Friday, June 9, 2023

'Orlando Furioso' retold by Richard Hodgens

One of the more unusual volumes in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperback series in the 1960s and 70s was Orlando Furioso Volume 1, sub-titled The Ring of Angelica. This was published fifty years ago: the US edition was in January 1973, and the UK Pan Ballantine edition in September 1973. It was translated by Richard Hodgens, and introduced by the series’ Editorial Consultant, Lin Carter. The dramatic cover art was by David Johnston.

It was the start of a version of Ariosto’s Italian Renaissance epic revolving around the court of Charlemagne and his knights. This work was roughly the equivalent of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur or the Medieval Welsh tales in The Mabinogion, and like them plays brazenly with history, topography, time and magic.

The Ariosto poem, itself a continuation of another hand’s earlier work, is a massive work of heroic fantasy, complete with kings, barons, questing knights, vigorous heroines, witches, wizards, monsters, strange landscapes, feuds, intrigues, and tumultuous plotting. Carter, no doubt with an eye to the market, described it as ‘in the great tradition of imaginary world fantasy, a direct ancestor of The Well at the World’s End, The Worm Ouroboros and The Lord of the Rings.’ The problem for a modern audience, however, is its form: it is a very, very long, closely-rhymed poem.

Carter explained that Hodgens, ‘a young science fiction and fantasy writer’, had contacted him in 1969 to praise one of his anthologies and to suggest the Ariosto epic as a source for further selections. Carter had replied that unfortunately all the translations he had seen were ‘dismal attempts’ in rhyming couplets that failed to capture the magic of the original. In response Hodgens offered to write a prose version and sent a sample. Carter was impressed, and signed him up for the full work: but in fact only this first volume appeared, partly because the publisher was soon after sold, and the series itself discontinued.

Over at his Lesser-Known Writers blog, Douglas A. Anderson provides more information about Richard Hodgens, the young Ariosto enthusiast. When Doug made contact with Hodgens’ sisters, he learnt from them that Hodgens himself preferred to describe his work as a paraphrase in English prose, rather than a translation as such, and in this he was undoubtedly correct. Essentially, he has re-told and adapted the story rather than simply converted it to a different tongue.

The great virtue of Hodgens’ prose version is that it is clear, brisk and succinct. It makes no attempt to emulate the style of the original or its poetic form, but instead focuses on the narrative. His interest is in the romantic, chivalric and mythic content and to some extent in the worldly, sophisticated tone. He also avoids the sham-archaic approach used in some historical fiction (‘godwottery’ or ‘gadzookery’, as it is sometimes called), in favour of a more direct, lucid prose. The reader can therefore appreciate the story Ariosto told, even if the full literary intricacies of the work are not conveyed.

This was a bold, ambitious project. It seems to have done quite well in the USA, but copies are uncommon in the UK. The fact that it was a projected sequence wouldn’t necessarily have deterred buyers, quite the reverse: long epics were in vogue and other works in the series had been published in multiple volumes. But the unfamiliar, untranslated, academic-sounding title may not have helped. ‘Orlando’ is in fact better-known to English readers as Roland and surely some such adaptation as ‘Roland Enraged’ or, better still, ‘Wild Roland’ would have been more enthralling and enticing.

Although only Volume 1 appeared, this need not dissuade readers today from seeking out the title, because Ariosto’s work is itself highly episodic, and most of the adventures are self-contained. Even so, it is a pity that the Richard Hodgens version did not continue to completion, because it may well over time have provided a readable and sympathetic introduction to the essence of the great Renaissance epic.

(Mark Valentine)


  1. I sampled the verse translations - Wikipedia has a chart - and the complete William Stewart Rose version of 1823-31 reads nicely, so I downloaded the entire thing at Project Gutenberg. (A recent translation by David Slavitt uses “dad” for father in order to make a rhyme, which is tonally out of keeping with a medieval epic and made me cringe immediately.) The Rose translation is in the correct form, octaves of abababcc in iambic pentameter.

    I’m not much interested in prose adaptations, abridgements, and all of that. I AM there for the “literary intricacies”. Sure, making a verse translation is challenging, but it is not impossible, and I would rather see people go for it. As for “modern audiences” put off by “academic-sounding titles”, I honestly don’t care. Literature (increasingly) is for hard-core readers, and although adaptations of various kinds are justifiable for young readers to get them interested, I don’t believe in making things soft and easy for adults.

  2. The David Slavitt translation from Harvard University Press is actually very good and a lot of fun. I reviewed it for The Washington Post when the book first appeared and found that it swept me right along, which is more than I can say for "The Well at the World's End." Still, I'll have to keep an eye out for the Ballantine "Ring of Angelica." As always, Mark's write-up sold the book.