The Song of Roland

June 11, 2017

The Song of Roland
Anonymous
Translated from the Old French by Dorothy Sayers
(Penguin Classics, 1957) [c.1100]
206 p.

The army of Charlemagne, having successfully laid siege to Saragossa, was returning home to France, its rear guarded by Roland and his companions, when, in a narrow mountain pass, they were treacherously set upon by the Islamic forces that had just surrendered to them. The Christians fought valiantly against greatly superior numbers, and went down to a glorious defeat. Their heroic stand became renowned, with the name of their leader unfurled like a banner over the long reconquest of Spain in succeeding centuries. The story was told many times, with many variations, but the present poem, written by an anonymous but accomplished poet, achieved, I gather, something like authoritative status.

We are in the realm of epic poetry. Our poet sings of the bravery and strength of his heroes, of their superhuman powers of endurance and supreme fighting skills. When we see treachery, it is a grand treachery; when we see loyalty, it is a stirring loyalty. We see nothing by half measures. Still, the poet leaves room for some defects of character in his principals. Roland, especially, is portrayed as brave, but confident to a fault, bordering on hubris, and his self-assurance in the face of overwhelming odds leads to his downfall.

Half-measures apply least of all to the violence of the poem, which is plentiful and plain:

Wondrous the battle, and it grows faster yet;
The French fight on with rage and fury fell,
They lop off wrists, hew ribs and spines to shreds,
They cleave the harness through to the living flesh;
On the green ground the blood runs clear and red. (126)

Even the Archbishop, Turpin, is a fighting man, who rides to battle with sword and spear in hand. Here he confronts one of the lesser Islamic leaders, Corsablis:

His golden spurs he strikes into his steed,
And rides against him right valiant for the deed.
He breaks the buckler, he’s split the hauberk’s steel,
Into his breast driven the lance-head deep,
He spits him through, on high his body heaves,
And hurls him dead a spear’s length o’er the lea.
Earthward he looks and sees him at his feet,
But yet to chide him he none the less proceeds:
“Vile infidel, you lied between your teeth!
Charles my good lord to help us will not cease,
Nor have our French the least desire to flee.
These friends of yours stock-still we’re like to leave;
Here’s news for you — you’ll die, and there you’ll be.” (95)

As the Archbishop’s presence testifies, this conflict is explicitly a clash of religions. When the Christians achieve their final victory (as they do), they proceed to smash the mosques (and, for good measure, the synagogues) and force their captives to be baptized — all except the Islamic queen, whom Charlemagne wishes to convert by persuasion. The poem evinces no doubts about the propriety of this course, and certainly no irony. At the same time, the poet seems startlingly ill-informed about the nature of Islam; on numerous occasions he refers to the Muslims as polytheists who worship “Mahound, Apollyon, and Termagant”. Who Termagant might be, I’ve no idea.

Regardless, it is clear that God fights on the side of the Christians. When Roland is beset with troubles, the whole of France is troubled by storms and earthquakes. Charlemagne is granted illuminating dreams that reveal the schemes of his enemies, and the angel Gabriel visits him.

The form of the poem is flexible: it consists of several hundred short sections, or laisses, each of which contains an indefinite number of lines, with the only requirement being that the lines be metrical and that the line endings in each laisse be consonant, having the same dominant vowel (rather than a strict rhyme). This works extremely well, and I found myself greatly enjoying the sound of the poem. Consider, for instance, this culminating passage about the death of Roland:

The County Roland lay down beneath a pine;
To land of Spain he’s turned him as he lies,
And many things begins to call to mind:
All the broad lands he conquered in his time,
And fairest France, and the men of his line,
And Charles his lord, who bred him from a child;
He cannot help but weep for them and sigh.
Yet of himself he is mindful betimes;
He beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries:
“Father most true, in whom there is no lie,
Who didst from death St Lazarus make to rise,
And bring out Daniel safe from the lions’ might,
Save Thou my soul from danger and despite
Of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right-hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ,
And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.
Straightway his head upon his arm declines;
With folded hands he makes an end and dies.
God sent to him His Angle Cherubine,
And great St Michael of Peril-by-the-Tide;
St Gabriel too was with them at his side;
The County’s soul they bear to Paradise. (176)

It is true that I’m not enamoured of some of Sayers’ choices here — in particular her hokey-sounding metrical crutches, like “County” for “Count”, and her penchant for archaisms in a pinch — but basically I like the way the consonant end-stoppings pile up, giving the poem momentum and a certain musicality.

You’ll note from this most recent passage that Roland dies in comparative peace, rather than in battle. Here the poet solves a tricky problem, for his hero has to die, but, as a hero, he can’t simply be killed in combat. In fact, Roland’s death is due to his own over-exertion, he having exploded his veins by blowing too vigorously on his horn.

The blowing of that horn has summoned Charlemagne’s army to return, and, though they arrive too late to save Roland and his companions, they do pursue, overtake, and defeat the retreating Islamic army. In the final act of the poem, the French return to home and the traitor, Ganelon, who betrayed them to the Muslims out of spite toward Roland, stands trial. Thus the poem covers the full arc of Roland’s story.

And we have to put the emphasis on “story”, because the poem apparently bears little resemblance to actual history, even in its broad outlines. It is true that Charlemagne’s army besieged Saragossa in the year 778, but unsuccessfully, and in collaboration with one Islamic faction against another, and it is true that during their return to France, on 15 August of that year, their rear-guard was ambushed and slaughtered, but by Basques, not Muslims, during which ambush Roland, a duke of Brittany, was among the dead. How that rather minor episode in military history grew in the course of time to flower in the legendary battle of Roland against the Saracens is a mystery, though a happy one. The poem teaches us about the relationship of Christians and Muslims a millennium ago, but not much about real historical events of the eighth century.

I greatly enjoyed reading the poem. In my mind, it compares favourably with El Cid, being better structured, and more exciting, and having better characters. I have the feeling that I’d like a tougher, somewhat less mellifluous translation, but I’m not aware of any such.

2 Responses to “The Song of Roland”

  1. rereverser Says:

    Merwin. Raffel.


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