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

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Song of Roland condensed (but not enough)

After many years of fighting the French, the Spanish King Marsile sends a treacherous envoy to Charlemagne suing for peace and promising tribute if he goes back to France. Charlemagne is troubled by the message so he gathers his council together and asks their rede. The Count Roland:

Swift to oppose springs up upon his feet

He tells the King: “nevermore trust Marsile!...

He sent his Paynims by number fifteen,

All of them bearing boughs of the olive tree,

And with like words he sued to you for peace…

You sent the Paynim two counts of your own meinie:

Basan was one, the other was Basile.

He smote their heads off in hills beneath Haltile…

Revenge the men this villain made to bleed!

But Roland’s advice is disregarded as warmongering, instead, the advice of Ganelon and the rest of the council to accept the fealty of the Paynim King is followed. So Ganelon is sent to Saragossa to negotiate the terms of the treaty. But he is as Treacherous as the Saracens and plots with them to slay Roland against whom he has a special grudge.

Ganelon tells them that if they give Charlemagne a small surety as pledge, he will agree to withdraw his army in the belief that later, according to the terms, Marsile will convert to Christianity and be vassal to the French King. But cunning Ganelon knows that Charlemagne will leave

…behind a rearguard to protect him.

With them, I warrant, will be Roland his nephew,

Oliver too, the valorous and gentle.

Dead are these Counts, if you will give me credit.

[Charles] will see his great pride fallen and ended;

He’ll have no heart to fight with you from henceforth.

And so the treachery is conceived and sworn upon the book “of Termagant’s and Mahomet’s law."

All goes as planned. Ganelon returns and tells Charlemagne that all is settled; they can return to France and expect the Saracens to bring tribute to them there. As a standard precaution a rear-guard is stationed under the command of Roland. No one suspects an ambush, indeed, such an idea is ludicrous; Charlemagne’s army is unassailable. But it is not the King and his army Ganelon and his co-conspirators want. It is only Roland and the twenty thousand warriors with him, the flower of the French knights, they wish to kill.

At their post, Roland and Oliver suddenly hear a thousand trumpets shatter the air. Oliver climbs a nearby hill and sees the Saracen army marching against them.

Never on earth has such a hosting been:

A hundred thousand in van ride under shield

Their helmets laced, their hauberks all agleam

Their spears upright, their heads of shining steel.

He calls to Roland, bidding him blow his horn Olifant so Charlemagne can return and succor them. Roland, however, refuses in his pride to call for help, even when Oliver urges him again and again saying:

Great is the might these foreigners display,

And ours appears a very small array.

Still Roland refuses to alert the King, thinking it shameful to not carry out alone what the king had commanded.

Soon the forces draw together and the wisdom of Oliver cannot help reproach Roland one more time.

You would not sound your Olifant for pride;

Had we the Emperor we should have been alright.

To gate of Spain now turn and lift your eyes,

See for yourself the rearguard’s woeful plight.

Who fights this day will never more see fight.

Each side spurs into the other and many brave knights fall, pierced through by bloodied lances. The twelve peers of France ride reckless in the fray slaying the Paynims who in faithlessness had set upon them.

How many spears are bloodied there and broke!

What gonfalons, what banners rent and strewn!

How many French in flower of youth laid low.

At first, fortune seems to favor the French; their small company annihilates the one hundred thousand soldiers first sent against them. But having suffered heavy losses they have no chance against the rest of the Paynim army Marsile leads against them. At last only Roland, Oliver, Archbishop Turpin, and sixty others stand defending themselves. In a role reversal, Roland announces he will sound Olifant to bring tidings to Charlemagne of their fate. But Oliver objects. Since all the French lie dead excepting themselves, he argues, it would not help anyone, and it would be cowardly with death staring them in the face to wind it. The Archbishop, though, intervenes and bids Roland sound it. Since it will do them no earthly good it cannot be called cowardice, he says, yet Charlemagne will hear and return to bury them. So three times Roland blows with all his might till the blood bursts from his temples, then, hefting up his sword Durendal, he resumes the hopeless fight.

Soon, even Oliver is struck down by a spear through his back, to the grief of Roland. Alone with the dieing Archbishop, he sounds his horn one last time. The feeble echoes tell the returning Charlemagne that he is too late to save his beloved nephew. Nevertheless, when Charlemagne bids his own horns to sound in answer, the Paynims take fright and flee the field of battle, leaving Roland still alive.

But even a mighty hero cannot endure everything. Roland is faint with lose of blood and grief over seeing Oliver dead among the French slain. He sits down beneath a tree facing his retreating foe, crying out to God that He will have mercy on his soul.

And so Roland dies upon the plain of Roncevaux, but the story does not end as might be expected when the story’s hero has met his end. Charlemagne finds the silent fields of death and weeps with all his army. But Duke Naimon, councilor of the King, will not let him grieve for long. He points ahead to the dust of the retreating Paynims and urges Charlemagne to start in pursuit.

Unfortunately, dusk settles over them before overtaking their foes. Yet

For Charlemagne God wrought a wondrous token:

The sun stood still in the mid heaven holden.

So Charlemagne is able to continue the chase till they reach a river. Here the Paynims are faced with turning about and fighting or attempting to swim the river. Those who choose the water are dragged down by their heavy armor. Those who choose to fight are defeated along with a wounded Marsile who drags himself back to Saragossa.

But the seven year war is not yet at an end. Unbeknownst to both sides a great Emir, Baligant of Babylon, has sailed to Spain with a vast armada to succor Marsile.

From forty realms he’s called his people in…

And sev’nteen Kings follow at the heel.

He sends challenge to Charlemagne who is mourning yet for Roland and the other Peers. In reply, the French and their allies march to meet this new enemy arrayed by companies. Both sides boast huge armies.

By hundred thousand the swords flash into view.

Grim is the battle and terrible and rude;

He learns what war is who fights that battle through.

Finally the two kings charge each other and are thrown from their horses. After picking themselves up, Baligant lays a mighty sword stroke on Charlemagne’s helm. He reels back; blood wetting his scalp. But instead of falling, he rallies his strength and with his sword cleaves the Paynim’s skull.

All’s done, all’s won; the French have gained the day.

All quotations taken from: The Song of Roland. Translated by Dorothy Sayers. Penguin Books 1957. 1960

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