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The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland) is an 11th-century epic poem (chanson de geste) based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778, during the reign of Charlemagne. It is the oldest surviving major work of French literature and exists in various manuscript versions, which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 16th centuries.
The date of composition is put in the period between 1040 and 1115: an early version beginning around 1040 with additions and alterations made up until about 1115. The final text has about 4,000 lines of poetry. The epic poem is the first and, along with The Poem of the Cid, one of the most outstanding examples of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between the 11th and 16th centuries and celebrated legendary deeds.
Although set in the Carolingian era, The Song of Roland was written much later. There is a single extant manuscript of the Song of Roland in Old French, held at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. This copy dates between 1129 and 1165 and was written in Anglo-Norman. There are also eight further manuscripts, and three fragments, of other poems on the subject of Roland.
Some scholars estimate that the poem was written, possibly by a poet named Turold (Turoldus in the manuscript itself), between approximately 1040 and 1115, and most of the alterations were performed by about 1098. Some favor an earlier dating, because it allows one to say that the narrative was inspired by the Castilian campaigns of the 1030s, and that the poem went on to be a major influence in the First Crusade. Those who prefer a later dating do so based upon what they interpret as brief references made to events of the First Crusade.
In the text, the term d'oltre mer or l'oltremarin comes up three times in reference to named Muslims who came from oltre mer to fight in Spain and France. Oltre mer, modern French Outremer, literally "oversea, beyond sea, other side of the sea", is a native French term from the classical Latin roots ultra = "beyond" and mare = "sea". The name was commonly used by contemporary chroniclers to refer to the Latin Levant.
The occurrence of this term cannot be interpreted as showing influence from the Crusades; on the contrary, the way it is used, refer simply to a Muslim land, indicates that the author was unacquainted with the Crusades, and that the term was in French before the Crusades was held to refer to the far side of the Mediterranean. The bulk of the poem is adjudged to date from before the Crusades (which started in 1098), but there are a few items where questions remain about these items being late additions shortly after the Crusades started.
After two manuscripts were found in 1832 and 1835, the Song of Roland became recognized as France's national epic when an edition was published in 1837.
Certain lines of the Oxford manuscript end with the letters "AOI". The meaning of this word or annotation is unclear. Many scholars have hypothesized that the marking may have played a role in public performances of the text, such as indicating a place where a jongleur would change the tempo. An alternate hypothesis by Nathan Love is that AOI indicates locations where the scribe or copyist deviated from the primary manuscript.
Scholarly consensus has long accepted that The Song of Roland differed in its presentation depending on oral or textual transmission; namely, although a number of different versions of the song containing varying material and episodes would have been performed orally, the transmission to manuscript resulted in greater cohesiveness across versions.
Early editors of The Song of Roland, informed in part by patriotic desires to produce a distinctly French epic, could thus overstate the textual cohesiveness of the Roland tradition. This point is expressed by Andrew Taylor, who notes, "[T]he Roland song was, if not invented, at the very least constructed. By supplying it with an appropriate epic title, isolating it from its original codicological context, and providing a general history of minstrel performance in which its pure origin could be located, the early editors presented a 4,002 line poem as sung French epic".
Charlemagne's army is fighting the Muslims in Spain. They have been there for seven years, and the last city standing is Saragossa, held by the Muslim King Marsile. Threatened by the might of Charlemagne's army of Franks, Marsile seeks advice from his wise man, Blancandrin, who counsels him to conciliate the Emperor, offering to surrender and giving hostages. Accordingly, Marsile sends out messengers to Charlemagne, promising treasure and Marsile's conversion to Christianity if the Franks will go back to France.
Charlemagne and his men, tired of fighting, accept his peace offer and select a messenger to Marsile's court. The protagonist Roland, Charlemagne's nephew, nominates his stepfather Ganelon as messenger. Ganelon, who fears being murdered by the enemy and accuses Roland of intending this, takes revenge by informing the Saracens of a way to ambush the rear guard of Charlemagne's army, led by Roland, as the Franks re-enter France through the mountain passes.
As Ganelon predicted, Roland leads the rear guard, with the wise and moderate Oliver and the fierce Archbishop Turpin. The Muslims ambush them at Roncesvalles and the Christians are overwhelmed. Oliver pleads with Roland to blow his horn to call for help, but Roland tells him that blowing his horn in the middle of the battle would be an act of cowardice. If Roland continues to refuse, Oliver will not let Roland see his sister again whom Roland loves the most. However, Archbishop Turpin intervenes and tells them that the battle will be fatal for all of them and so instructs Roland to blow his horn oliphant (the word is an old alternative to "elephant", and was used to refer to a hunting horn made from an elephant tusk) to call for help from the Frankish army. The emperor hears the call on their way to France. Charlemagne and his noblemen gallop back even though Count Ganelon tries to trick them.
