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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 date of composition is put in the period between 1040 and 1115: an early version beginning around 1040 with additions and alterations made up until about 1115. The final text has about 4,000 lines of poetry. 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 1129 and 1165 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 what they interpret as brief references made in the poem to events of the First Crusade.
In the poem, the term d'oltre mer or l'oltremarin comes up three times in reference to named Muslims who came from oltre mer to fight in Spain and France. Oltre mer, modern French Outremer, literally "oversea, beyond sea, other side of the sea", is a native French term from the classical Latin roots ultra = "beyond" and mare = "sea". The name was commonly used by the Crusaders for Palestine. The occurrence of this term in the poem cannot be interpreted as showing influence from the Crusades in the poem; on the contrary, the way it is used in the poem, in which it is simply a Muslim land, indicates that the author of the poem was unacquainted with the Crusades, and that the term was in French before the Crusades began meaning the far side of the Mediterranean Sea. The bulk of the poem is adjudged to date from before the Crusades (which started in 1098), but there are a few items where questions remain about these items being late additions shortly after the Crusades started.
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, accept his peace offer and select a messenger to Marsilla's court. Protagonist Roland nominates his stepfather Ganelon as messenger. Ganelon, who fears to be murdered by the enemy and accuses Roland of intending this, takes revenge by informing the Saracens of a way to ambush the rear guard of Charlemagne's army, led by Roland, as the Franks re-enter Spain through the mountain passes.
As Ganelon predicted, Roland leads the rear guard, with the wise and moderate Oliver and the fierce Archbishop Turpin. The Muslims ambush them at Roncesvalles, and the Christians are overwhelmed. Oliver asks Roland to blow his olifant to call for help from the Frankish army; but Roland proudly refuses to do so. The Franks fight well, but are outnumbered, until almost all Roland's men are dead and he knows that Charlemagne's army can no longer save them. Despite this, he blows his olifant to summon revenge, until his temples burst and he dies a martyr's death. Angels take his soul to Paradise.
When Charlemagne and his men reach the battlefield, they find the dead bodies of Roland's men, and pursue the Muslims into the river Ebro, where they drown. Meanwhile Baligant, the powerful emir of Babylon, has arrived in Spain to help Marsilla, and his army encounters that of Charlemagne 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, and the Franks conquer Saragossa. 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 his trial, where Ganelon argues that his action was legitimate revenge, not treason. While the council of barons 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. Ganelon's friend Pinabel challenges Thierry to trial by combat, in which, by divine intervention, Thierry kills Pinabel. The Franks are convinced by this of Ganelon's villainy; wherefore he is torn apart 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".
It is also adapted by Stephen King, in the Dark Tower-series, in which Roland Deschain wishes to save the Dark Tower from the Crimson King.
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