Song of Roland

Song of Roland
(Chanson de Roland)
(end of 11th century or early 12th century)
   The Old French Chanson de Roland is one of the most famous epic poems from the Middle Ages and inspired a number of medieval imitations, such as the Priest Konrad’s Middle High German Rolandslied (ca. 1170), The Stricker’s Karl der Große (ca. after 1220), and many other Old Norse,Middle English, Welsh, Dutch, and Latin versions. It also spawned a whole group of similar epic poems in French, known as CHANSONS DE GESTE (Songs of Deeds). Whereas the later Middle High German Rolandslied emphasized the nationalistic aspect of the story, the Old French Chanson de Roland underscored the religious motif above all. The anonymous Old French poet—the name of Turoldus, who is mentioned in the last line of the text, cannot be trusted as a biographical reference—relied on concrete historical events and transformed those into a literary masterpiece apparently in the immediate aftermath of the First Crusade (1096–99).
   In 777, a group of Saracen (Arabic) princes traveled from Spain to the court of CHARLEMAGNE asking for his military assistance against some of their Muslim opponents. Although the king was already involved in military operations against the Saxons, he agreed and soon marched into Spain, using two armies, the first crossing the Pyrenees in the direction of Gerona, the second crossing the Basque Pyrenees in the direction of Pamplona. Both armies then joined and they besieged Saragossa, but to no avail. When new hostilities broke out in Saxony, Charlemagne had to return, but during the passage through the Pyrenees, his rear guard was ambushed by Basque troops on August 15, 778, and all men were killed, including Anselm, the king’s seneschal, and Roland, duke of the Marches of Brittany. About 200 years later, the many legends concerning these events were transformed into a major epic, the Song of Roland. Here Charlemagne, who had been 38 at the time of the expedition, is described as a 200-year-old ruler who represents all of Christendom in its historical struggle against the Saracens, who have replaced the historical Basques and are depicted as evil-spirited, treacherous, and monstrous opponents who resort to the most unethical strategy to conclude a seven-year war against the Christians. Anselm does not figure in the epic, whereas Roland emerges as Charlemagne’s nephew and as a warrior with superhuman strength, accompanied by Oliver and 10 other peers, the paragons of French chivalry. The Saracens under Marsile attack with 400,000 men and rely on the betrayal of the 20,000 Frankish troops by Count Ganelon,Roland’s own stepfather, who is jealous of the protagonist and is bent on destroying his nephew and his peers. Despite his prophetic dreams, Charlemagne moves out of Spain, leaving the rear guard behind, unknowingly clearing the way for the slaughter.When the Saracens approach, Roland refuses to call his uncle back with the help of his horn,Olifant, afraid of damaging his own honor. His friend Oliver seriously criticizes him for his failure to use Olifant, but when the Frankish army has been reduced to 60 men, he then rejects Roland’s suggestion finally to use the horn. Archbishop Turpin, however, points out that the dead need to be buried, whereupon Roland blows the horn, but in the process the arteries of his temples burst, causing his own death. The Saracens flee when they hear the sound, but Charlemagne arrives too late to save any of his men. The king carries their corpses back to dulce France (sweet France), when he is suddenly confronted by the army of Marsile’s overlord, the emir Baligant. Charlemagne defeats him and conquers Saragossa, before he then returns to his capital at Aix-la-Chapelle. Oliver’s sister Aude, Roland’s fiancé, dies from grief over the tragic news, and Ganelon, after a difficult trial with an ordeal, is tried and condemned to death by quartering. The anonymous French poet, who obviously drew from a variety of oral sources, created a remarkably consistent and compact epic narrative that is divided into individual laisses, or stanzas. The Chanson is characterized by many dialogues, clearly identified characters, and concrete motivations. Scholars are divided about the proper interpretation of Roland’s decision not to call back Charlemagne when the rear guard is first attacked. Whereas some perceive this as a personal failure due to his hubris and false sense of heroism, others argue that this forces the king to return to his war efforts and to defeat the Saracens once and for all. This epic contains detailed discussion of honor, military discipline, chivalry, loyalty, friendship, treason, jealousy, wisdom, the conflict between Christians and Muslims, revenge, the question of faith, martyrdom, bravery, leadership, the significance of dreams as messages from God, the fundamental decision-making process in life, and the absolute conflict between good and evil.
   The text has been preserved in a number of manuscripts, the oldest from the second half of the 12th century (Oxford, Bodleian, Digby 23 [O]). The corpus of manuscripts is divided into a group of Old French versions and a group of Franco-Italian versions, best represented by the early 14thcentury manuscript V in the Codex IV in the Biblioteca di S. Marco in Venice. The Chanson de Roland was first rediscovered in the early 19th century by Francisque Michel, who published the editio princeps in 1837, which inspired generations of medievalists and others to pursue their interest in the heroic world of the Middle Ages.
   ■ Brault, Gerard J., ed. and trans. The Song of Roland: An Analytic Edition. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.
   ■ Burgess, Glyn, trans. The Song of Roland. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1990.
   ■ Cook, Robert Francis. The Sense of the Song of Roland. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.
   ■ Jones, George Fenwick. The Ethos of the Song of Roland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963.
   ■ Vance, Eugene. Reading the Song of Roland. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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