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The Song of Roland (Modern Library Classics) Paperback – 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Modern Library (2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375757112
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375757112
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 0.8 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 113 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #960,456 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars 12 reviews
57 of 58 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
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.
5 of 5 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
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Kindle version lacks hyperlinks for notes and glossary Nov. 2 2014
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I decided to use Kindle Matchbook to replace my physical copy with a digital version. It's a good thing I still have a physical copy lying around, because the Kindle version contains no links in the translation to the notes for each section. So, if you actually want to use the notes, you have to go back to the table of contents, navigate to the notes, read those for the next few sections, and then navigate back, the long way, to wherever you were in the text. Or you can use a chain of progressive bookmarks.

Is there simply no motivation for publishers to get their act together, when it comes to digital editions of books?

If I had just scanned my physical copy, the pdf would have been bulky, but at least I could have copied the notes section to a separate file and kept it open, while reading the main text. Would publishers prefer that we just scan their books ourselves?
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Art of Cleaving Oct. 8 2012
By R. Shaffer - Published on
Format: Paperback
The Song of Roland was written around 1090 and is based on events that happened about 300 years earlier. The forward is filled with all the theories, what we know or more precisely what we don't know. In my opinion, any story that is this old (nearly 1,000 years) and has to be translated is bound to lose something be it through the translation or just the fact that things have changed so much over such a long period of time. The version I read had a forward by W. S. Merwin.

I was drawn to this book because of Don Quixote, The Song of Roland would have been one of the books read by Quixote that drove him mad with chivalrous ideas. The Song of Roland shows many of the ways of the knights during medieval times, faithfulness to your lord, honor, to fight and die for your cause. To make a reputation, one that after your death, wouldn't shame your family and one of honor, bravery, and loyalty was what was most important to knights.

I was not disappointed, this book was what I expected, violent, epic battles against overwhelming enemies, pride, loyalty, and bravery that defines the word quixotic. Good Christian knights against evildoer pagans (non-Christians), and the idea that God will make sure that good triumphs over evil. No matter how many evildoers one must cleave in two (and there is plenty of cleaving).

This was a fast and easy read that I would recommend to those who are interested in the subject of knights and chivalry.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beware the oliphant July 26 2008
By Jonathan C. Pike - Published on
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.

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