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La Chanson de Roland [The Song of Roland]

On the 13th of October 1066, the armies of Harold of England and William of Normandy met upon the plain of Hastings. But, before they came to blows, a Norman knight issued from the ranks, and spurring his horse in front of the battle-array, animated his fellow-countrymen to conquer or die, as, in a loud voice, he chanted forth the Song of Roland. This incident is no poetical invention. All the historians most worthy of credit make mention of it. William of Malmsbury, Matthew Paris, Ralph Higden, Alberic de Trois Fontaines, all speak of this celebrated song of the Carlovingiens as inaugurating the battle of Hastings, and as being repeated with one voice by the soldiers. Even the very name of the intrepid Trouvere is recorded, who thus sang forth between the armies. He was called Taillefer, and was a follower of the Count de Mortain.

Among the accounts of Charlemagne's expedition, the Chanson de Roland is by far the most precious because of its poetic and historical worth. It is also superior to any other similar old French epic and is, with the exception of a few specimens of old French, and of several poems of a religious character, the oldest literary monument in the French language.

There have been many songs written upon this subject of Roncesvalles, and the death there, of the renowned Roland, Paladin of the still greater Charlemagne. All of them, however, with which the world had been made acquainted, bore undoubted evidence that they were composed long subsequent to the date of the Conquest — which took place three centuries below the times of the great Emperor. It had become a question of considerable interest among antiquarians whether the identical Song of Roland, as chanted at the battle of Hastings, were still in existence. The Song of Roland found in the Bodleian cannot belong to a period later than to the eleventh century. The language is, indeed, precisely the same with that of the laws of William the Conqueror.

The historical "Roncevaux" was an episode of the wars of the Emperor Charlemagne, and is described, in the Latin Annals attributed to Eginhart. Under the date 778 the chronicler relates that Charlemagne had been summoned into Spain by internal dissensions among Mussulman chiefs, and took the opportunity of extending his own dominions beyond the Pyrenees. City after city fell before him, and, when Pamplona had been taken after long assaults, he found himself master of all Spain to the Ebro. While the rear-guard of his returning host was crossing the Pyrenees, it was surprised in the pass of Roncevaux by a body of the Basque inhabitants of the mountains, and massacred almost to a man. Although the Franks were courageous and better armed than their opponents, they were nevertheless taken at a disadvantage, and being unfamiliar with the ground and with the method of warfare, were utterly defeated. The heavy equipment of the Franks hindered their flight, while the Basques who were lightly armed made the most of their advantage, easily pursuing their enemies over the rough ground and killing them to a man. Among the slain was Roland, Count of the Marches of Brittany.

Such is the account which history affords of the events of the 18th August, 778 ; and, when first read, first feeling may well be one of disappointment. Was Roland then a mere unit in a crowd of butchered warriors, victims of unpunished treachery? Was "Roncevaux" but the surprise and massacre of a rear-guard, an incident fraught with no epic interest which might immortalise it in heroic song?

There are indications that the earliest of these songs arose among the Breton followers of Hrodland or Roland; but they spread to Maine, to Anjou, to Normandy, until the theme became national. By the latter part of the eleventh century, when the form of the "Song of Roland" which we possess was probably composed, the historical germ of the story had almost disappeared under the mass of legendary accretion. Charlemagne, who was a man of thirty-six at the time of the actual Roncesvaux incident, has become in the poem an old man with a flowing white beard, credited with endless conquests; the Basques have disappeared, and the Saracens have taken their place; the defeat is accounted for by the invention of the treachery of Ganelon; the expedition of 777-778 has become a campaign of seven years; Roland is made the nephew of Charlemagne, leader of the twelve peers, and is provided with a faithful friend Oliver, and a betrothed, Alda.

Roland's horn, often called in the old French poem l'olifant (from oliphantum for elephantum, ivory, in the sense of the ivory horn), was the symbol of command for rallying the troops and plays an important part in the Chanson de Roland. Although there were sixty thousand horns that all responded together to Roland's call, none of them are ever olifant, but simply cors, graisles or buisines. These together with the tambour, are the only musical instruments mentioned. The olifant seems to have been larger, more ornamental, and more powerful than the other horns. The invention of the episode of the horn appears to be literary rather than traditional; for it hardly seems probable that an episode in which Roland plays a part that is so fatal to the French army ever existed by itself apart from the many songs celebrating the valor and deeds of the hero. From the eleventh century, in the church of Saint Séverin, Bordeaux, a cleft horn was displayed as Roland's and may have given rise to song and story. In this way, such an invention as Roland's refusing to sound the horn and then deciding to do so when it was too late, might easily have originate.

The loss of the battle, be it noted, is due in no wise to lack of courage on the part of the French, but to over confidence on the part of Roland in his own prowess in refusing to sound the horn for reinforcements. Because of this blind confidence, and of the dread of losing caste in the public eye, the disaster occurred. It was due to rashness, to heroic folly, making Roland the type of a kind of bravery that characterized that youthful and foolhardy French nobility on the battlefields of Mansourah, Courtrai, Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. Roland possesses their virtues but likewise their defects. In contrast to these brilliant traits, and as though to exalt them, there is shown the sound common sense that distinguishes Oliver. He is just as brave as his companion, and besides, more lovable, more human, and more modest. Nevertheless, Roland remains the hero, for in poetry as in life, the best are not always the preferred.

The poem is the first of the great French heroic poems known as "chansons de geste." It is written in stanzas of various length, bound together by the vowel-rhyme known as assonance. It is not possible to reproduce effectively this device in English, and the author of some translations adopt what is perhaps the nearest equivalent — the romantic measure of Coleridge and Scott.

Simple almost to bareness in style, without subtlety or high imagination, the Song of Roland is yet not without grandeur; and its patriotic ardor gives it a place as the earliest of the truly national poems of the modern world. The legend was already translated into German in the twelfth century, and into English in the thirteenth; it has been translated at least twice into each of these languages in the nineteenth. In France many translations have appeared since the edition of Michel, and even in Poland and in distant Russia the song of Roland exercised the talent of the native poet.

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Page last modified: 29-12-2012 19:34:19 ZULU