The Franks fight well, but are outnumbered, until almost all Roland's men are dead and he knows that Charlemagne's army can no longer save them. Despite this, he blows his olifant to summon revenge, until his temples burst and he dies a martyr's death. Angels take his soul to Paradise.
When Charlemagne and his men reach the battlefield, they find the dead bodies of Roland's men, who have been utterly annihilated. They pursue the Muslims into the river Ebro, where the Muslims drown. Meanwhile, Baligant, the powerful emir of Babylon, has arrived in Spain to help Marsile. His army encounters that of Charlemagne at Roncesvalles, where the Christians are burying and mourning their dead. The Franks fight valiantly. When Charlemagne kills Baligant, the Muslim army scatters and flees, leaving the Franks to conquer Saragossa. With Marsile's wife Bramimonde, Queen of Saragossa, Charlemagne and his men ride back to Aix, their capital in France.
The Franks discover Ganelon's betrayal and keep him in chains until his trial, where Ganelon argues that his action was legitimate revenge, not treason. While the council of barons assembled to decide the traitor's fate is initially swayed by this claim, partially out of fear of Ganelon's friend Pinabel who threatens to fight anyone who judges Ganelon guilty, one man, Thierry, argues that because Roland was serving Charlemagne when Ganelon delivered his revenge on him, Ganelon's action constitutes a betrayal.
Pinabel challenges Thierry to trial by combat. By divine intervention, Thierry kills Pinabel. By this the Franks are convinced of Ganelon's treason. Thus, he is torn apart by having four galloping horses tied one to each arm and leg and thirty of his relatives are hanged. Bramimonde converts to Christianity, her name changing to Juliana. While sleeping, Charlemagne is told by Gabriel to ride to help King Vivien and bemoans his life.
The poem is written in stanzas of irregular length known as laisses. The lines are decasyllabic (containing ten syllables), and each is divided by a strong caesura which generally falls after the fourth syllable. The last stressed syllable of each line in a laisse has the same vowel sound as every other end-syllable in that laisse. The laisse is therefore an assonal, not a rhyming stanza.
On a narrative level, the Song of Roland features extensive use of repetition, parallelism, and thesis-antithesis pairs. Roland proposes Ganelon for the dangerous mission to Sarrogossa; Ganelon designates Roland to man the rearguard. Charlemagne is contrasted with Baligant. Unlike later Renaissance and Romantic literature, the poem focuses on action rather than introspection. The characters are presented through what they do, not through what they think or feel.
The narrator gives few explanations for characters' behavior. The warriors are stereotypes defined by a few salient traits; for example, Roland is loyal and trusting while Ganelon, though brave, is traitorous and vindictive.
The narrator is openly biased towards the Franks. His moral view is very black-and-white: the Franks are good, and the pagans are bad.
The story moves at a fast pace, occasionally slowing down and recounting the same scene up to three times but focusing on different details or taking a different perspective each time. The effect is similar to a film sequence shot at different angles so that new and more important details come to light with each shot.
According to the Song of Roland, the legendary sword called Durandal was first given to Charlemagne by an angel. It contained one tooth of Saint Peter, blood of Saint Basil, hair of Saint Denis, and a piece of the raiment of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and was supposedly the sharpest sword in all existence. In the story of the Song of Roland, the weapon is given to Roland, and he uses it to defend himself single-handedly against thousands of Muslim attackers. According to one 12th-century legend from the French town of Rocamadour, Roland threw the sword into a cliffside. A replication of the legendary sword can be found there, embedded into the cliff-face next to the town's sanctuary.
A Latin poem, Carmen de Prodicione Guenonis, was composed around 1120, and a Latin prose version, Historia Caroli Magni (often known as "The Pseudo-Turpin") even earlier. Around 1170, a version of the French poem was translated into the Middle High German Rolandslied by Konrad der Pfaffe (formerly thought to have been the author of the Kaiserchronik). In his translation Konrad replaces French topics with generically Christian ones. The work was translated into Middle Dutch in the 13th century.
It was also rendered into Occitan verse in the 14th- or 15th-century poem of Ronsasvals, which incorporates the later, southern aesthetic into the story. An Old Norse version of the Song of Roland exists as Karlamagnús saga, and a translation into the artificial literary language of Franco-Venetian is also known; such translations contributed to the awareness of the story in Italy. In 1516 Ludovico Ariosto published his epic Orlando Furioso, which deals largely with characters first described in the Song of Roland.
