The Song of Roland is a chanson de geste, a “song of deeds.” The chanson de gestes were a form of popular entertainment that have come down to us as long written poems. These poems started as oral story telling, in a tradition that is as old as language itself. At some point music was probably added, in the Greek tradition.
As the stories evolved, grew, and spread, the audiences probably began to ask for specific incidents in the story. “Tell us about when Roland blew his horn!”1.Tolkien copied the scene from Roland for the death of Boromir in the Lord of the Rings. “During dinner the duke wants you to sing of Ganelon’s trial for treason, to see who sweats.” The reason I mention this is because the stories that have come down to us are too long for a single evening or meal, and can be somewhat repetitive. When they were written down the scribe probably included every version he could find, which results in a story that is, while very much a coherent whole, could use some editing.
The bare bones of the story are pretty simple, told in 4000 lines. Charlemagne is in Spain, fighting the Saracens (Muslims). He has decided to return to France, but needs an envoy to the Saracen king to negotiate terms. Duke Ganelon volunteers for this dangerous task, but he secretly plots to betray his stepson Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, to the enemy. The deal done, the army winds its way through the high hills and steep valleys of the Pyrenees. The Saracens ambush the rear guard, led by Roland, and annihilate everyone, but not before Roland blows his horn to summon aid. Charlemagne hears it and realizes what has happened. He arrests Ganelon and rushes back, too late for rescue, but in time to exact revenge in a long and bloody battle. After the fight Charlemagne takes Ganelon back for trial, where Ganelon puts up a spirited defense, insisting that he did not betray the king, but rather took legal vengeance against Roland. Finally a trial by combat ensues, and the traitor is put to death.
It is a story that grew out of actual events during the summer of 778. Charlemagne was in Spain, trying to take advantage of some Muslim political infighting, but he got nowhere. In mid-August he led his armies back into France, but the rear-guard was ambushed by Basques at the pass of Roncesvalles.2.Spelled Roncesvalles in Spanish, Roncevaux in French and English. They were killed to the last man, including one “Roland, lord of the Breton march.”3.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, section 9, in Dutton, Charlemagne’s Courtier. Charlemagne was in no position to retaliate, and so the defeat went unavenged. It must have been quite the event, for it is the only setback mentioned by Einhard in his biography. After that the tale grew in the telling, until it was written down late in the eleventh century, more than three hundred years after the fact.
Being popular entertainment, the gestes feature royalty, miracles, and plenty of blood and gore. In the epic Charlemagne is not spending a few months in Spain at the age of 36, but has been fighting in Spain for seven years and is two hundred years old! During the centuries of oral transmission Charlemagne had evolved from man to legend to myth. Unfortunately we don’t have any intermediate versions so that we could see this process in action.
The storytelling is spare and direct, with very little stage-setting, fancy metaphors, or digressions. The dialogue is formal, but not dull. The scene where Ganelon plays his double game before the Muslim king is truly tense and exciting. But the action! Things really get rolling when Roland and the rearguard are trapped in the forests. Blood flows in truly copious amounts, skulls are split and brains roll freely. Here is Roland in the heat of battle:
The battle is terrible and now joined by all.
Count Roland is no laggard,
He strikes with his spear, while the shaft still lasts.
With fifteen blows he has broken and destroyed it;
He draws forth Durendal, his fine, naked sword,
And spurs on his horse to strike at Chernubles.4.A Muslim lord that comes from where “The sun does not shine and wheat cannot grow,” line 980.
He breaks his helmet with its gleaming carbuncles,
Slices off his coif and his scalp,
As well as slicing through his eyes and his face,
His shining hauberk with its close-meshed mail
His whole body right down to his crotch,
And right into his saddle which is of beaten gold;
His sword came to rest in the horse itself.
He slices through its spine, seeking no joint,
And flinging them both dead in the meadow on the lush grass.
Then he said to him: ‘Villain, you set out to meet your doom;
You will receive no help from Muhammad.
A wretch like you will not win in today’s battle.'5.Laisse 104, Burgess translation. The poem is divided into 298 laisses that average thirteen lines each.
The protagonists (and antagonists) are given plenty of opportunity to make little speeches during the battles, where they hold forth on matters feudal and martial, before being killed. When Charlemagne appears back on the scene he has so much pull with God that the sun actually stops in the sky to give the armies of France time and opportunity to avenge their loss. The penultimate scene is a personal combat between Charlemagne and the Saracen king. The ambush and following battles comprise two-thirds of the poem, which is why it seems a little repetitious to me.
I find the trial of Ganelon to be a fascinating episode. On the face of it you would think he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, but he makes a good case, good enough that Charlemagne’s counselors urge him to forgive the renegade lord. Charlemagne, a man of honor and justice, is appalled, and begs for a champion. Even the personal combat is a near thing, until God intervenes. All of Ganelon’s kinsmen and oath-keepers are hanged, and Ganelon himself is torn apart by horses. We next find Ganelon in Dante’s Inferno, embedded in the lake of ice reserved for traitors.6.Inferno, Canto XXXII, line 122.
There is much more to the poem, of course, and I have merely glanced over the highlights for someone who might want to pick it up sometime. There are several English translations,7.I rely on translations by Burgess and Sayers, with analysis by Brault. and copies infest used book stores. Pick one up today!
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Tolkien copied the scene from Roland for the death of Boromir in the Lord of the Rings.|
|2.||↑||Spelled Roncesvalles in Spanish, Roncevaux in French and English.|
|3.||↑||Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, section 9, in Dutton, Charlemagne’s Courtier.|
|4.||↑||A Muslim lord that comes from where “The sun does not shine and wheat cannot grow,” line 980.|
|5.||↑||Laisse 104, Burgess translation. The poem is divided into 298 laisses that average thirteen lines each.|
|6.||↑||Inferno, Canto XXXII, line 122.|
|7.||↑||I rely on translations by Burgess and Sayers, with analysis by Brault.|