BOOK: Teofilo Folengo, "Baldo"
This is a mock-heroical epic poem of almost 15000 lines, written in the early 16th century. It's somewhat similar to e.g. Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, except that it's in verse instead of in prose. (As the introduction says on p. xviii of vol. 1, Rabelais was in fact influenced by Folengo's poem.)
The story is rather picaresque but divides pretty naturally into two parts. In the first half of the poem, dealing with Baldo's childhood and youth, he terrorizes everyone around him, teams up with various other rogues and scoundrels, and eventually gets imprisoned; after that, much of this part of the book deals with the intrigues of his friend Cingar, who is just as bad a rogue as Baldo, but relies more on wiles than on brute strength. Cingar plays tricks on various people whom he regards as Baldo's enemies, and eventually succeeds in liberating him from jail.
In the second half of the poem, Baldo and friends set sail for the east; the team gains increasingly bizarre members (including a giant, a centaur, and a half-man half-dog character) and enters upon a series of increasingly surreal adventures, fighting pirates, witches, demons, devils, exploring vast subterranean caverns, spending time on an island which turns out to be an enormous enchanted whale, and eventually they descend into Hell itself.
I liked the second part of the poem better than the first part, probably because it feels somewhat more like a normal tale of adventure, in which you can sort of think of Baldo and his friends as heroes that you can root for. In the first half of the poem they simply come across as rogues and criminals that act like assholes towards people around them for no acceptable reason. (In the second half, they are still violent assholes but at least their victims are now various demons and monsters that you can imagine as being deserving targets of this sort of treatment.)
In which I don't get the joke
I suspect that either humor is one of those things that don't necessarily age too well (or, for that matter, travel across cultures even if there isn't a big gap in time between them), or that something is broken about my sense of humor — which might very well be the case; perhaps a steady diet of gross internet jokes does leave one a bit unprepared to appreciate the humor in the literary works of previous centuries. Whatever the reason might be, the fact is that whenever I tried reading supposedly important comical works, I rarely found them funny: ancient Greek and Roman comedies, Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, most of Molière's comedies, there's also the ITRL volume of renaissance comedies that I read a few years ago (see my post from back then), etc.
So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I mostly missed the humor in Baldo as well. Part of the humor of a mock-heroic epic usually comes from the fact that it uses the same high style that would be used in a serious epic, but applies it to decidedly non-heroic characters, actions and events. And as with any parody, in order to appreciate it, you should be sufficiently familiar with the thing that's being parodied. Some years ago, I read Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock and enjoyed it a good deal, as I could feel that Pope is using the same pompous classicist style that he used in his translations of Homer, but now applied it to a much more frivolous and insignificant topic. But here in Baldo, I lacked this sort of familiarity; among the translator's notes there are many mentions along the lines of ‘here Folengo is alluding to such-and-such a passage from Virgil, or Ariosto, or Pulci, or some yet other tale of heroism and chivalry’, but I just wasn't sufficiently familiar with these works to be able to appreciate the parodying that's going on.
Another part of the humor which I largely missed was that coming from Folengo's ‘macaronic’ language — that is, the poem is written in a kind of Latin with a copious admixture of various more or less colloquial Italian words. This is largely absent from the English translation, and I don't blame the translator for it as I imagine that this sort of thing is probably difficult or impossible to translate anyway. Occasionally the translation tries to convey a similar effect by resorting to modern-day colloqualisms (“I don't give a shit”, vol. 2 p. 99), but I guess it's still a far cry from what one could get from the original. Unfortunately I know neither Latin nor Italian, so I had to content myself with reading the English translation.
Incidentally, another downside of having to read the translation is that it's in prose, like most translations of poetry in the ITRL series. For me, a part of the charm is inevitably lost in the transition from verse to prose. The front flap of the dustjacket says the original is in hexameters, though my impression from trying to read a few lines and count syllables is that it's more pentameter than hexameter.
A rebel with a cause?
