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“What boot our gifts, King Etzel? was it, my lord, for this
“Not so the truth is, lady! the more the pity too!
“With such good will the margrave his king's commands obey'd,
When thus held high before them they saw the margrave dead,
Above his weeping people King Etzel sorrow'd sore;
Lettsom's Translation, Thirty-seventh Adventure. THE SONG OF ROLAND.
HE Song of Roland is one of the many mediæval romances that celebrate the deeds of
Charlemagne. The oldest text now in existence was written about 1096, but the poem was current in other forms long before this.
The author was a Norman, for the poem is written in the Norman dialect; but it is uncertain whether the Turoldus or Théroulde named in the last line of the poem, “ Thus endeth here the geste Turoldus sang," was the author, a copyist, or a jongleur.
It is said that Taillefer, the minstrel of Normandy, sang the Song of Roland at the battle of Hastings. “ Taillefer, who right well sang, mounted on his rapid steed, went before them singing of Charlemagne, and of Roland, and Olivier, and of the vassals who died in Roncesvalles."
The only text of the poem now in existence is one of the thirteenth century, preserved in the Bodleian library at Oxford.
On the fifteenth of August, 778, in the valley of Roncesvalles, in the Pyrenees, Charlemagne's rear guard, left under the command of Roland, Prefect of the Marches of Brittany, was attacked and slaughtered by a large army of Gascons.
This incident forms the historical basis of the poem ; but the imagination of the poet has made of Charlemagne, then a young man, the old emperor, with “beard all blossom white," and transformed his Gascon foes to Saracens.
The Song of Roland is written in the heroic pentameter ; it is divided into “ laisses," or stanzas, of irregular length, and contains about three thousand seven hundred and eight lines. It is written in the assonant, or vowel rhyme, that was universal among European nations in the early stage of their civilization.
Each stanza ends with the word “aoi,” for which no satisfactory translation has yet been offered, although “away" and “it is done” have been suggested.
The author of the Song of Roland undertook, like Homer, to sing of one great event about which all the interest of the poem centres; but unlike Homer, his poem is out of all proportion, the long-drawn out revenge being in the nature of an anti-climax. The Song of Roland is a fair exponent of the people among whom it originated. It contains no ornament; it is a straightforward relation of facts ; it lacks passion, and while it describes fearful slaughter, it never appeals to the emotions. Though the French army shed many tears, and fell swooning to the ground at the sight of the fearful slaughter at Roncesvalles, we are rather moved to smile at the violence of their emotion than to weep over the dead, so little power has the poet to touch the springs of feeling. However, there are passages in which the poem rises to sublimity, and which have been pronounced Homeric by its admirers.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND CRITICISM, THE SONG OF ROLAND. J. Banquier's Bibliographie de la Chanson de Roland, 1877; T. Bulfinch's Legends of Charlemagne, 1863 ; Sir G. W. Cox and E. H. Jones's Popular Romances of the Middle Ages, 1871, pp. 320-347 ; Léon Gautier's Les épopées françaises, vol. i., 1878; J. Malcolm Ludlow's Story of Roland (see his Popular Epics of the Middle Ages, 1865, vol. i., pp. 362-427); Gaston Paris's La poésie épique (see his Histoire poétique de Charlemagne, 1865, pp. 1-33); Gaston Paris's Les Chansons de Gestes françaises (see his Histoire poétique de Charlemagne, 1865, pp. 69-72); George Saintsbury's The Chansons de Gestes (see his Short History of French Literature, 1892, pp. 10-25); Henri Van Lauri is The Carlovingian Cycle (see his History of French Literature, 1876, vol. i., pp. 141-148); Ancient Literature of
France, Quarterly Review, 1866, cxx. 283-323 ; The Chanson de Roland, Westminster Review, 1873, c. 32-44; M. Hayden's The Chansons de Geste, Dublin Review, 1894, cxiv. 346-357 ; Charles Francis Keary's The Chansons de Geste; the Song of Roland, Fraser's Magazine, 1881, civ. 777–789; J. M. L.'s The Song of Roland, Macmillan's Magazine, 1862, vi. 486-501 ; Agnes Lambert's The oldest epic of Christendom, Nineteenth Century, 1882, xi. 77-101; Andrew Lang's The Song of Roland and the Iliad, National Review, 1892, XX. 195-205 ; Legend of Roland, Encyclopædia Britannica, vol. xx. ; Gustave Masson's The Chanson de Roland, Leisure Hour, 1877, xxvi. 618-620; The Song of Roland, Catholic World, 1873 and 1874, xviii. 378-388, 488-500; The Song of Roland, Harper's Monthly, 1882, lxiv. 505-515; The Month, 1880, xl. 515-527; Temple Bar, 1886, lxxviii. 534-540.
STANDARD ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS, THE SONG OF ROLAND. The Song of Roland, as chanted before the Battle of Hastings by the Minstrel Taillefer, Tr. from the French translation of Vitet by Mrs. Anne Caldwell Marsh, 1854 ; The Song of Roland, Tr. into English verse by John O'Hagan, ed. 2, 1883 ; La Chanson de Roland, Tr. from the seventh ed. of Léon Gautier, by Leonce Rabillon, 1885.
THE STORY OF THE SONG OF ROLAND.
For full seven years had Charlemagne tarried in Spain, and all the land lay conquered save the city of Saragossa. There, in an orchard, upon a terrace paved with blue marble, sat its king, Marsile, taking counsel with his lords.
“No army have I,” said the king; “no people to array against the hosts of the great emperor. Advise me, my lords, what I shall do to save ourselves from disgrace and shame."
The wily Blancandrin, wisest and greatest among the pagans, advanced before him. “Where might cannot prevail, often craft gains the day. My lord, send gifts to mighty Carle. Drive forth a long train of camels; heap many mules with gold; send chariots filled with precious gifts. Advise him that on the day of Saint Michael's feast you will seek him at Aix, and there become a Christian, and his vassal. Yea, even send hostages; my own son shall go, even though he lose his head. Then will Carle depart for France. The day set by you will come, but he will hear naught from us. The hostages' heads will fall. What of it? Better this than for us to lose forever Spain the fair."
The king, pleased with the craft of Blancandrin, dismissed his council, and ordered ten of his fiercest barons to seek Charlemagne at Cordova, bearing the olive-branch, and make the offer suggested by Blancandrin.
Cordova, filled with rich spoils, had been taken, and its surviving inhabitants given the choice of the sword or Christian baptism. Therefore the happy emperor sat at his ease in a wide-spreading orchard. Around him stood Roland, Olivier, Samsun the duke, Anseis, Gefrei d'Anjou, and Gerier. At least fifteen thousand French knights were diverting themselves with different games in the beautiful orchard, where, under a pine-tree, the great King of France sat upon a golden chair. His white hair and flowing white beard added majesty to his already majestic figure, so that the olive-bear