Thursday, January 24, 2013

Stray Thoughts about The Song of Roland

In writing up my thoughts about my reading here every few days, I usually try to package what I have to say in some (at least partially) unifying conceit. But I just don’t have a thread to tie together my thoughts about The Song of Roland. It’s an ironic problem considering that this book-length poem pursues such a unified narrative: the story of just one battle between Charlemagne and the Muslims of Spain.

Stray thought no. 1: Terms for historical trends can be misleading when taken too far, none more than the term Renaissance. Every time I ask a college class what the Renaissance is, several people always pipe up with the word rebirth. But I’d say only one young American in a hundred know what was reborn after the Middle Ages. I know, though, that Petrarch and his artistic heirs meant a rebirth of ancient ideals of letters and art. So I have a silly, unthinking tendency to suppose that no ancient ideal was left unrevived (wow, that’s a weird word). But Renaissance authors didn’t sem to show much interest at all in Aristotle’s unities, for instance. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with scene changes, sudden jumps of a year or more, and wild juxtapositions of the tragic and the comic. And I don’t think Spenser could have told a single story straight trough from beginning to end in The Faerie Queene if he had wanted to. His characters wander through the pages as much as they wander through the woods, and story gives way to story as seemingly randomly as squirrels scampering from tree to tree. It’s more often the medieval poem that faithfully follows a coherent, logical order, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised that this song of great deeds told only one story instead of stringing together tales from throughout the fantastical life of Roland.

Stray thought no. 2: I didn’t care for the Song’s French jingoism. It gives credit to Roland for winning Constantinople, England, and Ireland for Charlemagne, lands never a part of the Frankish Empire. The Franks’ domain was large enough as it was; why not give credit to Roland for capturing Saxony and Lombardy and the land around the Danube? Neither did I care for the poem’s depiction of Muslims as worshiping Mahomet, a disrespectful mistake that would have been corrected with the tiniest amount of first-hand knowledge. I know: I’m being awfully hard on an anonymous eleventh-century poet (or group of poets).

Stray thought no. 3: It must have been easy in medieval times to believe that enemies from distant lands were all ugly or that they had ridges protruding from their spines. Armies coming face-to-face with such enemies usually learn how wrong the rumors have been. But the author(s) of The Song of Roland, writing at least two-hundred years after the war, had no such reality check. So when the various forces from Africa and Asia arrive in the poem, and they really do have ridges on their backs and other deformities. Tolkien, who I’m sure read The Song of Roland many times, did the same thing, but he got to call his hideous baddies “orcs” and other nonhuman names.

Stray thought no. 4: I don’t want to finish the post sounding as if I didn’t enjoy reading this epic tale. I enjoyed every line of language, for instance. My translation was by Montcrieff, who also produced the most popular translation of Proust. His skills in interpreting French from a century ago could hardly have helped in translating French from a millennium ago, and yet he performed masterly work in both instances. From what I’ve read about the original, Montcrieff preserved its meter, its assonant rhyme scheme, and its sometimes jarring, laundry-list approach to narrative. And then he gave it all a distinctly medieval ring by preserving old terms of armory (hauberks and sarks, for example) and the antique penchant for changing the ending of personal names as meter, rhyme, or whim dictate. The Emperor of France was called variously Carle, Carlun, Charle, Charles, and Charlemagne. The main hero’s name sometimes appeared as Rollant, sometimes as Rolanz. Interestingly, I’m not sure that what seems to us the standard form, the “Roland” of the title, ever appears.

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