Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
2019

September

9   16   23   30  

October

7   14   21   28  

November

4   11   18   25  

December

2   9   16  

2020

January

6   13   20   27  

February

3   10   17   24  

March

2   9   16   23   30  

April

13   20   27  

May

4   11   18   25  

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

Week 27: The Song of Roland (ca. 1000-1050)

Equestrian statue of Charlemagne
Equestrian statue reputed to be Charlemagne:
Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Photograph © Copyright 2010, Bruce A. McMenomy

By class time this week, please have 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 encourage you to use a hard-copy version of this poem such as the one published in the Penguin Classics library, since it’s a fair bit of reading, and long works on the screen can be fairly taxing on the eyes. 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 from Penguin, in addition to the Burgess translation; 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.

If none of those is workable, at least two versions are available online. The first is a relatively recent (1999) translation by Jessie Crosland; it is translated into straightforward and energetic prose. If you find yourself getting tangled up in the poetic ornamentation of another translation, this is one way of cutting your way out of that particular thicket. There is also a much older poetic translation by Moncrieff. Its chief advantage is that it has been referred to by many people over the years, and it’s safely in the public domain. Though it is not bad, it is relentlessly ornamented with Victorian archaisms that may not quite do justice to the vigor of the Old French. Read whichever one you prefer and can understand.

However you finally encounter it, 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, if you are using the Burgess edition.) 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.

Consider for discussion in class:

  1. Scholars have long debated 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, or perhaps even a separate work?
  2. What do you make of the repetitions in the narration?
  3. What is the heroic impulse that is driving Roland? Why does he not call for help when he should?
  4. What’s the deal with Roland and Ganelon, and why does Charles seem incapable of settling their squabble?
An ivory oliphant.
An oliphant, carved ivory.
Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Photograph © Copyright 2010, Bruce A. McMenomy.