Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2018-19: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit VIII: The Heroic Middle Ages A.D. 800-1200

Week 27: The Song of Roland
ca. 1000

Equestrian statue reputed to be Charlemagne: Paris, Musˇe du Louvre. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomy

For this week, please read:

The Song of Roland is the great epic of the French tradition. One of the first literary documents written in a language that is recognizably French (as opposed to Late Latin), it stems from about the middle of the eleventh century. The events it reports, however, are set a long while before, in the reign of Charlemagne (who ruled the Franks until 814). The historical events behind the story are obscure; nobody is quite sure whether the incident in the Pyrennees ever really happened, or, if it did, whether Charles’ rearguard was really ambushed by Moors or by a tribe of Basques (a small group of independent ethnic and cultural stock, which resisted domination from either side of the mountains). There are many conflicting historical reconstructions of the matter; none of them has enough proof to be considered sure.

I believe I recommended that you get hold of the Penguin version of this, but as an option. There are two versions I have found online that are available. The first is a relatively recent (1999) translation by Jessie Crosland found here; it is a prose translation and quite straightforward. There is a much older poetic translation by Moncrieff found here. Read whichever one you prefer; if you choose the second one and aren’t understanding it very well, though, switch to the first one.

An equestrian bronze statue, thought to be Charlemagne. Paris, Musée du Louvre. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomy

However this may be, the resultant poem is a grand piece of work, full of nobility and lofty sentiments. It is the first epic you have encountered in this course written from an overtly Christian point of view. Like Achilles and Aeneas, Roland is a great warrior, but his failings and his virtues are somewhat different in kind, in part because the Christian virtues are different from those of the heroic bronze-age culture of Greece. Understanding the moral context of the poem is further complicated by the fact that it seems to encompass an uneasy balance of Christian and pagan Germanic ethics: in the end he is undone by his pride, and the poet seems a bit uncertain as to whether he should be praised or blamed for it. In all it leaves an ambivalent moral cast over the whole.

As you read it, therefore, compare it — both in its events and in characters — to the other epics you have read (the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid.) How are characters motivated? How is the situation set up? Is there a clearly-delineated right and wrong? What are the great moments of choice and crisis?

For those who’d like a little taste of the original text in Old French, I give the first stanza here. There is more in the back of your book. Anyone who has had any contact with modern French will realize that this is a very different form indeed. No, I don’t expect you to be able to read Old French.

Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes,
Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne:
Tresqu’en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne.
N’i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne;
Mur ne citet n’i est remés a fraindre,
Fors Sarraguce, ki est en un muntaigne.
Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen aimet.
Mahumet sert e Apollin recleimet:
Nes poet guarder que mals ne l’i ateignet.

An Oliphant, Carved Ivory. Paris, Musˇe du Louvre. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomy

An oliphant, carved ivory. Paris, Musée du Louvre. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomy

The poetic translation I have pointed you to above is safely in the public domain, and was made around the turn of the (twentieth) century. It is not bad, but is admittedly touched with Victorian archaisms that may not quite do justice to the vigor of the Old French. But the version listed in the Materials section of this site is substantially better and more readable. There are other valuable translations as well. Dorothy L. Sayers made one for Penguin Classics collection around the middle of the twentieth century; I believe it is still in print, in addition to the Burgess translation from Penguin; there is another very energetic one by Patricia Terry that I like rather well. I have no very strong preference as to which edition you choose to read, as long as it makes sense to you. We’ll talk somewhat about the unity of the poem. Does it hold together as one piece, or is the latter half (as some have suggested) unnecessary and irrelevant?

In addition, please read Auerbach’s chapter on the subject in Mimesis — the one entitled “Roland against Ganelon”.