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The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland) is a heroic poem based on the Battle of Roncevaux in 778, during the reign of Charlemagne. It is the oldest surviving major work of French literature. It exists in various manuscript versions which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. The oldest of these is the Oxford manuscript which contains a text of some 4,004 lines (the number varies slightly in different modern editions) and is usually dated to the middle of the 12th century (between 1140 and 1170). The epic poem is the first and with The Poem of the Cid one of the most outstanding examples of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries and celebrated the legendary deeds.
There are nine extant manuscripts of the Song of Roland in Old French. The oldest of these manuscripts is held at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. This copy dates between 1140 and 1170 and was written in Anglo-Norman.
Scholars estimate that the poem was written, possibly by a poet named Turold, between approximately 1040 and 1115, and most of the alterations were performed by about 1098. Some favor an earlier dating, because it allows one to say that the poem was inspired by the Castilian campaigns of the 1030s, and that the poem went on to be a major influence in the First Crusade. Those who prefer a later dating do so on grounds of the brief references made in the poem to events of the First Crusade. In one section, Palestine is named Outremer, its Crusader name – but is presented as a Muslim land where there are no Christians.
Scholarly consensus has long accepted that the Song of Roland differed in its presentation depending on oral or textual transmission; namely, although a number of different versions of the song containing varying material and episodes would have been performed orally, the transmission to manuscript resulted in greater cohesiveness across versions.
Early editors of the Song of Roland, informed in part by patriotic desires to produce a distinctly French epic, could thus overstate the textual cohesiveness of the Roland tradition. This point is clearly expressed by Andrew Taylor, who notes, "[T]he Roland song was, if not invented, at the very least constructed. By supplying it with an appropriate epic title, isolating it from its original codicological context, and providing a general history of minstrel performance in which its pure origin could be located, the early editors presented a 4,002 line poem as sung French epic".
Charlemagne's army is fighting the Muslims in Spain. The last city standing is Saragossa, held by the Muslim king Marsilla. Threatened by the might of Charlemagne's army of Franks, Marsilla sends out messengers to Charlemagne, promising treasure and Marsilla's conversion to Christianity if the Franks will go back to France. Charlemagne and his men, tired of fighting, decide to accept his peace offer and select a messenger to go back to Marsilla's court.
Roland, a bold warrior of the Frankish court, nominates his stepfather Ganelon, as messenger. Ganelon is enraged: he fears that he will be murdered by the enemy and accuses Roland of intending this, having a prior history of enmity with his stepson. Therefore, he takes revenge by informing the Saracens of a way to ambush the rear guard of Charlemagne's army, which will surely be led by Roland, as the Franks pick their way back to Spain through the mountain passes.
As Ganelon predicted, Roland volunteers to lead the rear guard. The wise and moderate Oliver and the fierce Archbishop Turpin are among the men Roland picks to join him. The Muslims ambush them at Roncesvalles according to plan, and the Christians are overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. Seeing how badly outnumbered they are, Oliver asks Roland to blow on his olifant to call for help from the main body of the Frankish army. Roland proudly refuses to do so, claiming that they need no help.
The Franks fight well, but they are outnumbered and the battle begins to turn clearly against them. Almost all of Roland's men are dead and he knows that he has waited too long to call for help and that Charlemagne's army can no longer save them. Despite this, he blows his olifant so that Charlemagne can avenge their death. Roland blows so hard that his temples burst and he dies a martyr's death. Angels take his soul straight to Paradise.
When Charlemagne and his men reach the battlefield, they find the dead bodies of Roland's men. The Muslims have fled, but the Franks pursue them, chasing them into the river Ebro, where they all drown.
Meanwhile, the powerful emir of Babylon, Baligant, has arrived in Spain to help his vassal Marsilla fend off the Frankish threat. Baligant and his enormous Muslim army ride after Charlemagne and his army, meeting them on the battlefield at Roncesvalles, where the Christians are burying and mourning their dead. Both sides fight valiantly, but when Charlemagne kills Baligant, the Muslim army scatters and flees.
