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The Song of Roland (Modern Library Classics) [Paperback]

W.S. Merwin


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Charles the King, our great emperor, has stayed seven whole years in Spain and has conquered the haughty country as far as the sea. Read the first page
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
52 of 52 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The slaughter and glory of battle April 17 2004
By Boris Bangemann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The Song of Roland is the most famous of the "chansons de geste" (songs of deeds) of the Middle Ages. It provides a fascinating view into the spirit of warriors of that time and their motivation. The Song of Roland gives an idealized picture, of course, and if we can believe the historians, the medieval knights never lived up to their chivalric ideal.
The Song of Roland is not commonly included in the canon of must-read classics. Except in France, maybe. I assume the reason is that people in our time do not trace back their roots to the feudalism of the Middle Ages, and that they consider the chapter of chivalry closed after Cervantes's satirical portrait of knighthood in "Don Quixote". In one respect, however, this gory tale of slaughter, martyrdom and revenge is very contemporary. It illustrates the mindset of crusaders who see the world in terms of Good and Evil, and the language they use to incite contempt of the other party.
Apart from its historical value, the Song of Roland is also worth reading as literature - as an outstanding example for the heroic epic and as a piece of art whose "simple yet elevated style and tone of high moral purpose" (R. Harrison) is reminiscent of the Old Testament.
The three most easily available translations of the Song of Roland in the market are:
W.S. Merwin's 1963 prose translation with introduction, re-published in paperback by Random House's "Modern Library" in 2001 (ISBN 0375757112). His nine-page introduction is a succinct but sufficient overview of the historical events of AD 778 that became the basis of the Song of Roland. The translation stands out for its readability, and Merwin's choice of modern English makes the descriptions of violence even more direct and graphic: "And Oliver rides through the battle, with his spear shattered to a stump, charges against Malun, a pagan, breaks his gilded shield with the flowers painted on it, knocks the eyes out of his head and brings his brains tumbling down to his feet." (page 43).
Robert Harrison's 1970 translation for Penguin Book's budget line "Mentor Books" (ISBN 0451528573) captures the throbbing, urgent rhythm of the verse form best: "Olivier now gallops through the fray - / his lance has snapped, he only has a stump - / and goes to strike a pagan, Malsaron. / He breaks his gilt, fleuron-emblazoned shield, / bursting both his eyeball from his head - / his brain comes tumbling downward to his feet - " (page 93). "Fleuron-emblazoned" is quite enigmatic compared to Merwin's clear "with the flowers painted on it", but Harrison redeems himself by choosing "bursting" to emphasize the violence of the attack. The big plus of Harrison's book is his 42-page introduction. He explains the logic of medieval chivalry, why cruelty coexisted with sensitivity, and butchery with prayer. One interesting concept is the medieval "ethos of success," or in other words the idea that the outcome justifies the means: When a knight killed another knight it was the will of God that this had happened, no matter by what means. Make the opponent trip and chop off his head - see, God is on your side. Harrison goes to quite some length to introduce the instruments of war, the armor and weapons, which is very helpful since the main body of the Song of Roland is about the glory and slaughter of battle.
Glyn Burgess's 1990 translation for Penguin Classics (ISBN 0140445323) is the most recent translation of the three. He stays closest to the form of the original, which gives his translation a certain wooden inflexibility but also a not entirely unbecoming pathos. His translation of Olivier's attack on Malun is quite telling: "Oliver rides through the thick of the fray; / His lance shaft is broken, only a stump remains. / He goes to strike a pagan, Malun; / He breaks his shield, wrought with gold and flowers, / and smites both his eyes out of his head. / His brains come spilling out over his feet;" (page 72) While the use of "wrought" and "smite" sounds a bit old-fashioned, "spilling" is an excellent choice. Burgess added a 19-page introduction to his translation. It focuses mostly on the literary qualities of the Song of Roland; for the first-time reader of the Song of Roland, Harrison's introduction is more helpful. The additional value of the Penguin Classics edition lies in an Appendix with about one third of the original version of the "Chanson de Roland" - the key passages of the work in Old French.
While all three translations have their pros and cons, I tend to recommend Harrison's book over the two others. It strikes a good balance between the clarity of Merwin's prose translation and the wooden feel of Burgess's more literal verse translation. In addition, it impresses with its useful introduction and its unbeatable value for money.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book & this version is eminently readable June 6 2011
By DDC - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
There is already one comprehensive review up and if you have no interest in classical literature, then I doubt I can influence you much in a review. But, it is worth nothing that this is an incredibly accessible rendering. A lot of people are scared off from reading the classics because of the difficulty in just getting through them. That is not the case here; this book flows over you like water and is a lot of fun to read. You also might want to check this out if you are a fan of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien - while I don't know that this influenced them, I can't imagine that they hadn't read it. In any event, I felt I could see the faint influence.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beware the oliphant July 26 2008
By Jonathan C. Pike - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I agree with the previous (and, at this point, only other) review of this product in that the Song of Roland is (sadly) an often overlooked piece of medieval literature. I have taken several classes on the topic and I had never even heard of the poem until it was reccommended to me by my brother. After reading it, I too urge anyone interested in this style of literature to pick it up. It's a quick and easy read, yet for all that it embodies all the ideals and heroic qualities of France (and much of Christian western Europe) during the 8th and 9th centuries (and probably beyond as well). The Song of Roland exists as one of the dominant and most influential pieces of the period, and should not be neglected by any student of the era. Plus, you have to love a hero that is such a beast in battle that his death is not a result of any fighting wounds, but rather just a mighty blast of his own.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tribute to the knights April 10 2009
By Marie Anne A. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This song, translated into prose by Merwin, is a testament to love and respect given to knights. For some reason, this song's composer felt that Roland must be immortalized in poetry. Influenced by the Andalusian "qasida", the anonymous poet crafted a tribute to Catholic hero Roland and his companions. The story is very gory, filled with a STRONG Christian bias. (Not only do the Muslims get slammed, so do the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romans, etc.) The Muslims are "pagans".

This story deals with a knight's honor, chilvarly, loyalty to the Catholic church, and one's relationship with GOD. I loved the references to obscure saints and Catholic practices. The introduction and afterword were also helpful in understanding this beautiful song.

This is intelligent Christian literature! Read it along with a study guide or notes and you won't be disappointed.
4.0 out of 5 stars Romantic Battle Adventure Jan. 27 2013
By Brian D. Moore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The Song of Roland, an intricate poem, shows heroes in the heat of battle and their commitment to: friends, leaders and values.

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