But maybe the biggest reason why I didn't find Baldo to be that funny is that I'm reading it in a very different context than the one it was written in. I imagine that Folengo was sick and tired of idealized, larger-than-life heroes of the ancient epics and chivalric romances which dominated so much of the literature of his day, so he deliberately went to the opposite extreme in his poem: his ‘heroes’ are really rogues and scoundrels, cunning and violent but mostly without a shred of honor; there's lots of violence (the more grotesquely over-the-top the better) but mostly without any redeeming higher purpose; its victims are for the most part not characters you can sympathize with either, being either too dumb or themselves bad enough that they seem to deserve what's coming to them. (This is particularly noticeable in the first half of the poem; in the second half, the enemies are a bit more traditional.)
And as if he was deliberately rebelling against all the unwelcome efforts to elevate mankind towards something higher and loftier, Folengo is downright obsessed with everything that is gross and disgusting, and everything that emphasizes the material aspects of human existence. His particular obsessions are eating (the more gross and gluttonous the better) and defecation — shit is mentioned on practically every page, his characters shit their pants on the slightest sign of alarm, etc., etc.
I imagine that writing (or reading) such things must have felt liberating to him and his original readership, as a big hearty fuck you to the annoying forces of order, religion, morality etc. that are constantly trying to get you to act better than your natural tendencies incline you to do. I can sympathize with that point of view, but things seem very different from the perspective of someone like me. All those references to shit and other gross bodily functions don't feel all that liberating to someone weaned on goatse and tubgirl, and raised on a steady diet of blue waffles and 2-girls-1-cup. Likewise, having scoundrels instead of heroes for your characters, and placing them in a generally shitty world in which almost nobody is particularly sympathetic, doesn't seem all that revolutionary and liberating nowadays, since pretty much no form of storytelling (with the exception of some of the clumsier sorts of political propaganda) has been taking heroism seriously for a long time now.
In short, what to Folengo must have felt like a welcome act of resistance to the oppressive forces of order and decency, simply doesn't have the same effect on us now since we aren't oppressed by those forces to nearly the same extent as he was. I can read his tale and sympathize with his views, but at the same time I can't help wishing that he'd finally stop mucking about in shit and tell us something nice for a change.
As another example, I suppose that the various mentions of corrupt priests and friars must have been fairly daring in Folengo's day, but they seem less shocking and impressive now when you practically can't open a news website without finding articles about how the church is harboring pedophiliac priests, opposing abortion, exploiting orphans and the like.
Interestingly, for all his rebelliousness in these matters, in some others he is remarkably conventional. For example, he comes across as a bit of a misogynist; nearly all the female characters mentioned in the poem are negative (with the exception of Baldo's mother, who however dies very early in the book). Many of them are witches, Folengo denounces them in the harshest terms as whores, sluts, bawds etc. for trying to seduce his characters, and they invariably meet their end in a grotesquely brutal way. He praises Baldo's friend Leonardo highly for resisting such temptations and preserving his chastity (book 17). In short, Folengo might be very much on board with gluttonous eating and defecation, but when it comes to sexuality, he's in no disagreement with the conventional authorities of his day.
Folengo's style has some other curious features which felt more like bugs to me. For example, he's quite fond of long, rambling lists that rarely contribute anything much to the story and often feel more like the sort of padding that we would expect if he had been getting paid by the line. For example, there's a long list of things that individual Italian cities are famous for (2.96–130); of tales of chivalry read by Baldo (3.102–9); letters of the alphabet (8.535–99); winds (12.317–99); an astrological lecture on the heavenly spheres and the seasons which extends over the better part of books 14 and 15; a list of about 40 diseases and ailments (15.361–74); etc., etc., etc.
