"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

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.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Chretien De Troyes

"Chretien De Troyes has had the peculiar fortune of becoming the best known of the old French poets to students of medieval literature, and of remaining practically unknown to anyone else." So begins the introduction to my old Everyman's edition of Chretien De Troyes' Arthurian Romances. Judge for yourself if it is true. Since I think it is true with possible exceptions (myself being one exception), a little background is called for.

Almost nothing is known of Chretien except that he was from the French town of Troyes (or wrote at Troyes, or in some other way was connected to Troyes) and that he lived during the 12th. century. His subject is the Arthurian legends, of course, of which he is the first writer we have of "the matter of Britain." Although he is the first known writer, the theme was already old and Mr. De Troyes (er, Mr. Chretien?) assumes his reader is familiar with the subject.

The subject, despite the name, has little to do with king Arthur. His court is a sort of ideal or inner circle that everyone wants to imitate or be a part of. Chivalry and knight errantry being prerequisites for membership, everyone takes to horse and sets off on a perilous quest. Among the many knights going hither and thither, Chretien follows the adventures of four: Erec, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot. Each character has an independent book titled after its respective hero.

To try and explain the plot of each book would just make me more confused than I already am. Besides, in many places the "plot" is just a sequences of adventures strung together. The Cliges and Erec were totally new to me and I am unaware of other versions (but there probably are some). The Lancelot, on the other hand, I thought I know a little about, but aside from the name and an infatuation with Guinever, the story could have been completely new, so unsimiliar was it to anything I had previously read about him.

No post is complete without a quote from C.S.Lewis (yes, Lewis is the only reason I know who Chretien De Troyes is). According to Lewis, Chretien "was one of the first explorers of the human heart, and is therefore rightly to be numbered among the fathers of the novel of sentiment" (29).

Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love: a Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford University Press. 1968

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Great Authors of the Past

When a writer cuts out all the superfluous details and stays fixed on what he really wants to say, then you know a master is at work. So consider this passage from Chretien De Troyes, a 12th. century Frenchman writing about Arthur and the Round Table. "The Vavasor [a baron's vassal with tenets under him] summons his wife and his beautiful daughter, who were busy in a work room--doing I know not what." Here, rather than tediously trying to describe their labor of sewing or spinning or cooking--whatever it was--the author quite honestly claims ignorance, saying simply: "doing I know not what." Instead he mentions the important thing, namely, that the daughter is beautiful.

Notice how the mother is not described. She is mentioned in the next sentence as "coming out with her daughter," after that she is completely dropped from the narrative. Not so the "beautiful daughter," the next 17 sentences are devoted to describing her personal appearance.

Well, maybe there is a reason people don't write like the classic authors anymore.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Rescue Your Own Shire

"You won't rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo" (353).

Moral: vote Ron Paul or Huckabee.

(Who says literature isn't applicable to life today.)

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King. Ballantine books. 57 printing 1977