Now Saragossa has no defenders left; the Franks take the city. With Marsilla's wife Bramimonde, Charlemagne and his men ride back to Aix, their capital in France.
The Franks discover Ganelon's betrayal and keep him in chains until it is time for his trial. Ganelon argues that his action was legitimate and openly proclaimed revenge, not treason. While the council of barons which Charlemagne has assembled to decide the traitor's fate is initially swayed by this claim, one man, Thierry, argues that, because Roland was serving Charlemagne when Ganelon delivered his revenge on him, Ganelon's action constitutes a betrayal of the emperor.
Ganelon's friend Pinabel challenges Thierry to trial by combat. By divine intervention, Thierry, the weaker man, wins, killing Pinabel. The Franks are convinced by this of Ganelon's villainy and sentence him to a most painful death. The traitor is torn limb from limb by galloping horses and thirty of his relatives are hanged.
The poem is written in stanzas of irregular length known as laisses. The lines are decasyllabic (containing ten syllables), and each is divided by a strong caesura which generally falls after the fourth syllable. The last stressed syllable of each line in a laisse has the same vowel sound as every other end-syllable in that laisse. The laisse is therefore an assonal, not a rhyming stanza.
On a narrative level, the Song of Roland features extensive use of repetition, parallelism, and thesis-antithesis pairs. Unlike later Renaissance and Romantic literature, the poem focuses on action rather than introspection.
The author gives few explanations for characters' behavior. The warriors are stereotypes defined by a few salient traits; for example, Roland is loyal and trusting while Ganelon, though brave, is traitorous and vindictive.
The story moves at a fast pace, occasionally slowing down and recounting the same scene up to three times but focusing on different details or taking a different perspective each time. The effect is similar to a film sequence shot at different angles so that new and more important details come to light with each shot.
A Latin poem, Carmen de Prodicione Guenonis, was composed around 1120, and a Latin prose version, Historia Caroli Magni (often known as "The Pseudo-Turpin") even earlier. Around 1170, a version of the French poem was translated into the Middle High German Rolandslied by Konrad der Pfaffe (possible author also of the Kaiserchronik). In his translation Konrad replaces French topics with generically Christian ones. The work was translated into Middle Dutch in the 13th century. It was also rendered into Occitan verse in the 14th- or 15th-century poem of Ronsasvals, which incorporates the later, southern aesthetic into the story. An Old Norse version of the Song of Roland exists as Karlamagnús saga, and a translation into the artificial literary language of Franco-Venetian is also known; such translations contributed to the awareness of the story in Italy. In 1516 Ludovico Ariosto published his epic Orlando Furioso, which deals largely with characters first described in the Song of Roland.
The Chanson de Roland has an important place in the background of Graham Greene's The Confidential Agent. The book's protagonist had been a Medieval scholar specialising in this work, until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War forced him to become a soldier and secret agent. Throughout the book, he repeatedly compares himself and other characters with the characters of "Roland". Particularly, the book includes a full two pages of specific commentary, which is relevant to its 20th-century plot line: "Oliver, when he saw the Saracens coming, urged Roland to blow his horn and fetch back Charlemagne - but Roland wouldn't blow. A big brave fool. In war one always chooses the wrong hero. Oliver should have been the hero of that song, instead of being given second place with the blood-thirsty Bishop Turpin.(...) In the Oxford version Oliver is reconciled in the end, he gives Roland his death-blow by accident, his eyes blinded by wounds. [But] the story had been tidied up. In truth, Oliver strikes his friend down in full knowledge - because of what he has done to his men, all the wasted lives. Oliver dies hating the man he loves - the big boasting courageous fool who was more concerned with his own glory than with the victory of his faith. This makes the story tragedy, not just heroics".
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