A Tartar king and several French paladins fight for the love of the Princess of Cathay, the Saracen king of Spain has pushed north into France and laid siege to Paris, and the greatest champions of the Saracen and Christian kingdoms have fallen in love.
So ends Matteo Maria Boiardo's unfinished epic Orlando Innamorato, which takes its inspiration from the legends concerning Carolingian France but leaves both legend and history in the dust as it spins its own story of the madness of love. Written in the 15th century, and abandoned when Boiardo's native Venice was plunged into war with a Muslim enemy once again, the thread is picked up by Ludovico Ariosto in his continuation, Orlando Furioso. Both stories are set during an attempted invasion of France by the Saracens, perhaps inspired by that stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732, but in neither case do the details of the story bear any resemblance to the earlier legends which seem to serve as their inspiration, nor to the true history which lies behind the myths.
Both the Innamorato and the Furioso are constructed without an obvious central story, weaving together episodes likely drawn from the oral tradition but heavily reshaped to the poets' ends with ones entirely invented by Boiardo and Ariosto. They make for fascinating reading, in part because of how the poets apply all their skill as storytellers to make every folkloric thread at their disposal point in a united thematic direction.
The titles, translated, hint at Ariosto's recognition of Boiardo's principle idea - "Orlando in love" is followed by "Orlando mad," because, as Ariosto's most fantastical episode will make explicit, overwhelming love breeds its own special sort of madness. And, indeed, the folly to which men are driven by love is the driving force behind nearly every episode in both epics.
There are, at once, three major plots intertwined in Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato. The first is the relationship between the knight Rinaldo (Renaud, in French sources) and Angelica, princess of Cathay, in which their feelings for one another are defined by alternately drinking from the fountains of love and hate; when Rinaldo loves Angelica, she hates him, and vice versa. At all times Rinaldo has rivals in his fellow French paladins, who have not drunk from the fountains but are enamored of Angelica's beauty; chief among these is Orlando (Roland). Second is the pursuit of Angelica by Agricane, king of the Tartars; to escape Agricane, she holes up in her father's fortress of Albracca, treating the reader to a vivid early modern depiction of life under siege. The third major plotline is the invasion of France by the African king Agramante; his siege of Paris will form the backdrop for much of the action of the Furioso. Meanwhile, toward the end of the narrative, Bradamante, the sister of Rinaldo and an impressive warrior in her own right, falls in love with the Muslim knight Ruggiero. The poem concludes with an apology for its incompleteness; the poet explains that he is unable to finish because of the invasion of Italy by the French.
A few decades later, the Italian wars still rage on, but Ludovico Ariosto takes up the task of writing a continuation of Boiardo's unfinished epic. In many ways Ariosto's Orlando Furioso dials the elements of the Innamorato up to eleven, nearly becoming a parody: where Boiardo's action wandered from France to China, Ariosto reaches further out to Scotland and Japan, and while the founts of love and hate appear as plot devices in Boiardo, in Ariosto the fantasy elements are yet more pronounced.
Marsilio, King of Spain, comes to Agramante's aid, and Charlemagne is trapped in Paris by their siege. Meanwhile, Orlando succeeds in sneaking out, setting aside his knightly vows because he is so overcome by love for Angelica. Here, we see him deviating even further from the character of Roland in the French sources, but in a way which heightens the idea of the madness of love - a point which is shortly driven home when he learns that Angelica has eloped with the Saracen Medoro, prompting him to lay waste to cities across Africa in his fury. Meanwhile, another knight, Astolfo, flies to the moon and discovers that it is home to all things lost on Earth; searching, he finds Orlando's wits and returns them. At once Orlando falls out of love with Angelica; love, we learn, is a madness all its own. Remembering his duty, Orlando kills Agramante. Meanwhile, Ruggiero is accused of treason by another Saracen knight, who he then kills in honorable single combat before converting to Christianity so that he can properly wed his own beloved Bradamante.
Little, if anything, in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso has any folkloric antecedent. And yet, the idea of a knight driven mad by an almost supernatural love to the point where he forgets his duty does have a precedent in the great French epics - it's just not part of the Matter of France. Orlando of the Furioso seems, in fact, to be an attempt to tell the story of Tristan and Iseult in a manner which does not end tragically. As for the rest, in both cases we see poets ready and willing to abandon all tradition about the lives of their characters in order to radically rewrite them to fit the theme of their poems. Ariosto remains true to the spirit of Boiardo's work in presenting a world under siege, a world where love is madness, and a world where the greatest heroes on every side are mightier than any army of unnamed characters. This seems to attempt to evoke the same notion of a lost age of heroes as the French epics, but in a distinctly Italian Renaissance manner, all while demolishing prior ideas of courtly love while reacting to the multiple wars taking place in the Italian peninsula during the authors' lives. And so, these poems mark the place where the matter of France abandons folklore and enters the realm of pure individual invention.