Florante at Laura: Two guys crying in a forest, essentially

The History of Florante and Laura in the Kingdom of Albania: Adapted from some “historical pictures” or paintings of what happened in early times in the Greek Empire, and were set to rhyme by one delighting in Tagalog verse, Francisco Balagtas, 1861

  • Philippines, #4
  • Read online
  • Read: August 2017
  • Rating: 4/5
  • Recommended for: imprecise Romanticists and their kick-ass girlfriends

I kind of loved this, for lots of reasons.

The story goes: Florante is a member of the Albanian nobility, in love with a princess named Laura. Aladin, his Persian opposite number, is in love with Flerida. However, things aren’t going well for either these dashing heroes, and at the opening of the story Florante is tied to a tree in a dark Albanian forest, bleeding, and about to be attacked by lions, and Aladin has been exiled and is wandering aimlessly through the same woods. There are a lot of tears and moaning before Aladin saves Florante from the lions and nurses him back to health.

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Who, me?

Aladin’s Good Samaritan gesture surprises Florante and teaches him a Very Important Lesson about how Muslims are people too. Florante rewards his rescuer by pouring out his entire life story, in which Adolfo, his boarding-school rival, tries to kill him during a school production of Oedipus Rex, then (eventually, after many intervening and not strictly relevant heroics by Florante in battle with the Turks) kills Laura’s and Florante’s fathers, tricks Florante into returning from the front and ambushes him with an army, and then steals Laura for himself. Aladin chews on that story for five months as the two men wander through the woods together, crying. Finally, not to be outdone, Aladin relates his own arguably even harder-luck story (minus the whole childhood/school days section–Aladin is brief and to-the-point, which makes me like him all the more): his dad stole his girlfriend and was going to kill him until she interceded and got his sentence downgraded to exile.

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The forest is a sad place.

We are saved from further wandering in the woods by the timely appearance of the girls, who fill the boys in on all that’s happened in their absence: Flerida, after being kidnapped by Aladin’s dad, says, “um, no thanks, gross almost-father-in-law,” peaces out to Europe, and, with a single well-placed arrow, rescues Laura from captivity and certain violation at the hands of Adolfo (who is on the run after being routed from his captured kingdom by Florante’s loyal childhood friend). In the meantime Aladin’s dad has died of depression. Nothing remains but for the two couples to traipse back out of the forest and take control of the respective kingdoms, and to rule in peaceable friendship for the rest of their days (after Aladin and Flerida convert to Christianity, natch, because obviously the good Muslims can’t remain Muslims at the end of the story).

The breakdown of the story is thus: several pages of Balagtas eulogizing his unattainable love (10%); a brief note to the reader telling us that if we don’t get the story, it’s probably our own fault and we should just think about it a little harder (1%); Aladin and Florante moaning in the forest (20%); a brief flurry of action, in which Aladin kills two hungry lions (2%); Florante’s interminable life story (45%); Aladin’s brief life story (5%), Flerida’s arrival and exposition (10%), happy ending (5%). I realize that only adds up to 98%; the other 2% is intermittent wandering in the woods.

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Just some guys, wandering in the woods

I find the imbalance between Aladin’s and Florante’s autobiographies hilarious—Aladin gets about three sentences to sum up the causes of his distress before he is interrupted by Flerida saving the day. I love that Aladin and Florante, the supposed heroic warriors, are basically without agency, both relying on other people to save them from their sad fates. I love that Aladin and Flerida, supposedly secondary characters, both have more agency that Florante and Laura. I mostly love Flerida, who is a no-nonsense warrior who’s just like, yeah, I ran away and spent six years looking for you while you whined about what a hard-hearted bitch I was for abandoning you, and then I saved your friend’s girlfriend with my mad archery skills, whatever, don’t make a big deal out of it.

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Who run the world? Girls (in vaguely medieval costume)!

I also love the rhymes. In its original Tagalog, Florante at Laura is an awit, a Filipino form of poetry with four twelve-syllable lines in each stanza; all four lines rhyme with each other. Amazingly, Tarrosa-Subido chose to keep the rhyme scheme when translating the poem into English. This makes, I’m sure, for a very loose translation, and also for some very odd phrases. I have to admire her skill in bending the English language around the sense of Balagtas’s poem, even as I laugh at the sometimes hilariously stretched grammar, halting meter, and ridiculous word choices made for the sake of the rhyme:

 Yet if her ‘yes’ was left unspoken,
A gleam still lit my love dark-cloaken;
And when my hour of leaving broke in,
Shy tears she shed – a pearly token

Or this (a stanza from Florante’s dad’s ode to tough love, now apparently oft-repeated as sound advice on child-rearing):

One who is used to pleasure’s fill
Is weak of heart, is prone to ill;
His trials though imagined still
Reduce his fortitude to nil.

I mean, I mock, but this takes some serious skill. I couldn’t do it.

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I mean, the forest can be fun sometimes

The story takes place in some undetermined but vaguely medieval time. I’m a former medievalist, so even though I suspected it would be fruitless, I spent some deal of time trying to pin the story down to an exact date range. The full title tells us that the action takes place in “early times in the Greek Empire.” Wikipedia offers several definitions of “Greek Empire,” beginning with the kingdom of Alexander the Great in the 4th c BC, up to the Byzantine Empire in the 13th century. Given that the war providing the backdrop is between Christian Greeks and Muslim Persians, the time of Alexander is pretty much out; I’m guessing Byzantine, although the Byzantine empire had been around for a few hundred years before Islam even existed so calling it the “early days of the Greek empire” seems a little liberal with history. There was a war between Byzantium and Persia in the seventh century, but the Persians were still Zoroastians at that time, whereas they’re Muslim in this poem, so it has to be after that. Albania didn’t exist as an entity until the 12th century (before that it was a collection of tribes ruled by the Byzantine Empire), and the first “Kingdom of Albania” was established in 1271, which would definitely not be considered the “early times” of the Byzantine Empire, which collapsed less than 200 years later (not to mention that the Persians were pretty busy in the 12th century fighting off encroaching Mongol armies and European crusaders). I’m guessing, however, that Balagtas’s title is literal: he saw some Romantic paintings (probably quite imprecise with regard to historical period themselves, as these things tend to be), and was inspired to write a poem. So we get a Game of Thrones-esque romantic, medieval-feeling setting without being tied to a specific historical period.

It was very hard to find an English translation of this. I ended up reading it online here; I believe this is Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido‘s translation of Apolinario Mabini’s hand-written version of the poem, which he may or may not have recalled from memory while incarcerated on Guam by the U.S. Army. However, there are a few stanzas with notations that they aren’t included in Mabini’s version, so obviously someone went back to the original and translated those. It’s a bit of an annoying site because typos abound, there are frequent font changes, and the poem is spread over thirty or so pages and every time you click on a new page it opens a pop-up. I suppose if you’re going to read the poem there, disable pop-ups and make sure your antivirus software is up to date. Otherwise your options are to try to track down a published version in English (which I was unable to do, even through the extensive San Francisco library network) or to read it in the original classical Tagalog (judging by the goodreads reviews, this is the format in which it is mostly read, generally by high school students in the Philippines).

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Who, ME???!!!

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