The Chanson de Roland has an important place in the background of Graham Greene's The Confidential Agent, published in 1939. The book's protagonist had been a Medieval scholar specialising in this work, until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War forced him to become a soldier and secret agent. Throughout the book, he repeatedly compares himself and other characters with the characters of "Roland". Particularly, the book includes a full two pages of specific commentary, which is relevant to its 20th-century plot line: "Oliver, when he saw the Saracens coming, urged Roland to blow his horn and fetch back Charlemagne – but Roland wouldn't blow. A big brave fool. In war one always chooses the wrong hero. Oliver should have been the hero of that song, instead of being given second place with the blood-thirsty Bishop Turpin.(...) In the Oxford version Oliver is reconciled in the end, he gives Roland his death-blow by accident, his eyes blinded by wounds. [But] the story had been tidied up. In truth, Oliver strikes his friend down in full knowledge – because of what he has done to his men, all the wasted lives. Oliver dies hating the man he loves – the big boasting courageous fool who was more concerned with his own glory than with the victory of his faith. This makes the story tragedy, not just heroics".
It is also adapted by Stephen King, in the Dark Tower series in which Roland Deschain wishes to save the Dark Tower from the Crimson King.
The Song of Roland is part of the Matter of France (the Continental counterpart to the Arthurian legendarium known as the Matter of Britain), and related to Orlando Furioso. The names Roland and Orlando are cognates.
Emanuele Luzzati's animated short film, I paladini di Francia, together with Giulio Gianini, in 1960, was turned into the children's picture-story book, with verse narrative, I Paladini de Francia ovvero il tradimento di Gano di Maganz, which translates literally as “The Paladins of France or the treachery of Ganelon of Mainz” (Ugo Mursia Editore, 1962). This was then republished, in English, as Ronald and the Wizard Calico (1969). The Picture Lion paperback edition (William Collins, London, 1973) is a paperback imprint of the Hutchinson Junior Books edition (1969), which credits the English translation to Hutchinson Junior Books.
Luzzati's original verse story in Italian is about the plight of a beautiful maiden called Biancofiore – White Flower, or Blanchefleur – and her brave hero, Captain Rinaldo, and Ricardo and his paladins – the term used for Christian knights engaged in Crusades against the Saracens and Moors. Battling with these good people are the wicked Moors – North African Muslims and Arabs – and their Sultan, in Jerusalem. With the assistance of the wicked and treacherous magician, Gano of Maganz, Biancofiore is stolen from her fortress castle, and taken to become the reluctant wife of the Sultan. The catalyst for victory is the good magician, Urlubulu, who lives in a lake, and flies through the air on the back of his magic blue bird. The English translators, using the original illustrations, and the basic rhyme patterns, slightly simplify the plot, changing the Christians-versus-Muslim-Moors conflict into a battle between good and bad magicians and between golden knights and green knights. The French traitor in The Song of Roland, who is actually Roland's cowardly step-father, is Ganelon – very likely the inspiration for Luzzati's traitor and wicked magician, Gano. Orlando Furioso (literally, Furious or Enraged Orlando, or Roland), includes Orlando's cousin, the paladin Rinaldo, who, like Orlando, is also in love with Angelica, a pagan princess. Rinaldo is, of course, the Italian equivalent of Ronald. Flying through the air on the back of a magic bird is equivalent to flying on a magic hippogriff.
On July 22, 2017, Michael Eging and Steve Arnold released a novel ″The Silver Horn Echoes: A Song of Roland," inspired by the La Chanson de Roland. This work is more closely based on a screenplay written by Michael Eging in 2008, simply known as "Song of Roland" and first optioned to Alan Kaplan at Cine LA that same year. The book explores the untold story of how Roland finds himself at Ronceveaux, betrayed by Ganelon and facing the expansive Saragossan host. Primary characters in the novel include Charles (Charlemagne), Ganelon, Bishop Turpin, Oliver, Aude, Marsilion, Blancandarin and others recognizable from the poem. Introduced in this tale are additional characters that inject intrigue and danger to the story, including Charles oldest son, Pepin, Marsilion's treacherous son, Saleem, and the scheming Byzantine emissary, Honorius. The cover artwork was hand painted by Jordan Raskin. The authors determined when writing both the screenplay and the novel to remain in the world created by the poem; thus Charles remains an older man near the end of his long reign rather than in 778 when the attack on the rearguard actually occurred. Further, this novel bookends the story with William the Conqueror's use of the poem as a motivator for Norman forces prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
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Categories: The Song of Roland | Chansons de geste | Matter of France | French folklore | French poems | Epic poems in French | Anglo-Norman literature | Works of unknown authorship | Cultural depictions of Charlemagne