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on April 17, 2004
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.
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on December 26, 2001
The time: 778 A.D.
The place: Roncesvalles, Spain
Charlemagne's rearguard, commanded by his nephew, the Count Roland, is attacked from all sides by a pagan horde without number. A single note from Oliphant, Roland's horn, will bring Charlemagne's army to the rearguard's rescue. But Roland is a true knight, and will not suffer himself to be rescued. He puts Oliphant away and draws forth the gleaming blade Durendal, and with his own sword-arm leads his soldiers into mortal combat against a foe he cannot hope to conquer. So begins the greatest battle royal in literary history. Roland and his comrades-at-arms fight bravely, enduring blows that would dispatch lesser men while giving their heathen enemies even greater wounds. Swords flail, lances strike, armor splinters, and good and evil play our their eternal game of life & death in strokes of blood and steel. Perhaps politically incorrect by today's standards, "The Song of Roland" nontheless remains immune to criticism, in part because of the crystal clarity with which its author perceived the powers of darkness and light. A poem of unsurpassed heroic grandeur, featuring the most powerful battle scenes ever put to paper, "The Song of Roland" is an immortal monument to chivalry. In the end, Roland dies as only a hero can; his sword-arm fails and Durendal slays its last pagan. Yet Roland lives on in the poet's dream, and heroism will not fade away.
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on December 7, 2001
Along with "Beowulf" and "The Divine Comedy." this is one of the definitive masterpieces for examining both Medieval literature and history. Regretfully, I am not well-versed in French which I understand is essential for reading this epic, and thus gaining the true "impact" of the work's scope and dramatic characterizations.
Roland, nephew to the legendary Charlemagne, is indeed a brash but rousing hero (albeit, I don't see him as the protagonist in the strictest sense). I know this is an unusual statement since the story reflects a historical tragedy for the French armies, but it reflects the character and spirit of Roland as an individual: devoted to his lord Charlemagne and to the cause of fighting for France. This chivalrous concept has been incorporated in many similar works. The setting is over 1300 years ago (as are much of its human values!). However, what keeps this work so popular is the sense of chivalry indoctrinated into modern values: honor, loyalty, discipline, obeisance. We can all relate to these.
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on December 13, 1999
Song of Roland is an epic masterpiece that details the crusading spirit of the 11th and 12th century. Based on the massacre of Charlemagne's rearguard in 778 by Christian Basques in Northern Spain, this Old French poems turns that bloody defeat into a bloody battle of Christianity agains Islam. Although this is propaganda of the highest sort, it is still a piece of art, as Roland embodies the spirit of the Crusades, striking out against impossible odds with his sword Durendal. This is an excellent translation from the Old French, as one will be on the battlefield with Roland and the other paladins of Charlemagne.
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on February 10, 2003
I was told to read this book by my College Western Civ. teacher, and im glad I did.
It took me a little while to get into the poem writing of the book, but I ended up loving it and couldnt put it down. The battles were graphic and very detailed and you get very drawn into them, feeling as if you are on the battlefield yourself.
Whether you read it for school or because you are interested in the period. I think you will enjoy it as I did.
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on November 4, 2003
I have read alot of epics,Iliad,Beowulf,Kalevala etc. This was one of the first I read, it was one of the first books that showed me the power that epic poetry can have on the mind. The war scenes are vivid and exciting, the tragic death of Roland is definetely the high point of the poem though. The whole work is truly a masterpiece; it holds the imagination the entire time through.
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on April 4, 2001
This book details the wars of Charlesmagne and the beginning of feudalism. I read this book for Ancient Western Civ. and I enjoyed it.
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on May 7, 2001
Even translated, you can see the purity of the writing here. One of the best epic poems that I have read. Very clean...
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on December 16, 2002
This is really the worst book I have edver read. I've read a lot of books, & some were really bad, but this is the worst. It's so poorly translated that it makes me horribly depressed every time I try to read it. I haven't finished it yet. Oh man.
I did really enjoy the introduction for the historical background information regarding The Song of Roland & the culture surrounding its appearance. But dear lord. Save yourself. Get another translation.
If you just want to know what it's about, I'll tell you. Roland & others, for instance Oliver, fight against Pagans in medieval Spain.
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