"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

More Old French literature

Chretien De Troyes and what I posted about his stories got me thinking about another Old French classic I read. Although on the surface The Song of Roland has similarities (like jousts and sword fights) to Chretien De Troyes, they are really quite different in tone. Chretien's heroes are shiftless men with nothing better to with their time than pick fights with other knights and fall in love with every damsel that crosses their path. The Song of Roland, on the other hand, has men fighting with all their strength to defend themselves from an invading foe who would like nothing more than to strike their king and blaspheme their God. Then too, the battle of Roncevaux is historical while the Round Table is, at best, a dim shadow of history.

The Song of Roland, like Chretien's works, was originally written in verse. With over 4000 lines (the equivalent of 150 pages), however, it is not your typical little "Ode to a Sunset." Nor will you find any of those cute phrases and pretty descriptions common to poetry in the Roland, only the thunder of charging horses, the flash of swords unnumbered, and the smell of dust and death.

It was written around the 11th. century, or roughly a hundred years before Chretien De Troyes wrote. The unknown poet wrote it to celebrate the already legendary deeds of Charlemagne and his paladins. As you know it was Charlemagne who defended Europe against the Muslim aggression that had threatened it since the time of Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel.

The Roland poet has only a cursory concern for these historical facts; his main goal as Dorothy Sayers says in an excellent introductory essay to her translation, is to portray in this French war of dubious historicity a greater ideological conflict between "Cross and Crescent" (25). But do not think such a treacherous ambush as killed Roland did not take place. A 9th. century chronicler describes such a battle and includes among the short list of the slain: "Roland duke of the marches of Brittany, together with a great many more" (7).

I need hardly say that I think the Roland superior in plot and sentiment to anything by Chretien. It is a great conflict of ideologies. Muslim and Christian worlds clashing in an epic war to decide the future of Europe.

This is probably more than you ever wanted to know about Old French history and literature. Unluckily for you, I am not done yet. In a day or two I plan (God willing) to post a synopsis of The Song of Roland that I wrote some time ago. It is rather long and needs to be typed, which explains why I am not including it in today's post.

The Song of Roland. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. Penguin Books 1957. 1960.

3 comments:

Aaron said...

I'm finding this introduction to medieval French literature very interesting, as this is a genre I know absolutely nothing about.

As an aside, the sentence that begins the fourth paragraph could be dramatically improved by moving the word "says":

The Roland poet has only a cursory concern for these historical facts; his main goal, as Dorothy Sayers says in an excellent introductory essay to her translation, is to portray in this French war of dubious historicity a greater ideological conflict between "Cross and Crescent" (25).

Looking forward to your synopsis of The Song of Roland.

L.C.McCabe said...

You might consider adding some Italian poetry to your reading list. Specifically the epic poems Orlando Innamorato and its sequel Orlando Furioso.

Those epic stories make the Chanson de Roland seem like an appetizer to a fifteen course meal.

I see that you like C.S. Lewis and possibly you'd be even more tempted to know that he loved these Italian romances. See the back cover of Orlando Innamorato for a blurb from Lewis:

http://tinyurl.com/2d2g6k

Oh and to make the circle complete, you mentioned Dorothy Sayers. Her biography was written by Barbara Reynolds who finished Sayers' translation of Dante's Divine Comedy after Sayers' death.

Reynolds also did a fabulous verse translation of Orlando Furioso.

So, if you like C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers...you should see if you can't work in reading two more classic, but largely forgotten epic poems. Hey, you might even recognize things that Shakespeare stole from Ariosto. I did.

Cheers!

Brian Carpentier said...

Some scholars have hypothesized that a corruption of the text occured though the carelessness of early scribes, others have asserted that the author, living in a barbaric portion of North America, was only simi-literate to begin with. Although the latter is more probable, all are agreed that the text in question should be revised.

You're right Aaron. Thanks.


My only acquaintance with the Italian epics is through bulfinch's mythology. I would like to read the real Orlando some day. I have heard though Lewis that Spenser's Faerie Queene is an imitation of sorts.

It may be a few years before I read Dante again but I'm sure Dorothy Sayers' version would be better than my prose translation.