Was there some phenomenon from bona fide epic poems which Folengo was trying to parody here? I remember Homer's famous “catalogue of ships”, but that at least had a purpose: it increased the chances that whatever local Greek magnate was listening to Homer (or some other similar bard) perform that bit of the Iliad would recognize one of the heroes there as one of his supposed ancestors, and therefore be more likely to reward the singer/poet generously. Here in Baldo, the lists just feel like pointless rambling; I suppose if you enjoy them, you'll be glad that they are there, but for someone like me they were for the most part just a nuisance.
(P.S. Judging by the wikipedia, there exists in fact the concept of an “epic catalogue”, of which Homer's catalogue of ships is just one example, so I guess this is what Folengo was trying to parody.)
Another thing that bothered me somewhat is the picaresque nature of the story. Much of it consists of various little episodes that are only very loosely linked to each other, and that could be rearranged without really changing anything. I don't doubt that this is deliberate, and probably some readers like this sort of thing; but I'd like the story better if the plot was a bit more coherent.
The way it's written now, you just have seemingly random things turning up out of the blue without any obvious reason, as if the poet was just improvising and blurting out whatever happened to fall into his mind at any particular moment. Occasionally I felt like ‘Oh, so the heroes, sailing down this underworld river, come across an old man riding a crocodile and accompanied by a bunch of nymphs, and after beating him up they move along, never mentioning him again? OK, great, I'm sure that makes some sort of sense...’ (23.38–101.)
Likewise, advancing the plot often depends crucially on characters turning up suddenly and magically, which ends up feeling like a cheap deus ex machina over and over again. The poet/seer Seraphus is probably the most blatant example (22.490, 23.704, 25.409). I can't help feeling that the author was simply too lazy to construct a proper plot, and he just enjoyed rambling a bit. Who knows, perhaps this whole thing is just a big piece of snark against the very idea of a plot, and I'm just too dense to get the joke.
On a related topic, I was also a bit bothered by the ad-hoc nature of the fantasy world in which most of the second part of the poem takes place. Perhaps it's an unrealistic thing to expect from a 16h-century author; but modern fantasy authors try to at least pretend that the fictional world in which their stories are set is consistent and reasonably well planned-out. Some of them do in fact plan everything meticulously in advance (Tolkien would probably be a good example of that), others improvise but at least manage to give you the illusion that their world sort of makes sense.
But here in Baldo, I couldn't help feeling that the author is just making up random stuff as he goes along. You constantly keep getting random things which you had no reason to expect a moment before: a witch inhabiting an island which is really a giant whale (18.294–306); another witch in a giant underworld palace (book 23); the poet/seer Seraphus (18.257 and many subsequent times) and his order of long-dead ancient knights and heroes (book 18); a giant forge in the underworld, populated by naked devils (book 21); suddenly, an armory containing the arms and weapons of ancient heroes (book 22); etc. And the end of book 25 is completely psychedelic; he must have been smoking some really good stuff when writing it. I was reminded of the last scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When Dante was descending into hell, you had the feeling that things are orderly and well-organized, into levels and various smaller departments, etc.; here in Baldo the only vaguely consistent thing is the sense of constant descent ever deeper into the underworld, towards hell, but apart from that it's just one damn random thing after another.
Folengo's improvisational approach to world-building reminded me somewhat of another early fantasy work that I read a long time ago — Lucian of Samosata's True Story (which, incidentally, also involves an enormous whale, except that Lucian's characters are trapped inside the whale rather than on top of it). I rather enjoyed Lucian's story back then, perhaps because it was shorter than Folengo's poem. In any case, I probably shouldn't be too hard on Folengo's work; there's nothing wrong with it, it's part of a peculiar but well established genre, it just isn't the sort of thing I like best.
So I guess that, as long as you don't demand a coherent plot and a world which makes sense, this can in fact be a very fine thing to read. You get an author exercising his imagination just for the sheer joy of it, generously throwing out his ideas and episodes by the bucketload, improvising and rambling and inventing stuff as he goes along. I found it tolerable enough in small doses, but for the right sort of reader I imagine it could make for a very enjoyable read.