The New International Encyclopædia/Roland, The Song of
RO'LAND, Fr. pron. rṓ'läN', The Song of. An old French epic poem or chanson de geste of the end of the eleventh century, pronounced by competent critics one of the masterpieces of French literature. The work, consisting of 4002 assonant verses in decasyllabic form, arranged in laisses or stanzas of varying length, takes its name from its chief character, Roland, prefect of Brittany, and, according to tradition, nephew of Charles the Great. Nothing definite is known concerning its author, though some commentators identify him with a certain Turoldus mentioned in the last verse. The narrative of the poem runs briefly as follows: Charles, King of the French, has for seven years successfully fought the ‘Saracens’ of Spain. News of his victories reaches Marsíle, commander of the infidels, who, fearing for his own sceptre, sends messengers to the French to sue for peace. After deliberation, Charles appoints Ganelon, the personal foe of Roland (here represented as Roland's stepfather), to arrange terms with Marsíle. Incited by his bitter hatred of Roland, Ganelon seizes the opportunity to gratify his desire for vengeance. Having reached the ‘pagan’ court, he artfully proposes to Marsíle to betray the French rearguard under Roland into Marsíle's hands, when the main army of Charles shall be fairly on its way home. The plan is accepted; Ganelon returns to Charles, and the French army crosses the Pyrenees into France, while Roland remains behind in the mountains with a guard of twenty thousand men. At Roncevaux, or as the text says Rencesvals (the plain of Ros), he and his valiant band are overwhelmed by a ‘pagan’ army of twenty times their number. The details of this disaster, which Europe regarded during centuries as the representative struggle of Christian against Moslem, constitute the kernel and real beauty of the poem. The effect of the drama is heightened by making the heroic but reckless Roland in part responsible for the catastrophe. His boon companion Oliver, whose courage is second only to his prudence, in three beautiful laisses (each on a different assonance) beseeches Roland to wind his horn and bring Charles to the rescue. Only when his doom is complete, when his companions, the twelve peers of France, including the warlike Bishop Turpin, lie slain about him, will Roland raise the horn to his lips and summon his liege with his dying breath. The poem then draws rapidly to a close. Charles, at whose prayer the Almighty arrests the sun in its course, reënters Spain on the same day, utterly routs the ‘pagans,’ and returns to France, sorrowful but triumphant. At the tidings of Roland's death, Alde, his betrothed (Oliver's sister), falls lifeless at the Emperor's feet. Ganelon is finally found guilty by the ‘judgment of Heaven’ and is condemned to be torn ‘limb from limb’ by infuriated stallions.
In this form the Chanson de Roland was carried to almost every nation in Europe. It was put into German verse by a certain Conrad about 1130, later into Norse prose and into English verse; the story early penetrated to Italy: it was known to Dante, and after several recastings it was adapted to the national character by the poets Pulei (Morgante maggiore), Boiardo (Orlando innamorato), Ariosto (Orlando furioso), and Berni (Orlando amoroso). In Spain national jealousy displaced religious zeal. Roucevaux became a Spanish victory, and the dawn of Spain's national glory. Finally the legend cast abroad the names of its heroes, some of which became localized in foreign parts, notably ‘Roland’ in Northern Germany about Bremen. The legend is also the theme of several operas.
The historical facts underlying the story are told by Einhard, the biographer of Charles the Great. He relates that on August 15, 778, while passing through a defile of the Pyrenees, part of the French army was attacked by the mountaineers, the Basques, who, owing to their light armor, gained an easy victory. In this battle perished “Eggihard, provost of the royal table; Anselm, count of the palace; and Roland (Hruotlandus), prefect of the March of Brittany.” This is the sole dictum of history on the hero's character. But two Latin works, a chronicle of the twelfth century attributed to Turpin, and a poem De Proditione Guenonis of the same date, reveal two versions of the legend preceding that represented by the French poem. From evidence in these works it is held that the legend of Roland was first fashioned in Brittany, recast in Anjou, and given its present form in the country surrounding Paris or the Ile de France. The best manuscript of the French poem is the famous “Digby 23” of the Bodleian Library, Oxford; it is apparently in the writing of a scribe of the middle of the twelfth century.
As a literary production, the Chanson de Roland is worthy to be classed with the two other great mediæval epics, the Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied. Doubtless they are both its superiors on the æsthetic and human sides; each of them is a more or less complete expression of a past stage of civilization, whereas the Roland represents only a part of the French nation, the feudal barons. Yet, in its rough grace, it excels them both in directness, and, above all, in the expression of a national spirit.
Bibliography. Consult: Seelmann, Bibliographie des altfranzösischen Rolandliedes (Heilbronn, 1888). The best editions of the text are by Gautier (Tours, 1899); by Müller (Göttingen, 1878); by Stengel (Leipzig, 1900). For criticism consult especially G. Paris, Poèmes et légendes du moyen age (Paris, 1900). Translations: J. O'Hagan (London, 1880) in the metre of “Christabel”; Rabillon (New York; 1888) in blank verse; an excellent German translation is that of William Hertz (Stuttgart, 1861); and by far the best in modern French is the blank verse translation of Joseph Fabre (Paris, 1902).