. In Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso (Mad Orlando), unrequited love does not bring about a desire for revenge – like in other famous texts – so much as it drives the thwarted to forgo all sense of civilization or decency and resort to primal, infantile behavior. Love, basically, becomes a form of true insanity.

‘Well, that was your first mistake…’

Ariosto models his poem as a continuation of Boiardo’s unfinished romance Orlando Innamorato (Orlando in Love). Orlando Furioso is anything, but a medieval romance, though. Typical ideas of chivalry are blotted out, often mocked or described in an ironic tone. Ariosto was not writing in the Middle Ages, he was writing in the 16th century, the age of Humanism. All of the typical conventions – of knights and ladies, duels and great journeys – are present, but are warped and turned on their head.

Orlando is one of Charlemagne’s warriors, during the time that the Saracens were invading much of Europe. While he is supposed to be protecting the emperor, he ends up falling in love with the pagan princess Angelica, which is perhaps Orlando’s first mistake. Again, Ariosto is highlighting how silly medieval romances can get at times. There is always a man falling in love with a woman who is unachievable somehow, either through marriage or social rank. Usually, they are never equals and the lover has to quietly keep his desire and feelings to himself and view his beloved in a sort of god/man relationship. For, she is as untouchable and out of reach as a god. Ariosto works within this structure, adding the problem of religion – a Christian falling in love with a pagan.

The whole structure is certainly doomed to disaster and when Angelica saves a pagan, Saracen knight – her equal – falls in love and eventually elopes, there is really no surprise. For anyone but, Orlando, that is.

Now in a typical romance, Orlando would have rode away and swallowed his disappointment, perhaps even still secretly pinned for his beloved. Instead, Orlando loses all human normality. In a frenzy of madness, he strips off his armor and chain-mail, leaving it scattered about in the woods. Then he tears off all of his clothing, exposing his hairy belly, chest, and back.

This disregard for his human accessory, which is symbolic of both his status and identity, essentially brings him down to being an equal with the forest creatures. The choice is going without clothing and manmade items, proves to be Orlando’s first choice in abandoning all human society and turning into a beast.

Love as madness

Once Orlando has dived into animalistic tendencies, his behavior changes, as well. He doesn’t even give a thought to drawing his sword, but instead uses his brute strength to destroy pine trees – ripping them straight out of the ground – and even to kill men.

He begins roaming the countryside, purposely preying on men and wild beats. With the bears and boars, he wrestles and then feeds, devouring them whole, carcass and all. At one point, Orlando even grabs a man and plucks off his head “with the ease of a person plucking an apple from a tree.” If it wasn’t evident before, when he stripped his clothing off, Orlando is no longer a man, but an animal.

As a beast, Orlando does not utter a single word. Language becomes futile to him. Action becomes his way of communicating to the outside world. Even when he sees Angelica, instead of shouting out to her, attempting to speak to her at all, transforming back into the man he once was, he simply begins to chase after her, “the way a hound pursues game.” No longer does he even see her the way he once did, as his beloved. Those types of romantic, human constructs are gone from him. All human reason is gone, drained right out of him. He is only driven by his desire and instinct.

Love as a forest

The narrator points out that Orlando is an example of anyone that gets caught up in love’s snares, going so far as to claim that love turns us all into bumbling, simplistic versions of our true selves. He describes it as a great forest into which those who enter, must first lose their way.

Interestingly enough, the only thing that saves Orlando is when another knight flies to the moon and returns with Orlando’s wits in a bottle. When he smells them, he immediately falls out of love with Angelica and is returned to sanity. Perhaps it seems to be a ridiculous ending, but it isn’t really any more ridiculous than Orlando’s entire circumstance.

A while back, Chris Ciolli wrote a piece about literary couples and what they have taught us about love. I’d like to think Ariosto would have appreciated her take on the topic. Surely, he would have laughed and nodded his head, because love is a funny business. We need people who can see the strange humor in it and who aren’t afraid to show us how we’re acting in an elaborated, drastic way.

Just because Ariosto is funny at times, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a point or that his work is lacking some type of merit or message. If he taught me anything about writing and good writing, it is that sometimes it is the most outrageous or humorous stories that carry the most weight and give you the most to actually think about.


Amarie Fox is a writer and artist. Her recent fiction work has been published by Little Fiction, NIB, and Literary Orphans. More information at

Photo: Some rights reserved by Moyan_Brenn.


  1. Anjali

    Poetry is often the hardest to understand. Thank you for this introduction to, and exposition of, a little known classic.

    “If he taught me anything about writing and good writing, it is that sometimes it is the most outrageous or humorous stories that carry the most weight and give you the most to actually think about.” Indeed a good thought to carry with us at all times.

  2. Chris(ty)

    I love poetry, but I’ll admit to a certain laziness when it comes to reading this particular style of poetry. I much prefer modern female poets like Adrienne Riche and Sylvia Plath, but your piece has made me curious, so I may be picking up Orlando Furioso in the future. Thanks for that :). Also, thanks for mentioning my piece literary couples.

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