Thursday, 18 February 2016

Review: The Song of Roland

This is romantic, epic and very, very silly.



Although the Eighteenth Century may be a big passion of mine, I have to admit myself interested in more things then I have time or energy to pursue. One of these interests that has been bubbling up the ranks has been in chivalry and chivalric romance.

Partly this is due to my attempt to read Don Quixote as a young teen. I never finished the book but always had a desire to - in preparation for this, I have been working myself up, reading the words that inspired that story. As part of this I read a very entertaining abridgement/translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso that made the top spot in last year’s favourite books list.I thrilled at that book’s high-jinks, daft capers and cartoon/superhero heroics and wondered about the source for such things.

Ariosto took inspiration from two great chivalric traditions, the ‘Matter of Britain’ and ‘The Matter of France’. The first is better known today, it charts the actions of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and often feature wizards and fairies. The other is the doings of Charlemagne and his knights, the key source of these stories being The Song of Roland. 

Written some time in the tenth century it tells of Roland (later Italicised as Orlando), Charlemagne’s nephew and best knight who is put at the end of the column and betrayed by Ganelon to King Marsile and the Moors of Spain. Roland, 12 great knights and the wise Olivier are attacked by hoards of Paynim (or foreigners). Instead of calling for help on the Oliphant, a war horn, Roland fights on, killing hundreds. Only at the last minute does he call for help, blowing on the horn till his lips and temples bleed and summoning Charlemagne who arrives too late to save Olivier, the bishop Turpin or Roland. Charlemagne then wages war against the Moors and has Ganelon’s body torn in four by horses - there is even a sequel teased by Gabriel telling Charlemagne to get going and fight somewhere else.

First thing was, I was surprised at how short it was. My copy of the unabridged Song is 121 pages as opposed to the abridged Furioso’s 500. The other surprise was the lack of supernatural elements, that very lack making the over-the-top actions of the ordinary people all the more strange and cartoonish. It makes the reasons behind character’s actions seem completely daft… Ganelon betrays a huge chunk of his army in order to get back at Roland for a perceived plot. Roland chooses not send for re-enforcement (and destroy the Muslim army) because it would insult his heightened dignity. Roland’s wife just ups and dies as soon as she hears Roland is dead. All sort of actions make no sense.

The goofiness of the text is not helped by Leonard Bacon’s translation. There is an old fashioned, rather camp quality to the writing. A knight’s armour is described as ‘becoming him well’, and the Muslims shout the frightening ‘What ho, ye Frankish villains, ye shall joust with us this day’ and another time explaining that they fight ‘right fiercely’. A number of times people are also ‘beat nobly in the face’. 

My absolute favourite, which made me laugh out loud is when Roland’s friend has been killed and he described it as something which, ‘sore irketh me’. Another time a knight rides to a friend with four lances stuck in him, and the other knight says, ‘I deem thou hast been in a fight’.

There are many people who are killed by having a sword driven through their helmet, hat, ‘mighty hair’, body, saddle and horse….. there must be about twelve people being spit in half in this way. Some eyeballs are burst out, a few brains ooze from helmets and many people are struck through with banners. 

Another strange detail is the extremely ornate description of swords and armour. There are named swords, ‘Joyeuse’ - belonging to Charlemagne and ‘Durendal’ - Rolands’ sword which contains half a cathedral’s worth of reliquaries in it. Another odd detail is how many helmets are gem encrusted, or made of gold. Gold swords would seem daft to me, but almost everyone in this has one.

Finally in the funny stuff is Charlemagne. He does quite little and is always described in the same way, namely - he has a white beard. Almost every action of Charlemagne is playing with his beard in some way. It is often described as a flower for some reason. I can’t work out how a flower resembles a beard at all. Very close to the beginning of the text we get this quote,

‘Aye plucked he with his fingers at the beard on lip and chin; 
And the tears came into his eyes, he could not keep them in.’

I understand that he's supposed to be playing with his beard in sadness, but to me it just sounds like he is plucking his beard and nose hairs, and it’s making him teary - just as you would be if you picked your nose hair.


I have to say that mostly this book made me laugh. There is no wonder that this leads to Don Quixote, it’s a farce to begin with, but there were some lovely lines in the poem, and I’ll leave you with those.

‘High were the peaks about them, and dark the vale and black,
Sombre the rocks about them, and terrible the track.’

‘The sun broke on them splendid, and fair the morning came;
There was no bit of armour but was blazing in a flame;
And to make it more glorious a thousand horns blew clear,’

‘Mighty was the battle and furious the fight.
Fiercely the Franks stuck into it in their anger and their might.’

‘Darkling are all the summits and very great and high,
And deep are all the valleys and the streams run swift thereby.’








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